By the letter of the European law, Nicolas Sarkozy has the right to expel immigrant Roma from France and break up their settlements. Although the two countries where the majority of Roma have long been settled, Romania and Bulgaria, are now members of the EU, until 2014 their citizens are only allowed to stay in other EU states for a maximum of three months, unless they have jobs there.
So M. Sarkozy – whose ministers met European Union officials this week to defend their actions – can claim that he is merely upholding the law. And, technically, there are other justifications he can summon for his initiative, which has seen more than 600 Roma put on flights to Eastern Europe since July, and more than 8,000 expelled so far in the course of the year. It is an "offensive sécuritaire", because the Roma pose a security threat; it is an "action humanitaire", a "voluntary repatriation" of individuals whom the French government is generously presenting with gifts of a few hundred euros to start afresh. And it is a blow against human trafficking.
Nobody should be fooled by this rhetoric. In hard times, when politicians feel the lash of people's anger, there is nothing more satisfactory than a good scapegoat. And the Roma have always been the ideal scapegoat, being not only visually distinctive but also poor and atomised. To an increasingly intolerant element within France, and many others in Western Europe, gypsies are an insult to the settled way of life, and certain ideas about property, education and work.
They are, in other words, the perfect victims, and M. Sarkozy would not be the crafty politician he is if he did not see in them an excellent opportunity to steal a march on Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front. There is evidence that his campaign is already paying dividends in the opinion polls.
The risk now, after objections were raised when the expulsions started at the end of July, is that the matter is forgotten about. But that must not be allowed to happen. Hitler did not target gypsies because they were a security threat but because in the Nazi scheme they were labelled as genetically inferior. The rationale was different, but the impulse was the same, and so were the victims. Wrapped into our belief in progress is the idea that we learn from history, and that collectively we have the wisdom to avoid repeating the more terrible mistakes of the recent past. M. Sarkozy's Roma purge is a reminder that we ignore that lesson at our peril.Reuse content