Sarkozy to address cabinet on 'Roma problem' amid criticism

Text by: Perrine MOUTERDE
5 min

French President Nicolas Sarkozy convenes his cabinet on Wednesday and is expected to announce a new plan to fight against “delinquency” among travelling people such as Roma. Human rights groups fear a crackdown.


French President Nicolas Sarkozy is embarking on a controversial new anti-crime initiative targeting itinerant populations with a particular emphasis on the Roma community. The president will raise the issue on Wednesday afternoon during a special meeting that has prompted a sharp rebuke from human rights groups and other non-governmental organizations.

Sarkozy wants to address what he refers to as “delinquency” and the “problem” of crime-related issues associated with Roma and other travelling peoples. Prime Minister François Fillon, Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, Immigration Minister Eric Besson, Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux and Paris police chief Michel Gaudin are among those expected to attend the cabinet meeting.  
The president announced the meeting last week after some people known commonly in French as “gens du voyage,” or travelling people, went on a rampage in protest at the death of one of their comrades shot by the police. Rioters armed with axes and other weapons ransacked a local police station before the situation was brought under control. In response, the president moved quickly to announce that he would convene his cabinet to address the issue. “This meeting will take stock of the situation and decide how to evict all illegal settlements,” the president said.
A new plan
The French president’s decision to focus on the Roma population has

“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.

provoked swift condemnation by human 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”.

"The only thing we can expect from this meeting is a message of reassurance," says Stéphane Lévèque, director of FNASAT, the Fédération nationale des associations solidaires d'action avec les Tsiganes et les Gens du voyage ("National Federation of Associations for Solidarity Action with Roma and Travelling People"). Like many others, he denounces the stigmatization of Roma and other travelling people.
Treating them as a single entity, though, is not the objective according to a senator from Sarkozy’s UMP party. “The president’s intention is not to amalgamate” travelling people into a single group, asserted Pierre Hérisson, the chairman of the National Consultative Commission on Travelling People, in an interview with FRANCE24.
There is widespread speculation, according to the daily newspaper, “La Croix”, that Wednesday’s cabinet meeting will pave the way for a new anti-crime agenda targeting itinerant populations, specifically the Roma. According to an outline of the plan recently published by the newspaper, the justice and immigration ministries would expand the definition of “public order” to make it easier to expel Roma migrants. Additionally, the plan would simplify the eviction process of illegal settlements and strengthen police cooperation with Romania, the country of origin of some Roma in France.
Extreme hardship

There are an estimated 15,000-20,000 Roma currently living in France, and many have European passports, often Bulgarian or Romanian. They can be legally deported if they create a serious disturbance to public order or cannot prove they have resources to live more than three months in the country. Even repatriation, though, often does little to resolve the issue because Roma who indeed are European citizens can travel back to France immediately after reaching the border of their country of citizenship.

The status of Roma in France is often not much better than it is in their countries of citizenship. "The central issue related to the presence of Romanians and Bulgarians is that they live in an extremely precarious situation, confronted by a housing crisis,” says FNASAT’s Stéphane J. Lévèque. “In their country, the Roma are largely sedentary; in France, they are looking to integrate and find accomodation. But this is difficult, particularly since they have no real access to the job market," he adds.
The apparent lack of access to both housing and jobs creates a situation where the Roma and other travelling communities live along society’s periphery.  French Secretary of State for European Affairs Pierre Lelouche said that "very few" of the Roma people "are trying to integrate into society," and that "a lot of young people are involved in drug trafficking networks. " Lelouche said this explained why Roma-related crime had increased "by 140% each year in Paris since 2007.”
A complex problem
Roma advocates claim that part of the problem lies with the government’s failure to enforce a ten-year-old law that requires towns with more than 5,000 inhabitants to create appropriate camping areas for travelling people. According to the latest data from 2008, only 42 percent of qualified municipalities have complied with the law.
"The law is rarely implemented and when it is, these people are pushed out of sight,” says Lévèque. “The camping areas are remote and often are not integrated into the rest of the local community. Additionally, these areas pose other problems as travellers are individuals who have multiple needs."
"It is important that the government sends a strong signal to demonstrate that travelling people are citizens just like everyone else,” the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, Thomas Hammarberg, has said. On Tuesday, he called for "urgent measures to treat itinerants and the rest of the French population equally."

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