France was deporting nearly 100 Gypsies, or Roma, to their native Romania on Thursday as part of a very public effort by conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy to dismantle Roma camps and sweep them out of the country.
France chartered a flight to Bucharest, which was to leave later Thursday from the central city of Lyon with 73 Roma aboard, Immigration Ministry officials said. Fourteen others were repatriated to Romania aboard a commercial flight from the Paris region earlier in the day, the officials said, adding that another Romania-bound repatriation flight was expected on Friday.
Most of those repatriated were given small sums of money — from €100 to €300 ($386.40) — to help them get back on their feet in their home country, a standard French practice, officials said.
Foreign-born Gypsies are often seen begging on the streets of France's cities, often with small children or puppies, and many French people consider them a nuisance, or worse.
Sarkozy has linked Roma to crime, calling their camps sources of trafficking, exploitation of children and prostitution. On July 28, he pledged that illegal Gypsy camps would be "systematically evacuated." Several dozen camps have been evacuated since then.
Sarkozy's crackdown on Gypsies came on the heels of much-publicized riots by French Roma, who attacked a police station in the center of the country after the death of Gypsy youth there. The measures are also part of a raft of new hard-line security measures by Sarkozy, who came to power in 2007 on a tough-on-crime platform.
The policy is attracting increasing concern, both at home and abroad, from those who fear it discriminates against one of the European Union's most vulnerable and impoverished communities.
Romanian President Traian Basescu said "we understand the problems created by the Roma camps outside the French cities" but insisted on the "right of every European citizen to move freely in the EU." Romania, one of Europe's poorest countries, joined the EU in 2007.
Basescu, who was speaking Thursday in the eastern city of Iasi, pledged to "cooperate with France to find solutions."
Some critics contend the French crackdown is a cynical ploy to turn attention away from France's economic woes and attract far-right voters by fanning xenophobia in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election. Sarkozy's approval ratings have been weak and a financial scandal has embroiled a top minister.
Officials insist they are not stigmatizing Roma — though Sarkozy's stance had chilling undertones in a country where authorities sent French Gypsies to internment camps in France during the occupation. They were kept there until 1946, about two years after France's liberation.
Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux insisted France is being careful "not to stigmatize any community," but said the government can't just let people occupy land illegally.
"Simply everyone understands we are enforcing simple rules: One cannot just illegally occupy land without authorization," Hortefeux told journalists during visit Thursday to the town of Crecy-la-Chapelle, east of Paris.