Why Germany rebuffed France over its Gypsy crackdown

After launching a controversial Gypsy crackdown, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Germany was quietly planning to follow suit. Germany denies it has any such plans.

Claude Paris/AP
Roma Gypsies, arrive at Marseille airport, southern France, before being expelled from France, Sept. 14.
Francois Lenoir/Reuters
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy pose for a photo during an European Union leaders summit in Brussels September 16.

The latest saga in the French deportation of Roma Gypsies is a bitter kerfuffle between Paris and Berlin.

President Nicolas Sarkozy told reporters that German Chancellor Angela Merkel confided that her country would soon follow the French example and disband Gypsy camps as well. But German officials today categorically denied that Ms. Merkel had even discussed Gypsy issues with Mr. Sarkozy in public or private.

The two leaders were at an European Union (EU) summit yesterday in Brussels on Europe’s role in the world that devolved into fiery confrontations between Sarkozy and others on Gypsy treatment.

The meeting came a day after the chief of the EU court of justice said France may face charges of unlawful deportations, and after revelations that French officials misled the EU on the nature of the Gypsy roundups that began in July.

Sarkozy, vociferously defending a policy that has earned the French government censure at home and in Europe, made the unguarded comment that after Germany closes the [Gypsy] camps, “We’ll see how calm German politics will become then.”

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said today the French policy on Gypsies would “run counter to the German constitution” and said there must have been a “misunderstanding” between the leaders of the two most prominent European nations.

The unusual diplomatic moment, in which the France leader would deign to speak for the German leader on so sensitive an issue, illustrates the degree of scrutiny that Sarkozy is facing over a Gypsy policy, which was originally intended to appeal to mainstream voters.

Why the Gypsy issue is so sensitive now

The Gypsy contretemps raises questions about population shifts inside a EU of 27 countries at a time of economic crisis – as well as using politics to tweak ongoing raw feelings over immigrants and outsiders in Europe in general.

Not only France, but also Italy and Denmark, among others, have quietly sent Gypsies from southern Europe back home. French police last year placed in custody nearly as many Romanian and Bulgarian Gypsies as it did this year.

What’s different in 2010, causing blowback for Sarkozy, is the high-profile politics involved. The French policy is widely seen as a crackdown on crime and foreigners – seen in Paris as a way to change the subject from other woes besetting the French president.

Dominique Moisi, a leading French intellectual, describes Sarkozy as having chosen a "policy of shame" that will cause problems later.

Concern about ethnically focused campaign

French police in July began closing the camps of Romanian Gypsies who travel here and overstay a three-month visa. Sarkozy launched the campaign with a July speech in Grenoble, following a riot at a police station spawned by a police shooting not of a Roma Gypsy, but a French Gypsy. There are some 15,000 Gypsies in France from Romania known as Roma; some 400,000 Gypsies are French citizens, called “travelers.” Both groups are EU citizens.

The Roma program, however, immediately backfired. It caused uproar in Paris on both the right and left as targeting a weak and vulnerable minority that was rounded up during World War II much as Jews were.

As Gypsy deportations commenced in August – putting Roma on a plane for Bucharest with €300 ($390) – tensions rose between France and Romania. The foreign minister of Romania called out what appeared to be a focus on and disregard of a single ethnic group.

French officials in Brussels argued strenuously that they weren’t singling out a single group; yet this week French media showed that circulars were sent to French police stations in early August clearly calling the closing of “Roma” camps a “priority.”

Merkel urges calmer tone, and 'sensible cooperation'

In the wake of those revelations, EU Justice Minister Viviane Reding on Tuesday pushed past usual decorum to say she was “shocked,” calling the policy a “disgrace … a situation I had thought Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War.”

Ms. Reding later apologized and EU Commissioner Jose Manuel Barroso backed away from her statements.

French officials and Sarkozy have reserved some of their greatest anger in attacking the idea that deporting illegals on airplanes with hundreds of euros can be compared to treatment of minorities in the Nazi period.

“All our heads of state and government were shocked by the outrageous comparisons drawn by the Commission vice president," Sarkozy said at the summit.

Merkel also supported Sarkozy in Brussels regarding Ms. Reding’s statements, saying, "The commissioner of course has the right to assess if member states are acting on the basis of the European treaties… But I think that the tone Mrs. Reding used to bring it forward, and especially the historical comparisons, were not entirely fitting."

However, Sarkozy appeared to be backed in substance at the Brussels summit only by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Merkel said that the Roma Gypsy issue would be taken up again in October among EU leaders, and urged “good, sensible cooperation.”

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