France dismantles camps, deports Gypsies

Unlike former President Sarkozy's virulent anti-immigrant media campaigns, the new Socialist government says it is motivated by health, sanitation, and security.

Pascal Rossignol/Reuters
French CRS police officers enter an illegal camp of Roma, referred to as 'Gens du Voyage,' at they start to evacuate families and remove their caravans in Villeneuve d'Ascq Thursday, August 9. French police evacuated some 150 people who resided in an illegal camp of travelling people and Roma in northern France.
Michel Euler/AP
A Roma encampment is set up near a highway in Clamart, west of Paris, Friday, Aug. 10. Police officers on Thursday shut down encampments used by Roma or Gypsies, in Paris and in the northern city of Villeneuve d'Ascq.

The Socialist government of Francois Hollande this week ordered the dismantling of Gypsy camps around the country, leaving 150 people homeless, and deporting 240 Gypsies, also called Roma, to Romania.

The forceable action against foreign-born Roma from East Europe, who are known here as "travelers," is coming under attack as the same policy conducted by Mr. Hollande’s predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, which EU officials at the time compared to Nazi-era tactics.

Yesterday camps of some 350 Roma were taken apart in Lille, near the border of Belgium, following similar police actions in Lyon and Paris earlier in the week.

Hollande vowed in his presidential campaign not to dismantle Roma camps without finding proper housing for families. Yet the new Socialist president is relying on mayors in local prefectures to find that housing, with mixed results.

In the summer of 2010 France earned a firestorm of approbation for roundups of Roma. EU justice minister Viviane Reding said she was “shocked” at police targeting a vulnerable minority and opened a legal challenge against France on grounds of racism and discrimination.

“This is a situation I had thought Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War," she said at the time. Vichy France collaborated with Nazi roundups of Jews and Gypsies in the early 1940s. 

This week French interior minister Manuel Valls explained the Socialists were dismantling camps for health and sanitation reasons, and implied security problems in neighborhoods where Roma have chosen to locate their camps.

This approach is strikingly different from the the that of the French government in 2010, where Mr. Sarkozy appeared to make a public spectacle of Roma as an ethnic group, as part of a larger anti-immigrant media campaign with electric speeches, designed to attract right-leaning French mainstream voters.

Hollande, by contrast, has made no speeches this summer or initiated high-profile public approbation about foreigners or Roma.

Gypsy groups from Eastern Europe, an estimated 15,000 people, use the 2007 EU open borders policy to travel in caravans from places like Romania and Bulgaria. They find open space camps, often with no facilities, overstay a three-month welcome, and are given 350 euros and a one-way ticket home, though many return.

Ms. Reding of the EU has withdrawn the legal challenge to France and her office in remarks to The New York Times says the situation today is “different.”

What Reding and others criticized at the time was a political dynamic in France that appeared to “stigmatize,” as she puts it, minorities.

Mr. Sarkozy in 2010 ordered the roundup of gypsies and Roma as part of a specific and highly public crackdown tying foreigners and immigrants to crime, whole-cloth. The strategy was designed to appeal to French right-wing voters as National Front far-right candidate Marine Le Pen was rising in prominence.

The crackdown and the atmosphere it created here was new to the French political scene. It was part of a successful ruling party campaign to ban the burqa in public, causing the Islamic community to bitterly protest they were being singled out and treated as second-class citizens.

In fact, Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac, his predecessor, had been quietly policing Roma for years prior to 2010 – in some years deporting as many as 10,000.

One fallout from the 2010 Roma policy and the sudden forcing of the vulnerable community into the harsh glare of the cameras, was an outcry from French gypsies, a community that has lived and traveled on the margins of French society for generations, and that has always dealt with complaints and humiliation over their unorthodox lifestyle.

By Sept. 2010 the Sarkozy policy on Roma and foreigners had backfired, with even many of the president’s party members looking askance. Gaullist figure and former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin openly criticized Sarkozy for shaming France over the Gypsy anti-foreigner policy, or at least its political expression, which was quietly dropped weeks later.

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