When the European Commission announced on Friday, Oct. 1, that it would initiate legal action against France because of its deportation of Roma, also known as Gypsies, many observers saw the move as little more than a show designed to ultimately allow officials in Brussels and Paris alike to save face and declare victory without much changing. And on Friday, when France began fingerprinting the departing Roma to deter them from returning, it seemed they were right.
While it's an impressive display of unanimity among the 27 members of the Commission the European Union's executive body the E.C.'s threatened legal action falls significantly short of the discrimination case that some officials had wanted to launch against Paris for its widely decried policy of rounding up and deporting Roma to Bulgaria and Romania. Instead of charging France with discrimination a legally difficult tack the Commission instead gave Paris an Oct. 15 deadline to prove it has incorporated, or "transposed," into French law a binding 2004 E.U. directive on protecting ethnic minorities and ensuring the freedom of movement of all E.U. citizens. If it is determined that France has failed to do that or if France ignores the order to clarify its situation the E.C. will open legal proceedings against Paris for refusing obligations to respect fundamental E.U. statues.
"We note that in our judicial analysis, France did not correctly transpose the rules on free movement of European citizens, and as a result, she has robbed these citizens of essential procedural guarantees," E.U. justice commissioner Viviane Reding told reporters following the vote Wednesday, Sept. 29. "This must be corrected, and that is why the commission has acted firmly."
Firmly, perhaps, but minus the discrimination charges that detractors led by Reding herself had leveled at France over the Roma deportations that were kicked into high gear in July. Although the government of Nicolas Sarkozy has stopped publicizing deportation numbers, as it did with relish before the international condemnation surged, it's estimated that nearly 1,700 Roma have been expelled in the past two months.
Paris argues that under the seven-year transitional agreements Romania and Bulgaria signed upon entering the E.U. in 2007, citizens of those nations currently must acquire residence permits to live permanently in France papers requiring proof of employment and means of living that few impoverished, itinerant Roma have. Sarkozy's government has also claimed that most Roma wind up leaving "voluntarily" owing in large part to cash payouts offered to Roma who know that if they don't accept, they'll be deported anyway and that the push is simply part of normal policing to battle illegal immigration. The policy, France insists, in no way focuses on any particular ethnic group.
But that defiant, often haughty, line became harder to defend after French media in September revealed an Aug. 5 circular issued by France's Interior Ministry that repeatedly stipulated that the offensive was targeting "Roma in particular." That led the already critical Reding to condemn France's action as "a situation I thought that Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War." Her comment turned a political issue into a personal one. During a summit of leaders in Brussels on Sept. 16, Sarkozy railed that "France has been insulted, wounded, outraged and humiliated." He then engaged in what reports have described as an epic row with Commission President José Manuel Barroso who eventually expressed his opinion that Reding's comment had gone a bit too far.
Then came the Commission's decision to launch legal action a move observers say is aimed at finding a middle ground in the increasingly nasty, high-stakes dispute. By pursuing the more legally solid ground of transposition, analysts say, Reding and her backers can challenge France within the context of the Roma controversy while avoiding the tricky-to-prove charge of discrimination an option Barroso opposed, in part because of warnings from Paris that it would be interpreted as a virtual act of war.
"The Commission can say it held its ground and defended European rules and, indirectly, minorities while France will maintain it's within its rights and continue on with expulsions," says Jean-Marc Lech, a political analyst and co-president of the Ipsos polling agency. "It's the perfectly cynical political solution, because both sides claim they win and nothing really changes."
Indeed, the Commission's mere initiation of the procedure is viewed as symbolically significant in sending Paris and the world a message of principle on the plight of Roma. The chances of any actual disciplinary action being taken, however, are small. Even if France were to be found in infraction of the E.U. rule, a trial wouldn't roll around for years by which time Paris could pass legislation to transpose the 2004 directive. Meanwhile, France keeps deporting Roma with little sign of contrition or fear of Brussels.
"We should all be happy. France is emerging with its head high from its exchange with the Commission," France's Immigration and National Identity Minister Eric Besson told parliamentarians Wednesday. "It's good news for everyone." Everyone except the Roma.