During his rise to and occupancy of the French presidency, Nicolas Sarkozy has regularly announced new law-and-order offensives in the hopes of stoking support among the majority of French voters who say they're scared of crime. Typically, those policies have taken aim at Sarkozy's preferred target: the banlieues, the troubled suburban housing projects that ring most French cities and are populated by a disproportionately high number of minorities.
Though divisive, the policies have usually worked first fueling Sarkozy's rise from crusading Interior Minister to master of the Elysée, then serving as his trump card whenever his support slumped. But this week, Sarkozy turned on a community that has long been the default object of suspicion and disdain throughout Europe: itinerant people including gypsies, travelers and Roma. And by using that small, ostracized group as easy prey in a new anticrime push, Sarkozy has critics charging him with manipulating public concerns of security and immigration for cynical political gain.
On Wednesday, Sarkozy told members of his conservative government that he intends to look into "the problems created by the behavior of certain travelers and Roma," whose nomadic lifestyle leaves them with "no assimilation into [the] communities" they live near. He also said he'd gather with advisers on July 28 for a special Elysée meeting on the issue, which he said falls under the "implacable struggle the government is leading against crime, [and the] veritable war we're going to wage against traffickers and delinquents."
Though the vast majority of the (very roughly) estimated 400,000 travelers in France are either French citizens or residents of E.U. countries, critics accuse government officials who have made statements linking the issue to immigration of trying to drum up nationalist support by playing the antiforeigner card. "You can very well be Roma, a traveler, even, at times, French within these communities," government spokesman Luc Chatel said to the press on Wednesday as he explained Sarkozy's motives. "But you'll have to respect the law of the republic."
Those comments came after a weekend of violence in central France, when young men from a community of travelers, enraged at the July 16 shooting of one of their peers by a policeman, rioted through the sleepy village of Saint-Aignan, south of Blois. For two days after 22-year-old Luigi Duquenet was fatally shot while a car he was in charged a police roadblock and allegedly hit an officer, around 50 youths from Duquenet's encampment attacked the Saint-Aignan gendarme station with metal bars and axes and also destroyed small local businesses, burned cars and damaged public property. The situation had calmed by July 18, but many people in France interpreted the violence as evidence that the widely held stereotypes of gypsies as criminals, troublemakers and outcasts are true.
That such prejudice endures is partly the fault of France's authorities. Despite laws requiring that towns whose populations exceed 5,000 provide suitable camping grounds for traveler communities, France was recently chided by the Council of Europe for largely ignoring that obligation. Nomadic communities are often relegated to staying outside town walls, usually either in makeshift camps with few facilities supplied to them, or for the poorest in shantytowns and squats. That segregation means few urban French know much about travelers or the diversity of the traveling community. The generic label gens du voyage (travelers) covers not only tsigane (roughly "gypsies"), who went to France over the centuries, but also manouches who arrived from Germany in the 19th century, Spanish-origin gitanes and the more recent Roma.
Critics claim that Sarkozy's new hard-line focus seeks to play last week's unrest at Saint-Aignan for political gain. With his approval rating at a personal all-time low of 25%, his government dogged by spending scandals and his Labor Minister, Eric Woerth, ensnared in the intrigue surrounding the inheritance battle between L'Oréal heiresses Liliane and Françoise Bettencourt, detractors say Sarkozy's latest law-and-order charge is simply an attempt to change the topic and score points at the expense of a population that few people are eager to defend.
"To better make people forget the scandal he's marred in himself, [Sarkozy] has invented a new diversion with a new category of scapegoat," Green Party legislator Noël Mamère declared on Wednesday night. "He serves up to the good folk of France people who've always been rejected to the margins of society, [and he] plays on confusion by suggesting that all Roma, all travelers, are all foreigners."
Opposition pols aren't the only ones crying foul. France's League of Human Rights has decried Sarkozy's "racist stigmatization of Roma and traveler populations through unacceptable amalgams." Samir Mile, spokesman of Voice of Roma, an association defending the rights of France's nomadic communities, told France Info radio on Thursday, "We're preparing to take it right in the face as we always do during political crises," adding that when "France is going poorly, [and] the President is doing badly, he seeks to divert public opinion toward easy targets."
This time, the controversy that Sarkozy's new law-and-order pledge has created seems to have replaced the applause that his previous anticrime crusades have provoked. It could be that by targeting travelers the eternal scapegoat Sarkozy may find that his unbeatable trump card has finally lost its magic.