Who are the Roma?
The Roma are a nomadic people thought to have originated from the Indian subcontinent and to have emigrated towards Europe from around the 11th century. There are an estimated 15,000 Roma migrants currently living in France, most of them having moved from Romania or Bulgaria. Many of them live in illegal camps and make money from odd jobs and begging.
What is the difference between “travelling people” and Roma?
Unlike the term “Roma”, “travelling people” does not designate a specific ethnicity or place of origin. “Travelling people" is the broad legal term established in 1969 to refer collectively to nomadic communities on French territory that live in mobile homes or trailers. This category of the population includes people of various origins – including some who identify themselves as being of Roma descent - but “travelling people” have both French nationality and a permit allowing them to move freely around the country. The estimate of 15,000 Roma in France therefore does not include “travelling people” who may have Roma ancestors but also have French nationality.
Why are Roma, as European citizens, being deported from France?
Because they come from EU countries (Romania and Bulgaria), most Roma can enter France without a visa. But restrictions require that they work or have residency permits if they wish to stay longer than three months.
Why do Roma come to France in the first place?
Roma face discrimination in Bulgaria and Romania, where there have been forced evictions. Poverty, unemployment, and low literacy levels are common in Roma communities. Many Roma say that they are able to make more money in France, and that if they are deported they will return as soon as possible.
What incited the recent crackdown?
In July, a gendarme shot and killed a French Roma, 22-year-old Luigi Duquenet, in the Loir-et-Cher region in north-central France. The next day, dozens of French Roma attacked a police station and burned cars in the Loire Valley town of Saint Aignan. In response to the events, French President Nicolas Sarkozy called an impromptu ministerial meeting at which it was decided that 300 illegal camps would be dismantled within the following few months. Sarkozy released a statement citing the “illegal trafficking”, “shocking living standards”, and “exploitation of children” in the camps.
Critics of the administration say that the move was an attempt by Sarkozy to boost low approval numbers by appealing to the conservative voters that helped sweep him to victory in 2007.
Has this kind of crackdown on Roma camps been done before in France?
France has been dismantling illegal Roma camps and deporting their inhabitants for years. The French government says that around 10,000 Roma were sent back to Romania and Bulgaria last year. The recent crackdown, however, has been the most highly publicised of such initiatives; the government has talked about its efforts, and the press, opposition politicians and rights groups have responded.
What has been the reaction at home?
Opinion polls suggest the French public is broadly supportive of the crackdown on illegal camps, but criticism from rights groups and politicians on both the right and the left has been scathing. One member of Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party likened the Roma expulsions to the round-ups of French Jews during World War Two, while Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said he had considered resigning over the deportations of Roma.
On September 4, tens of thousands rallied in cities across France in protest at the government’s crackdown on Roma migrants.
What has been the international reaction?
The new measure has drawn a fair amount of negative attention abroad. Romanian President Traian Basescu said that he was aware that Roma camps in France were an issue that needed to be dealt with, but he also reminded France of the "right of every European citizen to move freely in the EU". In a stinging rebuke of France’s policy towards Roma, European Parliament members backed a non-binding resolution calling for an immediate suspension of the deportations. Meanwhile, the UN's Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination warned of a “resurgence” of racism and xenophobia in France, while a statement released by the Vatican said: "One cannot generalise and take an entire group of people and kick them out".
The foreign press also took sceptical note of the new measures, with an editorial in The New York Times accusing Sarkozy of drumming up anti-immigrant sentiment for political gain.