AFP - France expelled scores of Roma, packing them on planes and flying them back to Romania Thursday at the start of a crackdown ordered by President Nicolas Sarkozy which has drawn strong criticism.
A planeload of around 60 Roma landed at Bucharest's Aurel Vlaicu airport in the early afternoon, the first expulsion since Sarkozy last month vowed action against Roma, Gypsy and traveller communities.
The group flew from the French city of Lyon, where they were bussed to the airport under police escort and boarded without incident.
One of those on the plane, who gave his name as Gabriel, said he had lived in the southeastern city of Grenoble with his wife and two children.
"It was very tough, we were under pressure all the time" from the authorities, he said. But he did not rule out returning to France as there was no work in Romania.
A total 93 Roma were to be flown out Thursday, with flights to Bucharest and the western city of Timisoara due to take hundreds more on Friday and August 26, with each adult granted 300 euros (385 dollars) and each minor 100 euros.
Those who do not wish to return voluntarily receive an order to leave France with which they must comply within a month or face forced repatriation -- without the cash handout.
With unease growing over the roundups using tactics that one member of Sarkozy's ruling party compared to those of Nazi-era France, the interior ministry insisted that each case had been looked at individually.
"Each of the people taken away has been the object of an individual examination as to the conditions of their stay in France," the ministry said, following a warning from the European Commission to France to obey freedom of movement rules.
Romania's President Traian Basescu said the expulsions showed the need for a Europe-wide plan on integrating Roma communities while Foreign Minister Teodor Baconschi warned against "xenophobic reactions" in the wake of the economic downturn.
"What has happened in Paris shows that we must have an integration plan across Europe for Roma citizens," Basescu told reporters, saying a previous call along similar lines had failed to result in action.
French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux, who will next week receive senior Romanian officials including Secretary of State for Roma Integration Valentin Mocanu to discuss the Roma's predicament, called for Europe-wide action.
"I invite the European Commission to invest its energy, efforts and funds in programmes for lasting rehabilitation and effective integration of the Roma community," Hortefeux said.
About 10,000 Roma from Romania and Bulgaria were returned to their countries last year, but these are the first expulsions since Sarkozy in July announced a clampdown on foreigners.
Baconschi said he "hopes" that all legal procedures have been duly applied for these "expulsions".
There are about 15,000 Roma of Eastern European origin in France.
The Roma community in Romania numbers 530,000 according to the national census or 2.5 million according to non-governmental organisations, who say that some do not declare themselves as Roma fearing discrimination.
Writing in French newspaper Liberation, Robert Kushen, director of the European Roma Rights Centre, criticised the French government for using the Roma "to show it is being tough when it comes to law and order".