Rights groups have accused France’s Socialist leaders of abandoning electoral promises by continuing the arbitrary expulsions of Eastern European Roma that were begun under former President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The French association La Voix des Roms (Voice of the Roma) yesterday (12 August) compared Interior Minister Manuel Valls’ policy of dismantling Roma camps to that of his centre-right predecessors.
The association suggested in statements that Valls, a prominent figure of the French Socialists, should wear the colours of Sarkozy’s UMP party at the next presidential election in 2017.
Valls, 50, is seen by many as ambitious and a prospective Socialist leader and possible future presidential candidate. Tough positions on immigration were a trademark of the UMP and Sarkozy used anti-immigration rhetoric in the presidential election which he lost to François Hollande on 6 May.
Two years ago, the European Commission threatened France with legal action over the crackdown on Roma camps, and last year the Council of Europe, the oldest European institution specialised in human rights, condemned France over the handling of the Roma from Eastern Europe.
Valls has said that the expulsion from the illegal camps would be conducted “with firmness”. Several camps were dismantled in Lille, Lyon, Marseille and in the Paris suburbs.
A charter plane with 240 Roma who took “compensation” of €300 for “voluntary return” to Romania, took off from Lyon to Bucharest last Thursday, following up a practice begun under Sarkozy. Groups had criticised the measure as ineffective, since nothing prevents those sent home to use the money to return to the West.
Some 90% of the 15,000 Roma in France are from Romania, news media reported, with the rest being mostly from Bulgaria. Bulgarian and Romanian citizens are free to travel to the Schengen countries without visas for up to 90 days. Many Roma from these countries overstay and try to make a living, sometimes engaging in begging. It is estimated that their income in the West is significantly higher than back home.
Valls defended the camp evacuations as necessary due to health risks, saying that immigrants were only being repatriated after an individual evaluation of their legal status in France.
"The repatriations do not take the form, in any way, of forced, collective expulsions," he said in a statement.
But Laurent Elghozi, president of an organisation that defends Roma rights in France, blasted French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault for not respecting the electoral promises of Hollande over the issue.
“We cannot accept that the promises made by the president when he was a candidate would not be kept in the shortest delays,” Elghozi said.
In a widely reported campaign speech, Hollande had attacked Sarkozy over his handling of the Roma problem, saying that if he were in charge, there would be “alternative solutions” over the dismantling of camps and the expulsions.
“We cannot continue to accept that families are driven from one place without solution. This causes them to move elsewhere, under conditions that are not best,” Hollande said during the spring presidential contest.
Meanwhile, citizens associations also gathered to denounce the “nuisances” caused by the Roma. La Voix Perdue (The Lost Voice) group in Villeneuve d’Asq, near Lille, complained of air pollution caused by Roma burning plastic cables to extract the copper, as well as litter and loud music played throughout the night from Roma communities.
Malik Salemkour of the group Romeurope told the French daily La Croix that the summertime expulsions suggested that the authorities were taking advantage of the holiday lull to avoid publicity and controversy.
Asked to comment, the European Commission said on 10 August it was closely watching how France expels members of the Roma community to ensure their removal is consistent with the bloc's rules on the free movement of people.
The Commission introduced the practice of not discontinuing its normal midday briefings in August after the substantial media attention over the handling of the Roma expulsions from France in 2010.