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Outrage as Sarkozy says nomadic groups pose 'problems'

French rights groups have accused President Nicolas Sarkozy of stigmatising "travelling people" and Roma, following his comments about "problems" posed by these communities. Sarkozy’s tough talk comes amid a renewed focus on security issues.


Human rights groups have accused French President Nicolas Sarkozy of stigmatising “travelling people” and Roma, following his comments that recent violence “highlights a certain kind of behaviour” in these communities.

Sarkozy made his remarks while condemning the destruction of a police station and government property by approximately 50 “travelling-people” rioters, who took to the streets with axes in the Cher region, in central France. The rioters were protesting against the death of a 22-year-old shot by police.

“Travelling people” (“gens du voyage”) is the legal term established in 1969 to refer collectively to nomadic communities on French territory that live in mobile homes or trailers and have both French nationality and a permit allowing them to move freely around the country.

The Roma, who come mainly from Romania and Bulgaria, are not included in this category under French law.

The rioters were part of a nomadic community the French call “gens du voyage” or “travelling people”. The community is made up of French nationals, who, like Roma or Irish travellers, choose to live a nomadic lifestyle.

To address what Sarkozy termed “the problems posed by the behaviour of some of the travelling people and Roma", the French president called a meeting on July 28 at the Elysée Palace. He specified that one of the goals of the meeting would be the eviction of illegal settlements.

"Easy targets"

Sarkozy’s tough talk comes amid his administration’s renewed focus on security issues, a major theme of his presidential campaign three years ago. The new “war” on urban violence, as Sarkozy has termed it, is a response not only to the travellers’ riots, but also to violence that occurred in Grenoble after police there killed a man on the run after allegedly holding up a casino.

The French president’s latest statement has provoked swift condemnations by rights groups. The French Human Rights League released a statement saying: “The President of the Republic has stigmatised Roma and ‘travelling people’ in a racist way, by creating an unacceptable amalgamation of a few individuals with entire communities, and announcing plans for ethnically targeted evictions of illegal settlements”. The group added that these communities were “scapegoats for deficiencies of the state”.

According to the Human Rights League, those deficiencies include the failure to allocate sufficient numbers of living areas designated specifically for “travelling people” in France, in accordance with a law adopted more than ten years ago.

400,000 to half a million travelling people in France

A group of associations for the protection of the rights of Roma and of "travelling people" published a statement accusing the government of using the recent riots as a “pretext” to impose tightened “policies of repression to demonise the primary victims of racism in France," namely the people who choose a nomadic lifestyle.

One association, La Voix des Roms (“The Voice of the Roma”), accused Sarkozy -- who has recently seen already low poll numbers tumble further -- of “trying to rally public opinion with easy targets”.

The charge has been rejected by Sarkozy’s cabinet. Luc Chatel, the education minister and government spokesperson, said that Sarkozy was not “trying to stigmatise a community, but to respond to a problematic situation”.

The National Federation of Associations In Support of Travelling People estimates that there are approximately 400,000 to 500,000 “travelling people” and 15,000 to 20,000 Roma in France today.

It is not the first time that Sarkozy faces criticism for using language deemed insensitive when referring to populations in France that are comprised in part by ethnic minorities. The most famous instance of this was in 2005, when Sarkozy, then interior minister, vowed to clean up an immigrant-heavy Parisian suburb with a “Kärcher", citing a brand of high-pressure hoses. The French president has also on several occasions used the slang word “racaille”, which translates roughly into “scum” or “thug”, to describe French youths, often of immigrant backgrounds, who are frequently involved in the unrest in French suburbs.

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