France's expulsion campaign of Roma has drawn a deluge of criticism at home and abroad, and even opened up fissures within the government and ruling conservative majority. Yet President Nicolas Sarkozy and his closest lieutenants are striking an increasingly defiant tone in response to the outcry. Cabinet members now want to expand the list of infractions for which the Roma Gypsy minority can be forcibly expelled from France and are busy placing blame on Romania as the ultimate cause of the controversy engulfing Paris.
On Tuesday, French Secretary of State for European Affairs Pierre Lellouche and Immigration and Integration Minister Eric Besson traveled to Brussels to defend France's high-profile campaign of dismantling itinerants' camps and expelling the Roma living in France without residence permits. They met with European Union commissioners who have expressed concerns that those efforts may violate human-rights statutes guaranteeing the freedom of movement of E.U. citizens a status conferred on all Romanians and Bulgarians during the E.U.'s 2007 enlargement. France's defiant attitude became apparent when Lellouche shifted the blame for its Roma predicament to Romania. Although Bucharest receives $5 billion in annual E.U. subsidies, Lellouche's argument goes, it spends only 0.4% of that on integrating the nation's Roma minority (a population officially pegged at 535,000 but which some experts believe exceeds 2 million). He has suggested postponing eventual Romania and Bulgaria membership to the passport-free Schengen area if both nations don't improve their efforts to integrate Roma and more effectively monitor Roma migration elsewhere in the E.U.
During the Brussels talks, Besson refuted allegations previously aired by E.U. critics that France's campaign was racially discriminatory in targeting a single minority: Roma. He also dismissed claims that Paris was conducting systematic deportation, noting that the authorities assessed the case of each detained Roma individually. And he maintained that most deportees left "voluntarily": the majority accepted cash payments ($386 per adult, $129 per child) not to fight obligatory expulsion. It's unclear whether that defense allayed the apprehensions of E.U. officials.
"Nobody should face expulsion just for being Roma," said Viviane Reding, E.U. commissioner on human rights. "Some of the rhetoric that has been used in some member states in the past weeks has been openly discriminatory and partly inflammatory."
The day before his Brussels visit, Besson responded to criticism by proposing legislation to make "aggressive begging" by foreigners a deportable offense a move clearly targeting impoverished Roma. Not to be outdone, Besson's Cabinet partner Brice Hortefeux, the Interior Minister, claimed that criminal acts by Roma in Paris had risen 259% in the past 18 months and flatly declared, "The reality is, the author of one theft in five is Romanian." That tough talk from government members sought to counter the growing chorus of condemnation of the government campaign that has sent 8,313 Roma back to Romania or Bulgaria in the first eight months of the year. It's only accelerating: 283 deportations occurred last week alone.
That swagger by Team Sarko is intended to not only rebuff protests by French and international opponents but also divert attention from the serious dissent the anti-Roma push has created within the ruling right and within the government itself. On Aug. 30, Foreign Affairs Minister Bernard Kouchner admitted that he considered resigning his post at seeing "Roma, in particular, mistreated and exploited." At least two other Cabinet members have also expressed unease with a campaign that many pundits say aims to win over extreme-right voters ahead of the 2012 presidential election.
Former conservative Prime Ministers and rightist heavyweights Alain Juppé and Jean-Pierre Raffarin have similarly warned Sarkozy that continuing to stigmatize French minorities, foreigners or Roma in particular may fuel xenophobia. And those are Sarkozy allies. Former Premier Dominique de Villepin, a staunch Sarkozy foe, described the government's push as "a stain of shame on our flag" and "a collective fault committed in all our names, against the republic and against France."
Those voices followed calls from French dignitaries, church officials and even the Vatican to halt Roma expulsions. A United Nations committee on racial discrimination went even further, saying the campaign was only the latest manifestation in a wider surge of racism and xenophobia in France. However, despite that near universal condemnation, Sarkozy apparently feels that with his approval ratings at record lows and with an autumn of continuing scandals and reform protest approaching any surrender on Roma now risks inspiring a series of challenges and defeats that could snowball right into his 2012 re-election bid.