France defends Roma crackdown amid fresh expulsions
France was set to repatriate nearly 140 more Roma on Friday, a day after scores were flown back to Romania under a controversial crackdown ordered by President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Immigration Minister Eric Besson said in Washington that 139 more Roma would be flown to Romania, underscoring that the repatriation was being carried out on "a purely voluntary basis.
"Today 86 people left France," Besson said Thursday, adding that "nearly 850 people" will be sent back "to their country of origin" by the end of this month.
Another batch is supposed to leave for Romania on August 26, with each adult granted 300 euros (385 dollars) and each minor 100 euros.
Although the Roma are EU citizens -- mostly from Bulgaria and Romania -- they need to have a work permit if they stay in France for more than three months or prove they have the means to support themselves.
Those who do not wish to return voluntarily receive an order to leave France with which they must comply within a month or face forced repatriation -- without the cash handout.
With unease growing over the roundups using tactics that one member of Sarkozy's ruling party compared to those of Nazi-era France, the interior ministry insisted that each case had been looked at individually.
Romania's President Traian Basescu said the expulsions showed the need for a Europe-wide plan on integrating Roma communities while Foreign Minister Teodor Baconschi warned against "xenophobic reactions" after the economic downturn.
"What has happened in Paris shows that we must have an integration plan across Europe for Roma citizens," Basescu told reporters.
One of those who arrived in Romania from the French city of Lyon and gave his name as Gabriel, said he had lived in the southeastern city of Grenoble with his wife and two children.
"It was very tough, we were under pressure all the time" from the authorities, he said.
"Of course I'm thinking about returning to France. Life is better than in Romania, even if it is illegal," said another from the group, 26-year-old Ionut Balasz.
Besson rejected criticism against the crackdown, saying France did not need to be preached. Last week members of a UN committee had said xenophobia and racism were on the rise in the country.
"France is the country in Europe which most respects the rights of foreigners, notably foreigners in irregular situations, or -- let's be more more modest -- one of the most respectful countries, so we do not have any lessons to learn," he said in an interview with France 2 television.
"Last year, we gave out 170,000 long-term residency permits. We have become the second country in the world after the United States in granting asylum."
The French move was backed by Italy's right-wing Northern League party, a core member of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's coalition.
Northern League lawmaker Claudio d'Amico said "the line adopted by France on repatriating the Roma is the right line to follow", before calling for action to prevent the expelled Roma from heading to Italy.
About 10,000 Roma from Romania and Bulgaria were returned to their countries last year, but these are the first expulsions since Sarkozy in July announced a clampdown on foreigners.
There are about 15,000 Roma of Eastern European origin in France.
The Roma community in Romania numbers 530,000 according to the national census or 2.5 million according to non-governmental organisations, who say that some do not declare themselves as Roma fearing discrimination.
Writing in French newspaper Liberation, Robert Kushen, director of the European Roma Rights Centre, criticised the French government for using the Roma "to show it is being tough when it comes to law and order".
The European Union's executive arm has said France must abide by the bloc's freedom of movement rules when it expels Roma living illegally in the country.
The French foreign ministry insisted its action against the Roma was in line with European rules.
"The measures taken by the French authorities with regard to dismantling illegal camps fully conform with European rules and do not in any way affect the freedom of movement for EU citizens, as defined by treaties," foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero told AFP.
© 2010 AFP