Leonarda Dibrani, a 15-year-old from Kosovo, was on a field trip this month in eastern France when police took her off her school bus and to a police car to be deported – an ordeal that played out in front of her classmates.
Her family, who are Roma, also known as Gypsies, had their asylum bid rejected by French authorities, so they were being sent back to their native Kosovo. Her plight has unleashed a storm of indignation – high school students in Paris have blocked entrances to schools for the past two days in protest – against the French government's moves on migration.
But her case is just a more extreme incident in the ongoing debate in France about how to deal with the Roma within its borders – a population that could increase in just a few months when Bulgarian and Romanian Roma gain free rein to enter and work in the country.
The Roma have long posed a problem to France's image of itself as a champion of human rights. France is host to an estimated 20,000 Roma, who come mainly from Romania and Bulgaria and often live in cramped, unsanitary camps, set up on the edges of cities. Sometimes they move from place to place, and they have been blamed for pickpocketing and preying on tourists.
France says it closes camps for security of inhabitants, both Roma and locals. And Socialist President François Hollande had promised to regulate the expulsions of illegal Roma settlements, criticizing the tough stance of his right-leaning predecessor Nicolas Sarkzoy.
But with his party flailing as the anti-immigrant National Front (FN) gains ground in France, many say the government is not adhering to its own standards.
And that perception has been further fueled by blunt anti-Roma assessments by government officials: France's Interior Minister Manuel Valls provoked a row on Sept. 24 when he said the lifestyle of Roma is “in confrontation” with French society, and that, essentially, they should return home.
France is not alone in anti-Roma sentiment, with similar tensions in Italy and across Central Europe, says Dezideriu Gergely, executive director of the European Roma Rights Center in Hungary, which recently published a report on the Roma in France.
But “this rhetoric conflicts with European values, non-discrimination values. … Such statements contradict recent commitments [by the European Union] toward Roma inclusion,” says Mr. Gergely, who calls the argument that a group cannot be integrated “simplistic.”
Increasing evictions – and immigration
"People are being evicted without being consulted, without being informed,” says Marion Cadier, author of an Amnesty International report which says the French have forcibly evicted record numbers of Roma this year.
The report, issued in September, found that Roma settlements in France this year are being evacuated at a faster pace than last year, with 10,174 people evicted during the first two quarters of 2013 compared to 11,982 evictions for the whole year of 2012. Sometimes they are placed in unsuitable housing, such as hotels. Sometimes they are deported from the country.
Forced evictions are defined as the removal of people from homes or lands without appropriate legal protections and due process. And while France is party to international treaties on forced evictions, in French law forced evictions are not prohibited, according to Amnesty International.
According to guidelines that Mr. Hollande's government issued last year, French authorities are supposed to notify residents of evictions within three months of a judicial ruling on whether a camp is illegal, and put in place a plan for suitable housing alternatives where possible. But human rights groups say that is not happening.
And tensions have intensified with the approach of the new year, when two major legal obstacles facing Roma in France are set to fall.
First, Romania and Bulgaria are set to become part of Europe's passport-free Schengen Area. Although France says the two countries aren't ready yet, their joining of Schengen will allow Romanians and Bulgarians, including the Roma, to travel freely through the area – including France – without a passport.
In addition, French law currently requires Bulgarians and Romanians have a work or study visa to be allowed to stay in the country indefinitely. But those requirements are set to expire in January as well, opening the door to Roma to live and work in France without permission.
The potential arrival of thousands – or more – of Bulgarian and Romanian Roma has fueled concerns like those of Mr. Valls, whose comments generated an outcry in France, even from some in his own government. Le Monde, the country’s newspaper of record, took a particularly hard stand, saying he left “the debate exactly where the right wing had put it" by saying that only a few families manage to integrate in French society.
Valls has also been criticized outside French borders, notably by Viviane Reding, the vice president of the European Commission, who says France is violating EU rules on free circulation and that it could face sanctions.
But the majority of French appear to agree with Valls. According to BVA opinion polling, 93 percent of French agree that Roma don't integrate well in French society. And Valls maintains sky-high popularity – far higher than that of his boss, President Hollande.
The New York Times, in an editorial Thursday, wrote that the situation looks like “political pandering,” particularly ahead of local French elections in March.
“With important municipal elections in France scheduled for next spring and the far-right National Front party on the rise, the actions of the Socialist government against the Roma look like political pandering. France’s president, François Hollande, needs to confront his interior minister, come out strongly in defense of the Roma’s fundamental rights and join other nations in helping them secure the education and jobs they need and deserve.”