French Roma round-up draws more flak

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy's government was forced further on to the defensive over its drive to deport Roma Gypsies on Monday, as the senior UN human rights official sharply criticised the policy.

The attack from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights came as France struggled to account for a leaked government memo which appeared to confirm that the Roma ethnic minority had been singled out for expulsion.

The order, circulated to police chiefs last month in the wake of a hard-line speech by Sarkozy, has undermined France's claim to be treating cases of illegal immigration on a purely case-by-case basis.

In particular, it has embarrassed Immigration Minister Eric Besson, who last week assured his European colleagues that Roma are treated no differently than other EU migrants who fail to meet French residency criteria.

"I was not aware of this circular," Besson told France 2 television. "It was not addressed to me and I did not need to know about it."

The note, signed by Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux's chief of staff Michel Bart and dated August 5, was sent to police chiefs to outline "specific objectives".

"Three hundred camps or illegal settlements must be cleared within three months, Roma camps are a priority," it said.

"It is therefore up to prefects in every part of the country to undertake ... a systematic approach of dismantling illicit camps, as a priority those of the Roma," the circular, seen by AFP, said.

The circular contrasts with Besson's statement on Thursday that "France has not taken any measure specifically against the Roma, (who) are not considered as such but as natives of the country whose nationality they have."

On Monday, Besson insisted once more that France does not recognise the "concept of 'ethnic minorities'," saying it would not suspend expulsions and referring questions to the interior ministry.

France has deported almost 1,000 Roma migrants to Bulgaria and Romania since Sarkozy speech last month, and more than 8,000 Roma have been deported since the beginning of the year, after 9,875 were expelled in 2009.

Officials in the southern city of Marseille said 100 more Roma would be flown out of there on Tuesday, having agreed to accept 300 euro hand-outs rather than wait to be expelled by judicial order.

Evidence that officials took Sarkozy at his word and specifically targeted the Roma rather than any or all migrants living without means of support will heighten criticism from France's international partners.

"Such measures can only exacerbate the stigmatisation of Roma and the extreme poverty and exclusion in which they live," UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay told the UN Human Rights Council on Monday.

"The often stereotyping and discriminatory rhetoric by officials and media when referring to the Roma in Europe is also an issue of great concern," she added, in what is only the latest jab at France from UN experts.

"I urge European states, including France, to adopt policies enabling Roma people to promote social cohesion and overcome their marginalisation," Pillay said, without referring directly to the leaked circular.

In France, the opposition Socialists seized on the memo to embarrass Besson, a former member of their party who left to join Sarkozy's right-wing cabinet.

Socialist spokesman Benoit Hamon mocked Besson's "undignified" denial, noting the policy is being jointly pursued by the interior and immigration ministries and insisting he must have known about the memo.

Human rights lawyers and pro-immigrant pressure groups piled in, claiming that the document amounted to an illegal order, since French and European law ban discrimination based on ethnic origin.

Rights group Gisti said it would try to get the document "annulled" by the state council, France's highest court.

© 2010 AFP

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