635 Roma removed from France in nearly a month: minister

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About 635 Roma in France have been repatriated a crackdown announced last month, the government said on Tuesday as it defended the explusions against a storm of criticism.

By the end of the month "around 950" would have been sent back to Romania and Bulgaria, Immigration Minister Eric Besson said on Europe 1 radio.

France announced a crackdown on Roma and Gypsy communities on July 28, citing security and crime issues, and began dismantling unauthorised campgrounds while pushing on with a strategy of sending home those deemed to be in France illegally.

More than 5,000 have been sent back to Romania and Bulgaria since the beginning of the year, Bresson said. In 2009 the number was 10,000.

The immigration minister defended the expulsions, which have been heavily criticised inside and outside France and led to charges of a resurgence of racism and xenophobia.

France's policy for taking in foreigners was "more generous than the average European countries", Bresson said. "I do not see a country that can give us lessons," he added.

The Council of Europe's Commission against Racism and Intolerance said Tuesday the treatment of Roma migrants in France was a "most negative development."

Although Romanian and Bulgarian Roma are European Union citizens, France has reserved the right until 2014 to bar immigrants from newer EU member states from the jobs market and to expel them after three months.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon was due to meet Wednesday with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso to step up coordination with Romania and Bulgaria on the repatriations, his office announced Tuesday.

He urged against the "exploitation" of the issue of illegal immigration.

A senior member of President Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP party meanwhile hit out at former prime minister Dominique de Villepin for criticising the deportations, saying thousands of Roma were sent home when he was in power.

"Do you know how many Roma were expelled while Mr de Villepin was interior minister (2004-2005) and prime minister (2005-2007)?" the party's security secretary Eric Ciotti said on RTL radio.

"More than 10,000 -- so I found his outbursts today purely voting-seeking and scandalous," he said.

Villepin, a likely challenger to Sarkozy in 2012 presidential elections, wrote in Le Monde newspaper that the crackdown had damaged France's reputation and left "a stain of shame" on the French tricolour flag.

© 2010 AFP

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