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Romanian officials in Paris to discuss deportation of Roma

Romanian officials meet with French ministers in Paris on Wednesday to mend strained diplomatic relations following a drive by France’s government to expel hundreds of Roma and Gypsies to Romania.

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Romanian officials arrive in Paris on Wednesday to address troubled relations with the French government, which began deporting hundreds of Roma and Gypsies to Romania and Bulgaria in July.

French authorities have repatriated more than 600 Roma since announcing plans, in late July, to demolish illegal Roma camps across the country in a highly publicised crackdown on crime.

Valentin Mocanu, Romania's secretary of state for Roma integration, and Romania’s secretary of public security, will hold a meeting with French Immigration Minister Eric Besson, Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux and the secretary of state in charge of European affairs, Pierre Lellouche.

Officially the meeting is intended to strengthen cooperation between the two countries on the issue of Roma immigrants in France. But the two countries have yet to find an agreement on how to address what has been described by the French government as a “problem”.

Since France began the “voluntary” deportation of Roma, offering 300 euros as an incentive to each departing adult, Romanian authorities have denounced the hard-line policy.

According to French plans, foreign-born Roma who refuse to take a flight will be issued orders to leave France within a month, without the handout.

IN PICTURES: ROMA MOVED TO GYM
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France insists it is acting in accordance with EU law by repatriating Roma who have been in France for more than three months without work.

“The authorities in Paris consider the Roma to be Romania’s problem. In Bucharest, it is considered a European problem. It is not easy to reconcile these two visions,” says Mirel Bran, FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Bucharest.


Waving the threat of a Roma invasion

On Tuesday, Lellouche reiterated his defence of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s security clampdown on illegal Roma camps and the ensuing deportations. In a letter to Romanian and Bulgarian officials he wrote, “The freedom of movement is not without limits and is exercised in conjunction with measures to prevent crime. It should never become an excuse for mass immigration.”

Speaking to French radio Europe 1, Lellouche said he hoped talks with Romania's secretaries of state for public security and integration of Roma would herald a change of tack by Bucharest.

Other members of the French government have also argued that the policy is meant to stem the unrestrained flood of Roma across the border. “France is not meant to accommodate all of the Roma,” said Claude Guéant, secretary general of the Elysee, in the French daily Le Monde.

For some French observers, those statements are not backed by fact and amount to little more than scaremongering. According to Alexandre Le Cleve, a member of the RomEurope association, immigration figures for Roma in France are stable at between 15,000 and 20,000. “It’s a drop in the bucket,” insists Le Cleve. “France should not write off its responsibilities. Freedom of movement and settlement within the EU is a founding principle,” he says.

For many critics, the crackdown on Roma immigrants is merely a ploy to boost President Nicolas Sarkozy's flagging popularity before elections in 2012 and divert attention from unpopular plans to raise the French retirement age and cut public spending.

Trouble brewing in Brussels

If Sarkozy’s government stresses the “voluntary” nature of the repatriations, many expelled Roma speak openly about their intention to return to France. “We will go back on foot if we have to, even if it takes us a year,” said a newly deported resident of Barbulesti, a town less than 60 kilometres from Burcharest.

The town’s mayor, Ion Cutitaru, said he regretted that France had “turned its back” on the Roma. But, he added that Romanian officials were ultimately responsible for his people’s plight. “All this is the fault of the Romanian government. It was they who made us out to be thieves and beggars,” he said.

On Tuesday, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) joined the chorus of critics of France’s policies, warning the government against stigmatising Roma immigrants. Back in June, the same EU body had rebuked the French authorities for not doing enough to combat racist attitudes towards minority groups.

In its unusually public reproach the ECRI expressed its disappointment at what it considered to be a “very negative” turn in the situation of Roma in France.

French Prime Minister François Fillon broke his silence on the matter on Wednesday, saying he would meet with Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, to "intensify efforts within the European framework."

The French PM has sent a letter to Barroso asking him to take steps to ensure that part of the 4 billion euros in EU funds given to Romania each year is used to settle the Roma issue.

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