France’s Controversial Roma Deportations

French president Sarkozy has always been known for his unforgiving stance on immigration and security issues: the fact that these two vast sets of policy issues are connected in his mind underscores Sarkozy’s tendency to  merge the narratives around crime and immigration. In recent weeks, however, a controversial policy which targets the Roma – gypsies, as they are sometimes called, who hail primarily from Romania and Bulgaria, two relatively new EU member states – for deportation has been stirring the debate.

In July, a young Roma man was killed by a police officer in a central France town, which sparked a riot when dozens of Roma men atttacked a police station and other government property. Sarkozy reacted to the events by promising a crack-down, saying that the riots “highlighted the problems posed by the behaviour of certain travellers and Roma.” According to The Daily Mail, Sarkozy has described the makeshift camps where most Roma live as “sources of illegal trafficking, of profoundly shocking living standards, of exploitation of children for begging, of prostitution and crime.”

French intolerance towards immigrants, though, is nothing new. The country has been struggling to reconcile its deeply entrenched Roman Catholic, white identity with changing population trends. Over the last few decades, France has seen its immigrant population grow significantly, and right-wing politicians have typically exploited people’s fears regarding immigration for political gain. Prior to becoming president in 2007, Sarkozy gained a lot of support from French voters with his tough policies as interior minister. The recent crack-down on the Roma has been described as a “cynical populist ploy to boost his falling popularity ratings” by political opposition groups and critics in France. Polls, however, are showing that support for the expulsion of the Roma is estimated to be between 40 and 79 per cent. The current interior minister, Brice Hortefeux (who was recently fined by a court for racist comments) noted, “as usual, Sarkozyism is out of step with the elites, but in step with society.”

Aside from the support of a few other EU governments like Italy who also use deportations as a way to manage immigration, the international reaction has been almost universally critical. A UN-backed international committee of experts slammed the policy in late August, but the condemnation will likely do little to slow or halt the deportations. Even the Vatican condemned the policy, with an official noting that “the mass expulsions of Roma are against European norms.”

It should be noted that other EU countries have also been evicting unwanted residents – Germany, for instance, deported 12,000 Roma (including 6,000 children) to Kosovo this year, and that the French policy is part of a broader issue of confusing – and often unfair – rules and regulations regarding immigration and freedom of movement.

On September 9, the Parliament of the European Union voted a non-binding resolution which sharply criticizes the explicit targeting of the Roma for deportation.  The French government reacted by calling the resolution an unacceptable “political diktat” from the European Union.  The European Commission reminded France to respect the rules that govern free movement in the EU in August, drawing criticism for its tepid response. The head of the European Commission, Jose-Manuel Barroso, delivered an address last week during which he once again reminded EU member states of their obligations regarding the protection of the rights of the Roma, but without mentioning France explicitely. The Guardian reports that during a meeting with Sarkozy last week, Barroso agreed to avoid turning the expulsion of thousands of Roma or Gypsies from France into “a controversy”.

Because each Roma receives 300 euros per adult and 100 euros per child, the French government has called the deportations “voluntary.” The fact that any “foreign-born Roma who refuses to take a flight will be ordered to leave within a month without the cash,” however, casts serious doubts as to the voluntary nature of these repatriations. The freedom of movement rules for citizens of new member states – such as Romania and Bulgaria – are sometimes subject to restrictions. Even though France is one of ten EU countries which oppose these restrictions, they nevertheless have been deporting thousands of Roma. According to the AFP, about 10,000 Roma from Romania and Bulgaria returned to their countries using this “voluntary return” procedure last year.

What France calls “voluntary returns” is not a new policy, however. Every year, the French government sets specific targets for the number of undocumented immigrants to be deported, a figure that typically hovers around 30,000. People are sent home with a nominal sum of money (a few thousand dollars, for deportations outside the EU zone) and are usually escorted by French police until they land in their home country. These deportations cost French taxpayers tens of millions of euros every year. These targets allow the ministers in charge of this portofolio to boast about their success in immigration policy, which is viewed as a logistical issue rather than a human one. The continued emphasis on the link between crime and immigration has allowed Sarkozy to garner the support of voters, as noted above, and the Roma deportations are only the tip of the iceberg.

What sets this apart, though, is that the Roma are explicitely targeted in an aggressive manner. Commentators in France have said that the singling out and demonization of the Roma has sinister echoes of World War II, when the French government targeted and rounded-up tens of thousands of Jews and Gypsies to be sent to Nazi concentration camps. This very ugly memory, which should act as a reminder for French authorities that targeting ethnic groups is not just immoral but also illegal, has been dismissed by Sarkozy and his administration, who plan on pursuing the policy steadfastly.

Numbering about 12 million, the Roma are the European Union’s largest ethnic minority (there are an estimated 12/15,000 Roma in France.) They face harsh discrimination and lives as second-class citizens in their home countries – traditionally Romania and Bulgaria – and have historically lived nomadic, unsettled lives due to this history of prejudice. Over the years, the treatment of the Roma in their home countries has lead many of them to search for a better life in other Europan countries. For many in France, the image of poor, makeshift Roma camps on the outskirts of major cities is prevalent – the Roma have typically had little access to education and economic opportunities, and are known mostly for their relentless begging. Once in a while, the French media will hone in on the Roma’s begging practices, who often send out very young children with fake crutches, to generate sympathy, inevitably sparking public outcry and further isolation for that community.

In spite of the difficult lives they lead in France, recently deported Roma told European media that many of them planned to return to France as soon as possible, explaining that they felt a life of begging in France was better than life as second-class citizens with no opportunity at all at home.

When Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU, it was agreed that their citizens would face special restrictions in France, allowing their deportation after three months if they did not have a job or means of supporting themselves. A French foreign ministry spokesman noted that a European directive “expressly allows for restrictions on the right to move freely for reasons of public order, public security and public health”. As Romania and Bulgaria are slated to join the Schengen free movement area in 2011, however, it’s clear that the deportation policy will need to evolve.

For people familiar with French politics and in particular with Sarkozy’s particular brand of populism, the discrimination against the Roma is unsurprising. After all, this comes from the same president who recently proposed legislation that will strip French citizenship from “people of foreign origin” if they threaten the lives of police, commit polygamy or carry out female circumcision. In 2005, his comments about cleaning up poor, immigrant-heavy Parisian suburbs with a “Karcher” (a brand of high-pressure hose) sparked outrage and led to rioting. In the United States, political scientists often talk about the rally around the flag effect. In France, Sarkozy is manipulating a “rally around crime” sentiment to bolster his support and pander to far right-wing voters, as his popularity continues to slip due to his inability to resolve some of France’s real, long-term economic and social problems.