The deportation of Romanian and Bulgarian Roma people from makeshift camps across France has left observers wondering exactly what political points President Nicolas Sarkozy hopes to gain with the move. While some experts say Sarkozy was aiming to bolster his waning popularity, others point out that kicking the ‘problem’ out of the country will not necessarily make it go away.
By Monday, French authorities had closed 51 of the 300 camps Sarkozy promised to dismantle. The total number of deportees is scheduled to reach 700 by the end of the month.
According to European law, European Union citizens can stay as long as they like in any member-state if they have "enough" money and a medical insurance. Also, the European Union citizens cannot live "illegally" on its territory, as they possess IDs issued by EU country member.
French authorities say since the Roma people cannot prove they can sustain themselves financially, they must go back home. Each deportee left voluntarily and was given a one-time aid sum of $380 for each adult, and $127 for each child.
The situation has kicked up a lot of dust internationally with the media exerting close scrutiny on the case.
However, the measures are nothing new. Over the last three years, the French government has expelled scores of immigrants of Roma origin, culminating in the deportation of 12,000 in 2009. According to the Office of French Immigration and Integration, during the first quarter of this year, 316 Bulgarian and 2,229 Romanian Roma people were repatriated.
So why is there so much noise being made this time around? The difference is that Sarkozy himself has raised the political profile of the situation.
“The French president is trying to expel Roma for quite some time so this is not new, but what is new is that the government has chosen to raise its political profile out of this issue,” said Robert Kushen, executive director of the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) in a telephone interview.
Recently, Sarkozy's popularity ratings have slumped to record lows due to high unemployment, an unpopular pension reform drive, and a major scandal involving his Labor Minister Eric Woerth, accused of making illegal donations to Sarkozy’s presidential campaign in 2007.
Sarkozy announced at the end of July that he would disband the 300 camps and at the same time pledged to introduce legislation before the end of the year to solve the Roma “problem,” which according to the French government threatens public order and safety. The declaration came after a series of violent clashes between French police and Roma rioters.
The deportations are part of a larger strategy to clean up what the government sees as foreign criminal elements. In terms of the strategy’s success at currying favor with the French electorate, the results are mixed.
According to a survey by Le Figaro from Aug. 6, a total of 79 percent of French citizens surveyed said they approve the measures taken against the Roma encampments and against foreign criminal elements in general.
Another poll by the daily Le Parisien found that Sarkozy’s popularity grew by two points to 34 percent since announcing the plans to toughen up of immigrants.
However, a survey conducted by pollsters CSA for Marianne magazine this month, shows that 51 percent of French population disapproves Sarkozy’s idea of stripping criminals of French nationality if they obtained it during the last 10 years.
The survey revealed also that 69 percent of French citizens think government policies to tackle crime have been ineffective since 2002 when Nicolas Sarkozy took the position of Interior minister. Moreover, 66 percent of the French see the cuts of police force under Sarkozy as the main reason for growing crime, while only 47 percent think the reason is the immigrant population.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the president and founder of the opposition Left Party, described as “pitiful” the French government's policy toward Roma and accused Sarkozy of sparking a climate of tension, Euractive reported.
Internationally, Sarkozy hasn’t fared much better.
Romania's Foreign Minister Teodor Baconschi expressed his concern about the risk of “populist provocation” and “creating xenophobic reactions at a time of economic crisis” during a media appearance.
European Commission spokesperson Amelia Torres commented that EU countries have the right to take security measures regarding foreigners residing on their territory, but warned that the European Commission is “following the situation with great attention,” according to Brussels-based Euractiv.
The United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination criticized France at a U.N. anti-racism panel last week.
One committee member said some of the measures on Roma people in France were reminiscent of the period of France's Vichy government, which collaborated with the German Nazi occupiers in World War II, AFP reported.
A pan-European Problem
Kushen from ERRC says Roma have been a target of discrimination for centuries. They have been marginalized, been a target of the Nazi genocide during the World War II, and continue to be subject to discrimination and exclusion throughout Europe.
Roma or Romani people are an ethnic group whose origin traces back to medieval India. Today, they are mostly in Central and Eastern Europe. They are known for their nomadic life. Gypsies, as they are also called, do not have a country, but live on the territory of other countries.
According to Robert Kushen, the EU has obligations to protect and assist Europe’s Roma people.
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