France fends off UN racism criticism
French officials on Thursday rebuffed charges of a resurgence of racism and xenophobia in France, after sharp criticism from the UN's anti-racism panel.
On Wednesday, several independent experts made unusually sharp comments about the state of racial discrimination in France, at a hearing of the UN's Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
France is experiencing a "significant resurgence of racism and xenophobia", Kokou Ewomsan, a Togolese human rights official, told the French delegation.
They highlighted France's crackdown on Gypsy communities, as well as its government-sponsored debate on national identity and its increasingly tough talk on immigrants and crime.
In Paris the French minister for Europe Pierre Lellouche defended the government's approach, saying security was "the first human right."
"The controversies here and there about the French government's decisions are unjustified," he said in a statement. "All the French government's current policies aim only to guarantee public liberties."
Last month, President Nicolas Sarkozy announced tough security measures on traveller communities following a spate of urban violence. His government has begun tearing down illegal Roma camps and deporting their inhabitants.
Sarkozy has also threatened to strip foreign-born nationals of French citizenship for serious crimes.
One UN committee member said some of the measures on Gypsies were reminiscent of France's Vichy government, which collaborated with the German Nazi occupiers in World War II.
French officials on Thursday defended the measures against travelling Roma from central Europe on legal grounds as the UN committee wrapped up its hearing on France.
They told the committee that under EU agreements on the accession of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007, restrictions could be imposed on free movement of citizens from those countries for seven years.
They also argued that European law allowed those who were jobless and represented a social burden to be sent back to their home countries.
"All the measures are taken in the context of voluntary return, accompanied by humanitarian aid," added French immigration ministry official Frederique Doublet.
France's Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said Thursday that authorities had torn down more than 40 illegal camps housing hundreds of Roma immigrants since announcing the crackdown two weeks ago.
Some 700 people have been driven out of the camps and will be "sent back to their countries of origin," namely Romania and Bulgaria, Hortefeux told a news conference.
It was not immediately clear how many of the departures were voluntary and how many were enforced for Roma without proper papers.
Malik Salemkour of the League for Human Rights, a French pressure group, described the hearing as an unprecedented dressing-down for France.
US lawyer and former State Department official Pierre-Richard Prosper, vice chairman of the committee, pointed to a lack of "real political will" by French leaders to fight racism.
The committee oversees the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which has been ratified by 173 nations. The panel of 18 legal experts is due to issue its conclusions on August 27.
© 2010 AFP