Slammed For Its Roma Expulsions, France Shifts Rhetoric

Faced with mounting criticism because of its expulsions of Roma, or Gypsies, the French government is trying to gain allies in what it calls the "battle" against undocumented immigration and people-trafficking networks.

Immigration minister Eric Besson gathered officials from several countries, including Canada, Italy, Greece, Britain and Belgium, on Sep. 6 for a seminar to discuss asylum policy, but he also had to field questions from the international media about France's Roma policy.

"We respect our republican values," Besson told journalists. "What we've done is in accordance with European Union law."

In the past weeks, French police have pulled down Roma camps and sent back hundreds of people to the countries of their origin, primarily Romania and Bulgaria. Last year some 11,000 Roma were expelled.

Besson said that most of those expelled had "voluntarily chosen to be repatriated." He said that many of the Roma were without documentation, and that France was not targeting any particular group but fighting against illegal immigration.

Asked about European hypocrisy with regard to migration, Besson said, "Can you tell me a country in the Middle East or Africa where one can settle without a permit? We want to promote legal immigration."

He said the meeting with his counterparts was aimed at forging a common EU policy on undocumented migration - a policy that would improve integration.

But the seminar was overshadowed by growing local and international condemnation of France for its hard-line stance, which also includes President Nicolas Sarkozy's decision to strip naturalised citizens of their French nationality if they kill or attempt to kill police officers or public servants.

In protests against the Roma deportations, thousands of demonstrators held rallies in Paris and other cities on Saturday, and political groups within the European Parliament are expected to recommend a formal condemnation of the French government this week.

The United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) last month expressed concern about the "increase in incidents and violence of a racist nature against Roma" in France.

Human Rights organisations say that in a bid to restore its tarnished image, France is now attempting to change its rhetoric and turn the spotlight on what it calls "l'immigration irrégulière". The groups say the government's actions have already sparked increased discrimination against Roma and other migrants.

"What is extremely worrying is this policy of stigmatising a community," Patrick Delouvin, a spokesman for Amnesty International France told IPS.

"The head of state has now participated in this stigmatisation and so people get the message... that they can discriminate against an (ethnic) group," he said. "There is a disturbing climate in France now regarding human rights."

At Monday's seminar, Besson's allies avoided the subject of the Roma expulsions. James Brokenshire, junior minister in the British interior ministry, told journalists that the expulsions were a "French issue".

But he added that Britain "very much believes in the free movement of people across the EU."

Melchior Wathelet, the junior minister for migration and asylum in Belgium (which currently holds the rotating EU presidency), said that the 27-member bloc needed to harmonise its regulations and apply its laws evenly.

"These exchanges help us to have more solidarity so we can move towards a responsible asylum policy," he said.

EU member states will meet in Brussels on Sep. 13 and 14 to discuss these issues. Proposals will include setting up a European office for asylum, which Italian interior minister Roberto Maroni said would work to "make the EU a place of reception and welcome for people escaping war," for instance.

For several months, Besson has been holding meetings with both Italian and Greek officials in a bid to "strengthen" the EU's Mediterranean borders. About 82 percent of people entering the EU "illegally" do so via Greece, according to Greek junior minister Spiros Vougias, a participant at Monday's seminar.

He said Greece wanted to "welcome those people who are legitimate asylum seekers," but it did not have the resources to fight undocumented migration.

"We hope there will be more European cooperation," he said.

It remains to be seen, however, whether such cooperation would also apply to Europe's 10 million Roma who are discriminated against and face persecution in many European countries.

[Source: By A. D. McKenzie, IPS, Paris, 08Sep10]

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