SAINT OUEN, France (AP) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy on
Wednesday ordered authorities to expel Gypsy illegal immigrants and
dismantle their camps, amid accusations that his government is
acting racist in its treatment of the group known as Roma.
Sarkozy called a government meeting Wednesday after Gypsies
clashed with police this month following the shooting death of a
youth fleeing officers in the Loire Valley.
Sarkozy said those responsible for the clashes would be
"severely punished" and ordered the government to expel all
illegal Roma immigrants, almost all of whom have come from eastern
He pushed for a change in France's immigration law to make such
expulsion easier "for reasons of public order." He said illegal
Gypsy camps "will be systematically evacuated," calling them
sources of trafficking, exploitation of children and prostitution.
The language has chilling undertones in a country where
authorities rounded up Gypsies and sent them to concentration camps
during the Nazi occupation in World War II. Former President
Jacques Chirac, the first French leader to acknowledge the state's
role in the Holocaust, condemned "the Nazi madness that wanted to
eliminate the Gypsies."
Around Europe, some 250,000 to 1.5 million Roma were killed
during World War II. Accurate figures are difficult to find,
because so many Roma were rounded up away from public view,
executed and dumped into mass graves.
French Roma representatives were not invited to Wednesday's
presidential meeting, and said they are the only ethnic group that
French authorities can openly target.
Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux insisted that Wednesday's
measures "are not meant to stigmatize any community, regardless of
who they are, but at to punish illegal behavior."
Romania and Bulgaria are members of the European Union, and
their citizens can enter France without a visa, but they must get
work permits to work here or residency permits to settle long term.
Community leaders contend the very principle of the meeting -
which singled out an ethnic group in a country that is officially
blind to ethnic origins - is racist and warn of grave consequences
if their side isn't heard. France's government does not count how
many of its citizens are of a certain ethnicity; everyone is simply
"Today ... I am afraid we're preparing to open a blighted page
in the history of France, which could sadly lead to acts of
reprisal in the days ahead," said lawyer Henri Braun said at a
Wednesday news conference by French Roma leaders. "There is a huge
problem of racism in France towards this population, there is
France's relationship with what it calls Gypsies is complex and
complicated by divisions among the disparate populations.
One, formally given the administrative label of "traveling
folk," includes several hundred thousand French citizens who have
lived in France for centuries, and were traditionally nomadic but
have become increasingly sedentary in recent years.
The other main Gypsy population is made up of recent immigrants
who come mostly from Eastern European countries like Romania and
Bulgaria, usually illegally, and are often seen begging on the
streets of French cities.
Those in the more established communities say they are being
unfairly lumped together with illegal new immigrants. Sarkozy's
orders Wednesday targeted Roma, though the violence in Saint-Aignan
earlier this month was in a community of traveling folk established
in the region for years.
Alice Januel, whose organization represents Catholics among
French Gypsies, warned that "If Mr. Sarkozy thinks that by
clamping down he is going to calm the youth, I don't think that he
will succeed. We have a youth that is rebellious."
Sarkozy also proposed that France bring in about 20 Romanian and
Bulgarian police to work in the Paris region and send French police
to Romania and Bulgaria, to help fight trafficking and other crime