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Police evict Gypsies as part of Sarkozy crackdown

French police evicted residents of an illegal Gypsy camp in Saint-Etienne on Friday as part of President Nicolas Sarkozy's crackdown on "travelling" peoples. Police sealed off the area to prevent access by journalists and rights groups.


AFP - French police moved in Friday to clear an illegal Gypsy encampment for the first time since President Nicolas Sarkozy announced a crackdown on the minority group.

Officers sealed off the area around a camp in the central city of Saint-Etienne, preventing journalists and rights groups from seeing the evictions, which began before dawn and continued for several hours.

Only around half of the 135 people who regularly lived in the make-shift squatter camp where the local authorities had installed water standpipes and chemical toilets were there when police arrived, having anticipated the raid.

But police said 44 of the camp's residents were ordered to leave France, with 10 adults and eight minors voluntarily agreeing to leave.

Last month, following a clash between Gypsies and police in another region, Sarkozy announced a raft of new draconian security measures, including plans to dismantle 300 unauthorised campsites within three months.

Critics accused the French leader of stigmatising Roma, Gypsy and Traveller minorities in a bid to recover votes lost to the anti-immigration far right in time for his re-election battle in 2012.

“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.

But an opinion poll published Thursday showed that 79 percent of voters approved of measures to dismantle the camps, and similar majorities backing other aspects of his law and order policy.

The government has said that Roma and Gypsies from outside France -- many, including those kicked out of the Saint Etienne camp Friday, are from Romania -- that commit crimes will be expelled back to their countries of origin.

However the top French official for the region said that all Roma without proper papers were being ordered to leave France.

"It is clear what I did this morning was in line with presidential instructions," Loire region prefect Pierre Soubelet told journalists.

"There have been recent instructions to ask Roma to return home. There is no future here for Roma whose papers are not in order."

By the afternoon many of the Roma who normally live at the camp could be seen loitering on the streets of Saint-Etienne, including in front of government buildings.

"They don't know where they will be sleeping tonight," said Georges Gunther, a member of the Solidarite Rom association.

He said French authorities had refused to talk to them Friday about the dismantlement.

There are estimated to be 15,000 Gypsies and Roma of Eastern European origin in France. Some live in authorised encampments, but many have moved into squatter camps or abandoned buildings.

Last month, a group of French Gypsies rioted after one of their number was shot dead by police during a car chase in Saint-Aignan, central France.

Struggling in the opinion polls, and with his government and ruling party dogged by financial scandal, Sarkozy took the opportunity to launch a series of new measures to control the travelling minorities.

In addition to expulsions and the destruction of camps, a squad of tax inspectors has been set up to target what Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said were the owners of "caravans pulled by certain powerful cars".

Shortly after launching his measures aimed at Gypsies, Sarkozy announced plans to target members of other minority groups, promising to strip French nationality from certain categories of foreign-born criminals.

Some on the opposition left have spoken out against what they see as unconstitutional populism, but the main Socialist opposition party has been caught off-guard and has been cautious about opposing measures that many voters approve.

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