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Roma deportations split French government

© Photo: AFP

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2013-09-27

Several French ministers have rejected statements by Interior Minister Manuel Valls that Roma immigrants are inherently different and should be thrown out of the country, casting a shadow on the Socialist-led government ahead of local elections.

Contentious statements by Interior Minister Manuel Valls about Roma immigrants in France have sparked a feud within the Socialists-led government, threatening to destabilise President François Hollande’s party less than six months ahead of municipal elections.

Housing Minister Cécile Duflot, a member of the Green Party, is leading the charge against Valls, after he said this week that most Roma, also known as gypsies, were incapable of assimilating into French society and should be sent back to their home countries.

Duflot, speaking to fellow party members at a conference in the Western city of Angers on Thursday, accused Valls, a Socialist, of dangerously toying with France’s "Republican principles".

“It’s not acceptable to say that there are categories within society whose background makes it impossible for them to assimilate. And secondly, that their habits and ways of living are a nuisance to their neighbours,” she reprimanded.

Valls' comments were also rejected by Social Affairs Minister Marisol Touraine, and François Lamy, a junior minister in charge of urban centres, both of whom met with Hollande to express their opposition, according to Le Monde daily.

Other left-leaning leaders have said that it was unacceptable for Valls to extend, and even ramp up, programmes to dismantle Roma camps and force individuals to go back to Romania and Bulgaria –a practice that was loudly condemned by Socialists during former conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy’s tenure.

Forced evictions of Roma reached a record 10,000 people in 2013, Amnesty International said in report published this week.

Putting Hollande on the spot

Duflot has added fuel to the divisive and potentially-damaging debate by calling on Hollande to weigh in on the issue.

The president avoided commenting on the subject during a visit to a steel-plant in France’s north-east town of Florange on Thursday, despite being prodded repeatedly by reporters.

But he appeared to give tacit support to Valls. Government spokesman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem told reporters on Thursday that the interior minister was carrying out the responsibilities entrusted to him by the Hollande administration “firmly and humanely.”

Far from recoiling, Valls has reaffirmed his position since the criticism began piling up. His statements were also defended by some members of his party.

While first condemning Valls earlier this week for his “excessive” statements, Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg came to his defence on Friday, telling French RTL radio the interior minister “had a difficult job” and that in the end he “stood by him”.

Elections, but which?

The French press has rushed to make speculations about how the divisions within Hollande’s government could hurt the Socialist Party in municipal elections early next year.

The right-wing opposition UMP party and the far-right National Front hope to make security and immigration key campaign issues, and many within the Socialist Party think Valls is dangerously playing into their hands.

“The Roma debate is turning our attention away from the real problems, which are unemployment and education. We need to stop making this a subject of public debate,” Socialist Senator David Assouline told the politics news site Public Sénat earlier this week.

However, far from hurting Valls’ public image, his tough-talking approach has helped him claim the highest approval rating among government ministers.

The fate of impoverished Roma communities in France could yet prove to hold little sway during local ballots next March. Valls may in fact be playing a long-term game. Indeed, he has made no secret of his desire to one day run for the French presidency.

Date created : 2013-09-27

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