France defies critics to push on with Roma expulsions
France defied mounting international criticism of its crackdown on Roma and Gypsy minorities on Friday, herding another batch of deportees onto planes for eastern Europe.
As the French opposition accused President Nicolas Sarkozy's government of "state racism" and Romania expressed concern, Immigration Minister Eric Besson said 139 more Roma were due to be flown out.
Speaking in Washington, Besson said these Roma -- who follow 86 who left on Thursday -- were leaving France on "a voluntary basis" in exchange for grants of 300 euros (385 dollars) per person.
But any foreign-born Roma caught up in Sarkozy's crackdown on illegal Gypsy camps who refuses to take a flight will be issued orders to leave France within a month, without the handout.
Romania's President Traian Basescu said the expulsions showed the need for a European plan to integrate travelling communities while his Foreign Minister Teodor Baconschi warned against "xenophobic reactions".
Although Romanian and Bulgarian Roma are European Union citizens, France has reserved the right until 2014 to bar immigrants from newer member states from the jobs market and to expel them after three months.
There are few border controls within the Union, however, and many of those expelled are expected to return.
"Of course I'm thinking about returning to France. Life is better than in Romania," 26-year-old Ionut Balasz told reporters as he arrived in Romania among the first group that were expelled.
France expelled around 10,000 Roma to Romania and Bulgaria last year, but the flights this week are the first since Sarkozy announced a tough law and order crackdown that explicitly linked crime and immigration.
Besson said 850 would be expelled in August, describing the drive as "an acceleration of a process that was underway in any case.
"It's just that the dismantling (of camps) that has taken place and is ongoing this August has led to an acceleration of a process that is already structural, recurrent," he explained.
While Besson appeared to be playing down the significance of the operation, the expulsions follow a high-profile bid by Sarkzoy to recapture his image with voters as strong on law and order.
Police squads have carried out a series of raids across the country, targeting unauthorised camps of both Roma from Eastern Europe and of French-born Gypsies and travellers.
A special team of tax inspectors has been set up to investigate the incomes of these minority groups, who rarely work in the formal sector and whom many in France associate with criminality and begging.
Sarkozy's minister for families, Nadine Morano, reflected this attitude on Thursday when she accused some Gypsy mothers of drugging their infants to keep them sleepy while families sit begging by the roadside.
"We should not accept this kind of behaviour," she told Europe 1 radio.
Socialist opposition lawmaker Arnaud Montebourg condemned Morano's comment, accusing the state of smearing a minority in the same way as French Jews had been stigmatised in the 1930s before World War II.
"We're coming to a kind of official racism that says: 'These people are the cause of all our woes, please have a go at them and forget our own failure in the fight against crime'," he charged.
While France has received some international support -- notably from Italy's right-wing Northern League party, part of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's coalition -- many have expressed concern.
Earlier this month a United Nations expert panel warned of mounting racism and xenophobia in France, and human rights groups have sounded the alarm.
"Violence against Roma is already all-too-commonplace, particularly in eastern European countries. Could this exacerbate the problem? Sure," said Columbia Law School professor Theodore Shaw, a noted civil rights lawyer.
"If the government is targeting Roma, then others who are already engaged in xenophobia and hatred are going to feel more empowered."
But Besson rejected the criticism, insisting: "France is the country in Europe which most respects the rights of foreigners.
"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."
© 2010 AFP