France: Sarkozy's Gypsy crackdown begins

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French police moved in Friday to clear an illegal Gypsy encampment for the first time since President Nicolas Sarkozy announced a crackdown on the minority group.

Officers sealed off the area around a camp in the central city of Saint Etienne, preventing journalists and rights groups from seeing the evictions, which began before dawn and continued for several hours.

Associations for the defence of Gypsy rights said that around 100 people had been moved on from the area, a make-shift squatter camp where the local authorities had installed water standpipes and chemical toilets.

Last month, following a clash between Gypsies and police in another region, Sarkozy announced a draconian new raft of security measures, including plans to dismantle 300 unauthorised campsites within three months.

Critics accused the French leader of stigmatising Roma, Gypsy and Traveller minorities in a bid to recover votes lost to the anti-immigration far right in time for his re-election battle in 2012.

But an opinion poll published Thursday showed that 79 percent of voters approved of measures to dismantle the camps, and similar majorities backing other aspects of his law and order policy.

The government has said that Roma and Gypsies from outside France -- many, including those kicked out of the Saint Etienne camp Friday, are from Romania -- that commit crimes will be expelled back to their countries of origin.

There are estimated to be 15,000 Gypsies and Roma of Eastern European origin in France. Some live in authorised encampments, but many have moved into squatter camps or abandoned buildings.

Last month, a group of French Gypsies rioted after one of their number was shot dead by police during a car chase in Saint-Aignan, central France.

Struggling in the opinion polls, and with his government and ruling party dogged by financial scandal, Sarkozy took the opportunity to launch a series of new measures to control the travelling minorities.

In addition to expulsions and the destruction of camps, a squad of tax inspectors has been set up to target what Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said are the owners of "caravans pulled by certain powerful cars."

Shortly after launching his measures aimed at Gypsies, Sarkozy announced plans to target members of other minority groups, promising to strip French nationality from certain categories of foreign-born criminals.

Some on the left have spoken out against what some see as unconstitutional populism, but the main Socialist opposition party has been caught off-guard and has been cautious about opposing measures that many voters want.

© 2010 AFP

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