François Hollande under intense pressure to resolve split within French government over mass expulsion of Roma immigrants

Left and Right accuse president of ignoring divisive issue

Paris

President François Hollande came under intense pressure today to resolve a poisonous split within the French government over the mass expulsion of Roma immigrants from Eastern Europe.

Mr Hollande, accused by both Left and Right of "hiding" on the Roma issue, is expected to make a speech in the next few days backing - with some reservations - the hard line taken by his interior minister, Manuel Valls.

Mr Valls said last week that almost all Roma gypsies had a "vocation" to "stay in Romania or go back there". Apart from a "handful of families", he said, it was impossible to integrate the 20,000 Roma now estimated to be in France. Most of them should be expelled.

His comments have been attacked in recent days by human rights groups, by the European Commission and - damagingly for President Hollande - by leading left-wing and green figures within the government. The housing minster, Cécile Duflot, a former leader of the Green party, accused Mr Valls of trampling on France's "Republican values". Another left-wing minister said that no Socialist should dismiss an entire ethnic group. 

Mr Valls hit back today. He said that the criticism of some of his colleagues were "intolerable". The forced evacuation of Roma squatter camps were "vital", he said, to fight against "delinquent and mafia-like activities".

An opinion poll at the weekend found that 77 per cent of French people supported Mr Valls. Their hostility to Roma immigrants is likely to be strengthened by a two weeks trial which began today in Nancy in eastern France.

Twenty seven members of three Roma families from Croatia are accused of training, and hiring out, children as young as 10 to carry out 100 burglaries in France, Belgium and Germany in 2011. It is alleged that the 66 years old matriarch of one of the families lived in a luxurious house in Croatia.

Amnesty International and other human rights groups say that the criminal activities of a minority of Roma are being used by successive French governments to justify systematic expulsions from squatter camps. Amnesty says that more than 10,000 Roma were expelled from illegal camps in France in the first eight months of this year - almost as many as in the whole of 2012.

Many of them were deported by the French authorities, on the grounds that they had exceeded the limited EU rights of free movement enjoyed by Romanian and Bulgarian citizens. From next year these rights will be extended, raising fears of a larger influx of Roma to Western Europe.  

Human rights groups insist that most Roma are simply looking for better economic opportunities and should not be stigmatised as a marginal, crime-ridden people, incapable of integration.

Jean-Francois Corty, a doctor with Médecins du Monde, said: "Most of the [Roma] people we see want to integrate, want work, want their children in schools and want the benefits of modern medicine."

Mr Valls, by far the most popular member of the French government, argues that most Roma migrants have no intention of seeking jobs or adapting to French society. To take an "angelic" view of the Roma will, he says, simply boost the electoral chance of the far-right in municipal and European elections next spring.  Defending the values of the French Republic requires "toughness", as well as compassion.

President Hollande has remained silent for almost a week as argument had raged between ministers for and against the Valls line. Both left wing and right wing commentators accuse the president of "hiding" - not daring to back Mr Valls in public while hoping to gain electoral advantage next year from his tough approach.

The President is, however, expected to break his silence by making a speech on "Republican values" in the next couple of days.

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