France's Socialist government said Wednesday it would continue its controversial policy of shutting down illegal Roma camps but would also ease employment restrictions on Roma from Romania and Bulgaria.
The announcements came after an emergency ministerial meeting on the handling of an estimated 15,000 Roma currently living in illegal and often squalid camps across France.
Housing Minister Cecile Duflot said after the talks that the government had agreed to abolish a charge of up to 300 euros (375 dollars) that employers currently have to pay to employ Bulgarian or Romanian nationals.
The list of jobs these nationals can apply for will also be enlarged, she said.
The prime minister's office said in a statement that the much-criticised dismantling of illegal Roma camps will continue if they are carried out after a court order.
President Francois Hollande and his Interior Minister Manuel Valls came under fire this summer for sanctioning the dismantling of several Roma camps and repatriating hundreds of their residents to Bulgaria and Romania.
Several leading Socialists, Green members of the government and Roma rights groups criticised them for continuing the controversial policies of the right-wing former president Nicolas Sarkozy.
The Council of Europe rights watchdog on Tuesday urged France to "go beyond short-term measures" for its Roma population, while Amnesty International on Wednesday said France should stop dismantling illegal camps without first finding alternative lodgings for those evicted.
But Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault's office said after Wednesday's talks that breaking up camps "continued to be legitimate if this is carried out after a court order or to put an end to a dangerous situation or an immediate health risk".
Valls has insisted that the clearance of "illegal and squalid" camps is necessary and justifiable.
He has argued that primary responsibility for the well-being of the Roma lies with their countries of origin, where they have been discriminated against for centuries.
France is one of a number of European Union countries which declined to grant Bulgarian and Romanian workers unrestricted access to their labour markets following the two countries' 2007 accession to the European Union.
Critics argue that the policy puts Roma migrants in an invidious position since they can be deported because they cannot demonstrate that they can support themselves but, at the same time, many jobs are off limits to them.
One of the EU's founding principles is that citizens should be able to work in any member state, and the transitional arrangements permitted when Bulgaria and Romania joined must be phased out by the end of 2013 in any case.
The prime minister's statement said Wednesday that the French government would hold talks with Bulgaria and Romania on bring an earlier-than-planned end to employment restrictions for nationals of these two states.
© 2012 AFP
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