In scenes reminiscent of the Nazi German occupation, French police rounded up almost 1000 Romani people (sometimes called Gypsies) in August and deported them to Romania and Bulgaria.
The mass deportations were foreshadowed by President Nicolas Sarkozy in July in a series of inflammatory speeches in which he accused Romani people of being in an “unacceptable situation of lawlessness” linked to “illicit trafficking, deeply unworthy living conditions and exploitation of children for begging, prostitution or crime”.
Romani camps across France were bulldozed and Roma with Romanian or Bulgarian citizenship were given a choice of “voluntary repatriation” (with a payment of 300 euros to each adult and 100 euros for each child) or being deported for “threatening public order”.
On August 31, an administrative court in Lille blocked the deportation of seven Roma, casting doubt on the legality of the “threatening public order” pretext. Romania and Bulgaria have been European Union members since 2007, giving their citizens the right of free movement between EU countries.
The legality of the deportations has also been questioned by EU and United Nations human rights agencies, as well as Amnesty International.
The Roma are Europe’s largest minority, estimated at between 5 million and 9 million. They have historically faced appalling treatment — subjected to slavery, mass deportations, exclusion and violent pogroms.
This reached a peak with the Nazi holocaust of the mid-20th century in which 80% of Roma in Nazi-controlled Europe were killed (equivalent to the proportion of Jews killed in Nazi-occupied Europe).
After the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, persecution of Roma decreased. However, in both western and eastern Europe there was forced integration, social prejudice and restrictions on the traditional Romani nomadic lifestyle.
In eastern Europe, the situation for Roma got considerably worse after the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in 1989.
Romani people were the worst affected by the explosion in unemployment in eastern Europe that followed the reintroduction of capitalism. They also became scapegoats for worsening economic conditions across society.
The rise of ethnic nationalist ideologies in post-Stalinist eastern Europe has worsened the situation for Roma.
Unemployment, homelessness, marginalisation, criminalisation, police violence and violence from right-wing extremists are experienced by Roma across the region. This, and the entry of eastern European countries to the EU, with its diminished internal borders, has led to tens of thousands of eastern European Roma moving west.
Sarkozy’s round-up is part of a trend across western Europe. IPS reported on August 7: “Germany is set to deport 12,000 Roma back to Kosovo over the next years. Half of them are children and adolescents who grew up in Germany.
“Sweden has this year deported 50 Roma from Eastern Europe for begging, even though begging is not a crime in this country. Denmark deported 23 Eastern European Roma in July.
“In Belgium, 700 Roma were forced to exit Flanders in July, and given only temporary shelter in Wallonia.”
On September 1, Quartaccio became the first Romani camp in Rome to be bulldozed in an ethnic cleansing program dubbed “Operation Nomad” by right-wing mayor Gianni Alemanno, the September 2 Daily Mail reported.
In 2009, almost 11,000 Romani citizens of Romania and Bulgaria were deported from France. Sarkozy’s round-up has lead to a modest increase in the rate of deportations.
The September 2 Independent reported: “In truth, the anti-Roma campaign has been going on for much, much longer (and not just in France). What is new is that, in the last month, Roma-bashing has been turned into a public spectacle on President Sarkozy's explicit orders.”
In the rhetoric of Sarkozy and his ministers, centuries-old anti-Roma prejudices (the myths that they are “criminal” and “dirty” and prejudice against their nomadic traditions) has fused with the language of the current racism against recent non-Europe immigrants, particularly Muslims.
The anti-Roma rhetoric is full of phrases used in Islamophobic attacks, such as references to “clashing cultures” and condemnation of “refusal to integrate”.
The trigger for the racist “public spectacle” of mass round-ups and deportations of Roma was rioting involving Romani youth in the rural community of Saint Aignan. The riots followed the July 17 killing by police at a checkpoint of 22-year-old Luigi Duquenet.
However, the youth involved in the riot were French citizens — members of the 350,000-strong French Romani community that has existed since the Middle Ages. By comparison, there are about 15,000 Roma citizens of Romania and Bulgaria in France.
There were also riots in the provincial city of Grenoble on July 17, in this case involving youth of North African descent, following the police killing of 27-year-old Karim Boudouda.
On July 30, Sarkozy visited the city and, in a speech full of anti-immigrant racism, he foreshadowed stripping the French citizenship of lawbreakers of immigrant descent, the August 8 New York Times said.
It remains to be seen whether those Roma whose ancestors arrived in France five centuries ago will lose their citizenship.
Sarkozy’s attacks on the Roma are an electorally-motivated appeal to racism, similar to his 2005 statements (while interior minister) denouncing urban immigrant-descended youth as “scum”.
As in other Western countries, there is a racist vein in French society for politicians to tap into.
However, there has also been opposition. Several left-wing local councils, including Montreuil and St Denis in suburban Paris, have provided shelter to Roma whose camps have been demolished.
Opposition politicians and some government backbenchers have condemned the racism.
Foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, who as founder of the medical NGO Doctors Without Borders has a reputation as a human rights supporter, has expressed unease at the round-up. The August 31 Australian reported that he considered resigning.
There has also been criticism from the Catholic Church. The Vatican and senior clergy have been restrained in their criticism, but some priests have been more outspoken.
Archbishop of Toulouse, Monsignor Robert Le Gall, compared the deportations to the deportation of Jews in World War II, the August 31 Australian said.
Father Arthur Hervet, parish priest of St. Martin Esquermes of Lille, called on God to punish Sarkozy with a heart attack, France 24 reported on August 23.
The New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA) made opposition to the anti-Roma campaign an issue at demonstrations against pension cuts on September 4 and 7.
An August 17 NPA statement said: “The NPA strongly condemns this policy of hatred and persecution against Travellers, almost all French citizens, and against Roma, who have the right to travel within the EU.
“With this policy, the Sarkozy-Fillon government is adopting the demands of the [far-right] National Front. We must build a wide network of solidarity to oppose the evictions of Roma and Travellers, to enforce their right to stay on serviced sites.”