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Why Sarkozy went to war on the Roma

The President's crackdown was meant to strengthen his grip on power, but could split his government instead

John Lichfield
Thursday 02 September 2010 00:00 BST

The scene is a piece of wasteland on the edge of Saint Etienne in central France. A scrap of land, wedged between a cemetery and a rubbish dump, is home to 100 people, 40 of them children.

A band of Roma, immigrants of ambiguous legality from Romania, has lived here since May in a jumble of cars, vans and makeshift shelters. The town council has provided a row of chemical toilets, two water taps and one rubbish skip – five star luxury compared to some of the Roma camps now scattered across France (but also across Belgium, Germany and Italy).

At dawn, the police arrive. They have documents signed by the local prefect. The camp is illegal. It must be cleared. No one protests very much. None of the Roma speaks more than a few words of French in any case. Some – not all – of the Roma are arrested. They are European Union citizens guaranteed the right of "freedom of movement" within the EU (with certain ill-defined limits). They abruptly face a choice between forced expulsion from France for "threatening public order" and "voluntary" repatriation to Romania with a €300 (£248) grant.

How were the Roma "threatening public order"? According to the French state, to occupy a scrap of wasteland that no one wants is a threat to public order. (Some French courts disagree).

Marie-Pierre Manevy, a local activist for the support group Reséau Solidarité Roms, points out that several requests had been made for a legal Roma campsite in Saint Etienne, but that all were ignored. "They weren't bothering anyone," she said. "The only reason to clear the camp was to obey President Sarkozy's orders... In truth, no one cares much what happens to the Roma. People don't care about them either way."

The scene has been repeated scores of times across France in the last month as President Nicolas Sarkozy (himself the son of an eastern European immigrant) wages his unlikely war against one of Europe's most destitute, mysterious and problematic peoples.

In truth, the anti-Roma campaign has been going on for much, much longer (and not just in France). What is new is that, in the last month, Roma-bashing has been turned into a public spectacle on President Sarkozy's explicit orders. Just short of 1,000 Roma have been expelled from France in the month of August. According to the official figures, 11,000 Roma were also expelled from France last year – in other words almost as many, month by month – without anyone much noticing (or, as Ms Manevy says, caring).

The campaign against the Roma was abruptly declared a state priority by Mr Sarkozy in late July. Dismantling Roma camps and expelling their inhabitants suddenly became the subject of proud and apocalyptic comments by Brice Hortefeux, the interior minister (Mr Sarkozy's protégé and a childhood friend).

One month later, President Sarkozy's anti-Roma campaign has been denounced by Catholic bishops in France, criticised (vaguely) by the Pope, questioned by the European Commission and condemned by two former centre-right French prime ministers. All have been disturbed, not so much by the campaign itself, as by the systematic stigmatisation of an ethnic group by official government policy and pronouncement.

Worryingly for President Sarkozy, signs of disquiet are increasingly apparent within the senior ranks of his own government. In the last few days, Mr Sarkozy's own prime minister, François Fillon, has hinted that he disapproves of the crude links between foreigners and crime that are being made in his government's name. Mr Fillon is therefore unlikely to be prime minister for very long but he probably knew that before he spoke. Senior ministers recruited from the left and centre, including the foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner and defence minister, Hervé Morin, have also expressed reservations about the xenophobic tone of the government's pronouncements in the last few days.

President Sarkozy shows no signs, yet, of being willing to back down. The government plans to pass new legislation to make it easier to expel Roma. This could put Paris on a collision course with the European Commission, which has already summoned two French ministers to Brussels this week to explain themselves. As EU citizens, the Roma have a right travel to France but not to settle for more than three months. It is often impossible to know when they first came to France. Aware of the rules, they move across EU borders as the deadline approaches.

Under EU law, Roma (and any other EU nationals) can also be expelled as a "threat to public order". This is the preferred solution of Mr Hortefeux and Mr Sarkozy. In the last week, a court in Lille has twice rejected the government's contention that an illegal Roma camp is, in itself, a threat to public order.

The French government therefore plans to change national law to create new grounds for expulsions, including "repeated theft or aggressive begging". On Monday, Mr Hortefeux said that minor criminal offences by "Romanian citizens" had increased by 259 per cent in the Paris area in the last 18 months.

There are 12,000,000 Roma in eastern Europe, scattered across the frontiers of Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Hungary. Their origins are disputed but they are believed to be the descendants of pre-medieval wanderers from northern India. They live, for the most part, as third-class citizens in shanty towns of deep squalor. Their old gypsy wandering culture was forbidden in the Communist era. Even now, only a handful have tried to test their new "wandering" rights under EU law by travelling to western Europe.

There are, nonetheless, said to be 25,000 Romanian and Bulgarian Roma in Belgium alone, and an estimated 15,000 in France. They are hardly a serious threat but they are, to many people, a highly visible nuisance. Many of the Roma beg, sometimes aggressively. A few steal. All EU countries expel Roma when they can. Only President Sarkozy's France has decided to turn the persecution of the Roma into a political pageant. Why?

In a speech in Grenoble in July, the President went out of his way to make several dubious connections between crime (which is, overall, declining in France) and foreigners. Illegal Roma camps would no longer be tolerated, he said. At the same time, French nationality would be stripped from people of "foreign origin" who made life-threatening attacks on the police.

The apparent occasion for the President's anti-Roma rhetoric was a rural riot in central France after a young gypsy had been shot dead by a gendarme. The unrest, which lasted for two days, involved travelling families of Romany origin. None were Roma immigrants from eastern Europe. All had been French for countless generations.

Various explanations have been given for the President's sudden interest in the problem. Opposition politicians suggested he was trying to change the subject of national conversation after a July dominated by allegations that his presidential campaign in 2007 was illegally financed. Elysée officials said it was part of a longer-term strategy to prioritise security and immigration in the 2012 election before they could be exploited by a resurgent far-right.

President Sarkozy will take some satisfaction from the opinion polls. They suggest that over 60 per cent of voters approve of the forced dismantlement of illegal Roma encampments. He will also be delighted that the campaign has caused embarrassment to a centre-left opposition which he loves to portray as elitist and out of touch on immigration and law and order issues.

The Socialist Party leader, Martine Aubry, accused Mr Sarkozy at the weekend of bringing "shame" on France. The government then revealed that, as mayor of Lille, she had pressed earlier this summer for the removal of two illegal Roma camps in her own area. All the same, a policy cynically intended to strengthen Mr Sarkozy's weakening hold on power now threatens to split his own centre-right movement. His party's annual conference was dominated this week by arguments between supporters of the Sarko hard-line and those who share the distaste of the Prime Minister, Mr Fillon. A radical cabinet reshuffle is expected within months. The "Roma" issue threatens to become the litmus test of who will be asked – or willing – to serve in a new, more aggressively right-wing government for the last 20 months of Mr Sarkozy's presidency.

France's Roma in numbers...

15,000 Estimated number of Roma living in France

1,000 Number of Roma expelled from France in August.

300 Amount, in euros, offered to Roma as a grant for their "voluntary repatriation" to Romania.

60 per cent Proportion of French voters who back Sarkozy's tactics.

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