France puts Roma issue on EU summit agenda

Jean-Marc Ayrault.jpg

The French government will ask the Cyprus EU presidency to put the question of Roma inclusion on the agenda of the 18-19 October European summit, the government announced yesterday (22 August).

The issue of Roma camps and social inclusion dominated the agenda of the first cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault after the holiday break. The issue made headlines earlier this summer as French public opinion became increasingly disturbed by the profusion of Roma camps in the country.

In an effort to facilitate access to work for Roma migrants, many of them from Bulgaria and Romania, France will examine the possibility of opening its labour market to the nationals of the two countries, the French government announced following the cabinet meeting, attended by nine ministers.

In the meantime, it will increase the number of employment sectors – beyond the current 150 – available to people from Romania and Bulgaria and scrap a tax on employers for hiring nationals from the two countries.

About 90% of the 15,000 East European Roma in France are from Romania, with the rest being mostly from Bulgaria.

As EURACTIV reported last week, this appears to mark a major shift in the way France tackles the problem of Roma coming from the EU's two newest members. The new French government was recently criticised by rights activists, who accused Interior Minister Manuel Valls of following in former French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s footsteps by dismantling Roma camps and carrying out arbitrary expulsions.

The French government facing the challenges of fighting petty crime and exploitation, including the recruitment of Roma women into prostitution, and attempting to integrate Roma immigrants by providing employment and schooling.

If France would lift the working restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians, it would join the 17 countries that have already scrapped these restrictions. Apart from France, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom maintain such restrictions, which they are obliged to lift by 31 December 2013.

European response



The French government also called for a European response to the Roma issue. Paris also wants to open discussions with Bucharest and Sofia to put in place initiatives to facilitate the integration of the Roma in their countries of origin.

France called on the Cyprus EU presidency to put the question of Roma inclusion on the agenda of the next European summit, and commits to update its strategy for Roma inclusion, required by the European Commission.

Asked to comment on the possibility that France would lift its labour restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian nationals, a Commission official said the EU executive encouraged all countries to lift the remaining restrictions, which didn't "make economic sense".

The French green party Europe-Ecologie-Les Verts (EELV) stated that the measures decided by the government of jean-Marc Ayrault went “in the right direction”.

“We are satisfied by the cleared framing of the rules for the prefects to find solutions ahead of expulsions. But we continue to call on lifting of working restrictions, as did Ireland,” Jean-Philippe Magnen, spokesperson of EELV was quoted as saying.

The centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), the party of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, blasted the decisions, seen as an opening of France’s doors to populations from abroad in times of crisis.

Chrisian Estrozy, a UMP official and deputy mayor of Nice, interpreted the government decisions in the following way: “There is work in France, there is cheap housing, come and settle in France … Once again, the Socialists appear to say to the foreigners that France is an Eldorado, but the price would be paid by the French”.

France has insisted that its measures of expelling members of the Roma community are not discriminatory and are intended to protect security and public order.

Commission spokesperson Olivier Bailly said at a press briefing:

"We welcome the constructive spirit which the French government has adopted in seeking appropriate solutions, and also its willingness to cooperate with the Commission, and also with the member states, notably the countries of origins of these ethnic minorities."

The Roma are the EU's largest ethnic minority, EU figures show, and trace their origins to mediaeval India. The Commission estimates the Roma population in the EU at 11 million.

Census statistics show that 535,000 Roma live in Romania, 370,000 in Bulgaria, 205,000 in Hungary, 89,000 in Slovakia and 108,000 in Serbia. Some 200,000 Roma are estimated to live in the Czech Republic and Greece, while 500,000 live in Turkey.

Many Roma from Eastern Europe moved to the West following the EU's enlargement. France is insisting that its measures of expelling members of the Romani community are not discriminatory and are intended to protect security and public order.

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