People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 38

September 19, 2010

France: The Targeting of the Roma People


Yohannan Chemerapally


THE French president, Nicholas Sarkozy, seems to have found a sure-fire way to revive his sinking political fortunes. In recent months, he has been buffeted by a series of scandals that have seriously affected his political standing. The president and his associates are deeply mired in the financial skull-duggery involving the L’Oreal heiress, Liliane Bettencourt, and are also trying to stave off charges of illegal party financing. Sarkozy’s popularity ratings had dipped to a record low. Now his ratings seem to be looking up after first affecting a constitutional ban on the wearing of the “hijab” by Muslim women and then ordering the mass expulsions of Roma people (gypsies), originally hailing from Romania and Bulgaria, in the third week of August.




With anti-immigrant feelings high among a population reeling from the impact of a prolonged recession, Sarkozy’s latest moves have won him open praise from the xenophobic Right and silent support from even sections of the centre-left. The secular fundamentalists in the Left were happy after the French National Assembly passed a resolution that made women wearing veils liable to prison terms. There was only one dissenting vote, and that too from a member of the centre-right UMP. “Sarkozy is surfing a radicalisation of public opinion on the question of security and immigration. His declarations are a series of landmines that he has slipped under the summer sand. It helps remobilise the right, while at the same time creating divisions on the left,” said Laurent Dubois, a professor at Paris’s Institute of Political Studies in an interview with Bloomberg News.


Sarkozy’s shift to the extreme right became all the more evident after a speech he delivered on July 30 in Grenoble. In the speech, he said that the camps of the nomadic Roma people will be dismantled and entire families would be penalised for crimes committed by a next of kin. The president announced that he would “wage a war” against criminal gangs. The unemployment rate is the highest in the run-down suburbs of the big cities, where there are big concentrations of immigrants, mostly of Arab origin. Many of the criminal gangs operating there naturally have a preponderance of the naturalised Frenchmen of Arab and African origin. In the same speech, the French president vowed to deport French citizens with an immigrant background, if they indulge in criminal activities.


Two weeks before his speech, racially fuelled clashes had broken out in the towns of Grenoble and Saint-Aignan. Strong-arm tactics used by the police had resulted in the deaths of two youths. “It must be possible to cancel the French citizenship of all those people of foreign descent, who wilfully inflict damage on the life of a police officer, a soldier or any other person of public authority. French citizenship is a reward for which one must prove oneself worthy,” the President of the Republic opined in his speech. Sarkozy in his Grenoble speech said that the values of people like the Roma are unacceptable to the French people. He accused them of being responsible for many of the internal security problems the country is facing.




Some time back, Sarkozy ordered his interior minister, Brice Hortefeux to put an immediate end to the “unauthorised gypsy settlements.” The minister had promised to dismantle 51 of the 300 Roma camps the government has identified, by the end of August. Thus, 700 Roma were deported within a month after Sarkozy’s Grenoble speech. The French interior minister, without submitting credible evidence, said that the Roma camps are “hotbeds of illegal trafficking, the exploitation of children for begging, prostitution or crime.” Unlike other citizens from EU countries, the Roma who have migrated in large numbers from the new EU member states like Romania and Bulgaria, are not permitted to work in France before 2014. There are an estimated 10 to 12 million Romas in Europe.


Simultaneously, the French authorities are keeping up the pressure on the sizeable Muslim minority. The French immigration minister, Eric Besson, said he wanted to deny French citizenship to those citizens who “force their wives to wear full-face veils. Refuse to shake hands with female officers, or fail to accept the principle of secularism or non-clerical government.” Leader of the neo-fascist National Front party, Marine Le Pen, was quick to come out in support of Sarkozy. She said that Sarkozy was doing what the party had demanded for many years. French commentators have noted that the last time any French government took such draconian steps was during the World War Two. At that time, the puppet Vichy government in France had deported thousands of gypsies, many of them ending in Nazi gas chambers. A French newspaper, Le Poste, wrote “that every time the current government tries to deal with topics bearing on religious, criminal, social, or family issues, it treats them by adopting the same reasoning of the Vichy legislators.” The laws being adopted by the French government are palpably against the constitution and European laws, which guarantee equality, regardless of ethnic origins.


In World War Two, along with the Jews, gypsies were the main groups targeted for extermination by the Nazis. The Nazis and their collaborators killed between 250,000 and 300,000 Romas.


There are an estimated 400,000 people of Roma origin currently residing in France. Only around one-third of them still follow a nomadic pattern of life. Around 20,000 Romas, mostly hailing from Romania and Bulgaria, came to France after the two countries joined the EU. Last year, according to the newspaper Le Monde, France had expelled 10,000 Romas, despite the fact that they as EU citizens had the right to stay in the country. “Roma — some 90 per cent of whom are settled — are still considered as undesirables in Europe, and are either corralled in shantytowns or deported. Last year, every fourth gypsy was attacked, threatened or harassed,” reported Le Monde.




The French government’s action against the Roma has elicited tacit support from other EU countries like Germany, Italy, Denmark and Sweden. Most of these countries have also started a deportation policy, albeit on a smaller scale, for the Roma. The most vociferous supporter of France is the Italian government. The Italian Interior Minister, Roberto Marroni, applauded Sarkozy’s move to expel the Roma and called on other EU governments to follow suit. He claimed that France was “simply copying Italy” as Italy has “been using this technique of voluntary and assisted repatriation”, for many years. Maroni, who belongs to anti-immigration Party---the Northern League, said that he would like Italy to be able to expel EU citizens who do not meet minimum income and housing requirements and are a drain on the State’s welfare system. In 2008, the government led by Sylvio Berlusconi, had proposed the fingerprinting of the Roma.


In mid-September. after some initial flip-flops, the European Commission (EC)has threatened to take legal action against the French government. The EC had earlier stated that it does not view the French action against the Roma as a case of “mass expulsion”. The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, an independent human rights body of the Council of Europe has accused the French government of “stigmatizing Roma migrants” and holding them collectively responsible for criminal offenses”. The expulsions however have generated widespread criticism from many other quarters too. The Catholic Church along with the United Nations anti-racism panel, have criticized the French move. Teodor Basconschi, the Romanian foreign minister, has warned against “xenophobic reaction” by European governments in the wake of the economic recession in Europe. “What has happened in France shows that we must have an integration plan across Europe for Roma citizens”, the Minister told the media.


The EU has said that France should adhere to the groupings freedom of movement laws while expelling Roma deemed to be living illegally in the country. The “Socialist Bloc” in the European Parliament has said that France has violated European Union legislation by deporting Roma migrants. “The recent treatment of Roma people in France was appalling and cannot go unchallenged”, said Martin Schulz, the leader of the bloc, the biggest in the European parliament. He said that recent events witnessed in France “should never be repeated”.  Ilga Tomova, a researcher on the Roma at the Bulgarian Academy of Science told AFP that she was “saddened that France, the symbol of democracy, was contributing to the stigmatization of the Roma”. The Socialist Party leader, Martine Aubry, issued a statement criticizing Sarkozy “for sliding into anti-republican ideas that hurts France and its values”. But the leader of France’s main opposition party, probably keeping in view the opinion of the French public on the subject, has not yet publicly criticized the anti-immigrant and racist stance of the Sarkozy government.


The French Interior Minister however reacted by saying that his country has nothing to apologize for. “France is the country in Europe which most respects the right of foreigners---so we do not have any lessons to learn”, he said.  France is meanwhile putting pressure on Romania on the Roma expulsion issue. France is threatening to block its entry into the EU’s Schengen border free zone if Bucharest fails to control the flow of the Roma or raise the issue in international fora. The French Prime Minister, Francois Fillon in a letter to the European Commission suggested that the $5 billion, the EU gives Romania every year, should be used by the government there to keep the Roma in the country.