Gypsies leave France amid crackdown on illegals

Gypsies deemed to be illegally in France boarded planes for Romania today. Since late July, authorities have been shutting down gypsy camps and rounding up illegals in a high-profile initiative.

Vadim Ghirda/AP
A Romanian Roma woman carries a bag after arriving from France in Bucharest, Romania, Thursday. Gypsies deemed to be illegally in France boarded planes for Romania today.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plan to crack down on illegal gypsies from Romania and Bulgaria got concretely under way this week, as the first of some 700 “Roma” deportees were put on planes bound for Bucharest.

Since late July, French authorities have been shutting down gypsy camps and rounding up those deemed illegal in a highly profile security push criticized by Mr. Sarkozy’s political opponents at home, as well as by various European Union and UN organs. France is host to some 15,000 Gypsies from south central Europe.

Some 73 Roma – as the non-French gypsies are known here – were put on flights today from Lyon, and 14 put on a Paris flight.

IN PICTURES: France's gypsy crackdown

French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux says the initiative is “humane” and argues that France is not “stigmatizing any community.”

But Romanian Foreign Minister Teodor Baconschi, a former Romanian ambassador to France, argued Wednesday that the roundups amounted to “criminalizing ethnic groups.”

Last month, Sarkozy responded to a July 17 riot by French gypsies against a police station in the village of Saint-Aignan, in which a French gypsy youth was shot, by announcing a major crackdown on illegal gypsy camps. French gypsies are officially referred to here as “travelers,” while gypsies from southern Europe are called “Roma.”

What is mainly different about the current expulsions of Roma this summer is the publicity and media coverage surrounding the event. As many as 10,000 Roma per year have been escorted to the French border dating to 2007, according to the French Ministry of Immigration.

Sweeping security initiatives

Sweeping French security initiatives this summer proposed by members of the ruling party include stripping the citizenship of foreign-born French citizens who attempt lethal action against police. Also targeted are acts of polygamy, female circumcision, and domestic slavery. Another proposal would have parents jailed for up to two years if minor children convicted of crimes do not comply with penalties.

The initiatives follows a year of highly charged debates in France about a ban on the Muslim veil or burqa – seen as a move by Mr. Sarkozy to attract voters on the further reaches of the French right. Critics say the summer crime crackdown is partly a plan by Sarkozy to shift public attention from embarrassing scandals filling French media involving petty corruption and a finance minister linked to the so-called “Bettencourt affair,” and of shoring up his popularity at a time when polling data shows far right candidates more attractive to French mainstream voters.

The Roma gypsies deported to Romania can legally return to France for up to three months, provided they commit no crimes, according to the French daily Le Figaro.

Earlier French Interior Ministry statements argue that gypsy camps are "sources of illegal trafficking, of profoundly shocking living standards, of exploitation of children for begging, of prostitution and crime."

Human rights groups say that targeting one of Europe’s most politically unconnected and vulnerable groups is a lightning rod for larger doses of “xenophobia” involving minorities. Legal French gypsies or travelers say they fear their often illegal or semi-legal camps are threatened, along with their way of life, in a crackdown.

Gypsies in France carry a memory of roundups under Nazi occupation, though officials here say the idea of comparing this history to an attempt to stop the illegal sitting on land is unjust.

IN PICTURES: France's gypsy crackdown

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