PARIS – The French government is making it easier for Roma from Eastern Europe to gain employment and stay in France, amid criticism of police raids that have dismantled ramshackle camps and left hundreds of people without shelter.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault's office announced Wednesday that it will expand the number of sectors where residents of Romania and Bulgaria — where most of the thousands of Roma in France originate from — can seek work. The decision was made after it held a meeting to rethink France's policy towards the ethnic group, following consultations with Roma representatives.
The government also abolished a tax that employers must pay to employ people from the two countries instead of hiring French workers.
The decision comes in the wake of raids this month in Paris and other French cities that echoed a crackdown on Roma two years ago under conservative former President Nicolas Sarkozy that drew Europe-wide ire.
While no official figures are available, activists say at least a dozen camps were dismantled, displacing hundreds of Roma. Some fled into nearby woods when they heard the police were coming, or went out looking for a new abandoned area to set up camp. Others took the government's offer of €300 ($373) to go home to Romania in a "voluntary return."
The government said Wednesday that it would continue dismantling camps, however, if they are deemed unsanitary or dangerous.
Roma are Europe's most marginalized minority. In France, they live on the edges of cities, in cars or in makeshift structures in abandoned industrial zones without running water. They are cut off from mainstream society, speak little French, and some beg at tourist sites such as the Eiffel Tower.
Ionut Tranca, a 22-year-old from the Craiova region of Romania who now lives in a camp in the shadow of Paris' Orly Airport, expressed frustration Wednesday at limitations on Romanians and Bulgarians in France. "We are Europeans," he said.
"If we find work, we can find an apartment and pay rent. If we don't, how can we pay rent?" he asked. "The police come here often, they don't like us."
Easier access to France's job market might not make a huge dent, as the country faces 10 percent unemployment and a stagnant economy. But Ayrault called the new measures a "question of humanity and respect."
He said the government would continue to fight exploitation of children by Roma populations, and said any court orders to clear out camps would be honored. A new system will be put in place to offer other housing options to families.
In Romania, Andrei Zaharescu, spokesman for Prime Minister Victor Ponta, told the AP that the government would be "delighted to hear about a relaxing of labor laws." He said there would be an official statement once the government sees the official statement from the French government.
The French government stopped short of lifting all residency and labor restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians that France and some other European Union countries imposed when the two countries joined the EU. Many have called the restrictions discriminatory, and they are slated to expire Dec. 31, 2013, making Romania and Bulgaria EU members like any other. Ayrault said the French government would consider lifting them ahead of the deadline.
The Council of Europe, the continent's main human rights body, called Wednesday's meeting "a welcome step towards finding long-lasting solutions."
"Simply moving Roma families around within or between states merely worsens their conditions," it said.
Alison Mutler in Bucharest, Romania, contributed to this report.