Sarkozy under fire over sharp anti-Roma rhetoric


The opposition leader says the president’s stance harms French values, writes DANIEL McLAUGHLIN

FRENCH PRESIDENT Nicolas Sarkozy’s controversial vow to crack down on Gypsy criminals has brought the subject of Roma rights back into sharp focus across Europe.

Mr Sarkozy says he wants to revoke the French citizenship of immigrants who endanger the lives of police officers, and to make it easier to expel Roma who are in France illegally. He also pledged to tear down hundreds of Gypsy camps around the country, calling them a source of trafficking, prostitution and child exploitation.

The French leader launched his anti-crime campaign after clashes between Roma and police in the Loire Valley following the police shooting of a youth, and rioting in Grenoble that erupted when police shot dead a man of Arab origin who had allegedly just robbed a casino.

As interior minister in 2005, Mr Sarkozy pledged to deal with youth crime and immigration problems after rioting rippled out across France from the poor Paris suburbs. But critics accuse him of plunging into the problem now to distract attention from scandals that are dogging his administration and threatening his chances of re-election in 2012.

The Socialist Party leader, Martine Aubry, said Mr Sarkozy’s headline-grabbing campaign “harms France and its values by selective laws that are as iniquitous as they are unconstitutional”. “We will not let foreigners be stigmatised, nor French people of immigrant descent, nor Travellers, as the president of the republic and his majority have shamefully done,” she added.

At least one human rights group has threatened to sue Mr Sarkozy for inciting racial hatred with a policy that, it says, is not only deeply discriminatory but fails to distinguish between a community of Travellers that is long established in France and recent Roma arrivals from eastern Europe.

Most of the new Gypsy arrivals in France are from Romania and Bulgaria, which are believed to be home to more than three million Roma, who live on the margins of a mostly hostile mainstream society and have desperately poor standards of housing, education and health care.

Bulgaria’s government, which is launching its own crackdown on crime, has broadly supported Mr Sarkozy’s plans and said it will not oppose the deportation from France of Bulgarian Roma who have broken the law there.

Romania also said it was ready to co-operate with France, but prime minister Emil Boc insisted that the entire European Union had “a mutual obligation” to deal with issues concerning the bloc’s nine million or so Roma.

Other Romanian officials warned that deporting Roma for minor crimes could contravene their right to freedom of movement, while justice minister Catalin Predoiu told France that “co-operation does not mean using bulldozers to storm the camps and publicly blaming Romania.” Human rights groups were more severe in their criticism of Mr Sarkozy, and of countries in central and eastern Europe that are doing little or nothing to help their rapidly growing Roma communities.

“France’s decision to expel Roma communities without treating people case by case is a violation of human rights,” said Magda Matache, head of the Romani Criss group in Romania.

The European Roma Rights Centre in Hungary said Mr Sarkozy’s plan “would worsen the housing conditions of Travellers and Roma and may breach legal protections on freedom of movement and against collective expulsion.” It would also “reinforce discriminatory perceptions about Roma and Travellers and inflame public opinion against them,” the group claimed.

The Swedish government last week noted the “alarming situation” around Roma rights and sent a letter to the European Commission urging “the establishment of a binding plan of action ... for guaranteeing access to housing, education and the labour market” backed by EU funding.

Amnesty International urged Serbia this week to halt the planned destruction of a settlement in Belgrade that is home to some 70 Gypsy families.