France and its deportation of Roma (Gypsies) -- echoes of the US?

President Sarkozy of France is being criticized and praised for deporting Roma. He says they are in the country illegally and are committing crimes. The drama shares similarities with the US illegal immigration debate, but not on all levels.

This summer’s stories from France about the deportations of some 700 Roma, or Gypsies, might sound familiar to Americans embroiled in the debate over illegal immigration.

The French government says it’s cracking down on crimes committed by Roma and breaking up their illegal camps. The Obama administration, too, is making crime a priority in deportations of illegal aliens.

The political atmosphere in both countries is also highly charged.

In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy faces dismal approval ratings and has been dogged by corruption scandals among his ministers. Critics say his high-profile crackdown on the Roma is an attempt to change the subject and attract voters who favor far-right candidates. They also say it’s inhumane.

They are shocked, too, that Mr. Sarkozy has proposed a list of crimes for which naturalized foreign-born people would lose their French citizenship. The list includes endangering police, female circumcision, polygamy, and domestic slavery. (In the United
States, a push is on to drop automatic citizenship for US-born children of illegal immigrants.)

The French president’s actions against the Roma and his proposals relating to foreigners – and also his support for a burqa ban on Muslim women – have divided the country and his government. In the US, too, a new anti-illegal immigration law in Arizona has roiled American politics in advance of this fall’s elections.

But the Roma deportations also ring with a European timbre. About 10 million to 12 million Roma live in countries that are now members of the European Union, having left their homeland in India in the 11th century. Many of today’s Roma live in central and eastern Europe.

Often leading a nomadic lifestyle, they’ve suffered discrimination and purges of varying intensity. The Nazis singled them out for persecution and extermination,which makes France’s deportations an extremely sensitive issue (the pope, among others, has spoken out against the deportations).

Unique, too, are EU laws that affect the Roma, many of whom come from Romania and Bulgaria. While the EU allows free movement of people between member countries (including freedom to reside), this rule won’t fully apply to new members Romania and Bulgaria until Jan. 1, 2014.

France is completely within its rights to expel Roma who originate from new EU countries and who have been in France longer than three months – unless they find employment. The media may be focused on this round of deportations, but France sent more than 11,000 Roma packing in 2009, and 8,000 in 2008.

The crime link, meanwhile, is not imagined. Roma-related crime has spiked in the EU in recent years, perhaps because it’s getting harder for this minority group to earn a nomadic living (selling merchandise or doing seasonal work, for instance).

Crime increases could also be related to the increased difficulty in finding places to camp. Mayors don’t want their towns to become Roma magnets. In France, even Roma leaders admit that petty crime is a problem, though they vigorously reject the branding of their entire minority as criminals.

France’s answer to these very real social problems may today be deportation, but that won’t work four years from now. Europe’s open internal borders mean France – and other EU countries that have deported Roma – will have to find a way to live with this population (and vice versa, by the way).

That won’t be easy. It will mean distinguishing between criminals and noncriminals, between wayward individuals and communities that are simply different. Quite challenging will be finding a way to alleviate poverty among a group that treasures its apartness from society and its institutions.

As in America, when these kinds of challenges loom, political hyperbole only makes them more difficult to solve.

[Editor's note: An earlier version incorrectly identified the Romanian language.]

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