France defies critics, deports hundreds more Roma
France, defying EU, Vatican and United Nations criticism of its controversial crackdown on travelling minorities, on Thursday deported hundreds more Roma aboard a pair of specially chartered planes.
Police escorted four buses carrying Roma men, women and children to Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, where they boarded a Blue Air plane bound for Romania, an AFP journalist at the terminal said.
Another Blue Air plane carrying Roma to Bucharest took off from Lyon in east-central France around midday. In Lille in the north, police moved in at dawn to dismantle a Roma tent camp set up under a railway line.
The government said 283 Roma were being sent back Thursday, bringing the total number of Romanian and Bulgarian Roma deported so far this year to 8,313, against 7,875 expelled throughout last year.
The deportations come after President Nicolas Sarkozy, citing concerns about crime, began a high-profile crackdown on Roma, Gypsies and travelling people that saw police rounding up foreign Roma and tearing down illegal camps.
Forty-eight percent of French support the government's campaign to dismantle unauthorised camps and expel Roma migrants, an opinion poll said Thursday.
But critics accuse the right-wing president, whose popularity is at its lowest since he came to power in 2007, of trying to recapture the political initiative with a populist law and order message.
The crackdown has sparked fierce criticism at home and abroad, with French former prime minister Dominique de Villepin saying Sarkozy's policies had left a "stain of shame" on the French flag and were a "national indignity."
The Vatican said "one cannot generalise and take an entire group of people and kick them out," a UN panel warned of mounting racism and xenophobia in France, and the European Union is reviewing whether the crackdown is legal.
But the French government insists it is simply cracking down on illegal immigration and trying to protect its citizens from crime.
Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said Wednesday he had statistics showing "delinquency" by Romanian nationals in France rose by 138 percent last year.
Ministers also point out that most of the deported Romanians and Bulgarians leave voluntarily after accepting a payment of 300 euros per adult and 100 euros per child.
They say their policies comply with EU law and call on the EU to do more to help Romania and Bulgaria integrate their large Roma populations, who face poverty and discrimination in their native lands.
European Affairs Minister Pierre Lellouche said Wednesday that France wanted the European Commission to make sure that much of the EU's financial aid to Romania was used to provide education, employment and healthcare for Roma.
The Roma's experience of the European Union must not simply be "the right to go from one slum to another," said Lellouche, who is due to visit Romania early next month.
Lellouche met Thursday with two Romanian ministers who travelled to Paris for talks on closer cooperation on the Roma issue.
Valentin Mocanum, Romania's junior minister for Roma integration, called on the French government to better inform the public about the Roma issue to prevent "racism and xenophobia."
France's population of Roma, mostly from Romania and Bulgaria, was estimated at around 15,000 this month by a major French charity.
The estimated 350,000 Gypsies and travelling people of French nationality have also been targeted in the latest crackdown.
Citizens of Romania and Bulgaria, both EU member states since 2007, benefit from free movement within the bloc.
But the French labour market is not fully open to them and if they do not find a job and lodging within three months they must leave the country.
© 2010 AFP