Roma round-up triggers wave of 'French-bashing'

10th September 2010, Comments 0 comments

France has run into a storm of criticism over its treatment of the Roma minority, as countries tired of being lectured by the self-styled "home of human rights" seize on a chance to hit back.

But, while French-bashing is good sport, some in Paris feel foreign critics are using the row to distract from their own failure to find a fair way to integrate Roma and Gypsy groups into their national communities.

President Nicolas Sarkozy triggered the row last month when he declared a "war on crime" and explicitly linked his crusade to moves to expel Roma back to eastern Europe and to strip foreign-born criminals of their citizenship.

This was seen at home and abroad as pandering to far-right voters to regain political momentum in the run up to 2012 presidential elections, and the ensuing police raids on Gypsy camps attracted fierce criticism.

European and United Nations human rights monitors, media commentators, governments, pressure groups and even the Vatican queued up to attack France.

Then on Thursday, the European Parliament voted to demand Paris halt the expulsions, after a debate marked by unusually harsh attacks on a state that considers itself the birthplace of human rights law.

The leader of the liberal group in Strasbourg, former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt warned against "populist, sometimes racist" rhetoric.

His Socialist counterpart, German MEP Martin Schulz, branded the round-up a "witch hunt" and Sweden's EU Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg said criticism of Roma recalled the tactics of "Nazis and fascist regimes."

French leaders, who see themselves as working in the tradition of the 1789 "Declaration of the Rights of Man", were offended and rejected the charges.

"I respond to the European Parliament that they are undermining their own credibility, and I tell them that to their face," France's minister for European affaires, Pierre Lellouche, said Friday.

Lellouche insisted France's expulsion of Roma was being carried out in line with the Lisbon Treaty, which also sets out the European Parliament's role.

"European law says freedom of movement applies in the 27 states. It's three months residence, not 30 years, and not at state expense," Lellouche told France Inter radio.

"No-one has the right to go and set themselves up at the other end of Europe at the cost of the country receiving them," he declared.

Lellouche told AFP he felt his country was the target of "French-bashing" and his colleague Immigration Minister Eric Besson accused left-wing Euro-MPs of a "low political manoeuvre".

But sociologist Michel Wieviorka said a deeper dynamic is at play behind the dispute, driven by an annoyance felt by many of France's allies towards a country seen as "arrogant" in brandishing the human rights banner.

"The country that likes to promote as the home of human rights and lectured the world from the floor of the United Nations when opposing the Iraq war has been caught red-handed in pettiness and hypocrisy," he said.

With Sarkozy's star power on the wane, France has been hit over the summer by a drip feed of articles in the international press attacking his handling of corruption in high office and unrest in the mainly-immigrant suburbs.

And even before Lellouche and Besson arrived in Bucharest this week to defend the expulsion of Romanian Roma, President Traian Basescu warned them that if "they're coming to give us lessons, that won't solve anything."

Wounded, France insists it wouldn't have been dealing with 15,000 largely unemployed Roma immigrants if their Romanian and Bulgarian homelands had been able to provide them with a welcoming place to live in the first place.

"These attacks by the EU and Romania are a way of pushing the problem on to France, when they have responsibilities of their own," Arno Klarsfeld, a senior advisor to the French prime minister, told AFP.

© 2010 AFP

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