France returns scores of Gypsies to Romania under crackdown by conservative President Sarkozy

PARIS (AP) — France expelled nearly 100 Gypsies, or Roma, to their native Romania on Thursday as part of a very public effort by conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy to dismantle Roma camps and sweep them out of the country, the Immigration Ministry said.

France chartered a flight to Bucharest, which left from the southeastern city of Lyon with 79 Roma aboard, Immigration Ministry officials said. However, Romanian border police official Cristian Ene, at Bucharest's Aurel Vlaicu airport, said only 61 people were aboard. The French Immigration Ministry was unable to immediately explain the discrepancy.

Fourteen other people were repatriated to Romania aboard a commercial flight from the Paris region earlier in the day, the French officials said, adding that another Romania-bound repatriation flight was expected Friday. Additional flights were scheduled for later this month and September, Romania's Foreign Ministry said.

Those repatriated Thursday left "on a voluntary basis" and were given small sums of money — €300 ($386) for each adult and €100 for children — to help them get back on their feet in their home country, a standard French practice, officials said.

Roma advocates countered that the repatriations were hardly voluntary, claiming that those who refused the deal would end up in holding centers and eventually be sent home without funds.

Alexandre Le Cleve, a spokesman for Rom Europe, said the expulsions were pointless because nothing prevented those sent back from immediately returning to France, as many have done in the past.

"For those who left this morning, they can certainly take a plane as early as tonight and come back to France. There's nothing to prevent this," Le Cleve told Associated Press Television News in an interview. "Obviously, these people come back, they are brought to the Romanian border, then come back to France, can leave again and so on. There are some Roma people who have been sent back seven or eight times, each time receiving the famous €300."

Adrian Paraipan, a 37-year-old who was aboard the Lyon flight along with his wife and three children, said he planned to return to France.

"In two weeks, I will leave again," he said, adding that his family was unable to make a living in Romania. Another person on the flight, Maria Serban, a 29-year-old mother of four, said her family will also consider going back.

France is allowed to repatriate Gypsies from Romania — who as citizens of an EU member state are allowed to circulate freely within the 27-member bloc — if they are unable to prove they can support themselves while in France, Le Cleve said.

He suggested, as human rights activists have done in the past, that the voluntary departures help inflate the total number of annual expulsions, a figure the government releases to the media with much fanfare.

Foreign-born Gypsies are often seen begging on the streets of France's cities, often with small children or puppies, and many French people consider them a nuisance, or worse.

Sarkozy has linked Roma to crime, calling their camps sources of trafficking, exploitation of children and prostitution. On July 28, he pledged that illegal Gypsy camps would be "systematically evacuated." Some 50 camps have been emptied since then, including at least two on Thursday, local officials said.

In the southeastern town of Saint-Martin d'Heres, near Grenoble, about 150 riot police removed about 100 Roma adults and 45 children Thursday. That evacuation went smoothly, and no incidents were reported, local officials said. Another 25 Roma were taken from their camp near Lille early Thursday, officials said.

Sarkozy's crackdown on Gypsies came on the heels of much-publicized unrest by French Roma, who attacked a police station in the center of the country after the death of Gypsy youth there. The measures are also part of a raft of new hard-line security measures by Sarkozy, who won election in 2007 on a tough-on-crime platform.

The policy is attracting increasing concern, both at home and abroad, from those who fear it discriminates against one of the European Union's most vulnerable and impoverished communities.

Romanian President Traian Basescu said, "We understand the problems created by the Roma camps outside the French cities" but insisted on the "right of every European citizen to move freely in the EU." Romania, one of Europe's poorest countries, joined the EU in 2007.

Basescu, who was speaking Thursday in the eastern city of Iasi, pledged to "cooperate with France to find solutions."

Some critics contend the French crackdown is a cynical ploy to divert attention from France's economic woes and attract far-right voters in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election. Sarkozy's approval ratings have been weak and a financial scandal has embroiled a top government official.

Officials insist they are not stigmatizing Roma — though Sarkozy's stance had chilling undertones in a country where authorities sent French Gypsies to internment camps in France during the occupation. They were kept there until 1946, about two years after France's liberation from the Nazis.

Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux insisted France is being careful "not to stigmatize any community," but said the government can't just let people occupy land illegally.

"Simply, everyone understands we are enforcing simple rules: One cannot just illegally occupy land without authorization," Hortefeux told journalists during a visit Thursday to the town of Crecy-la-Chapelle, east of Paris.

The government is also facing criticism from French-born Gypsies, known here as "traveling folk," who have lived in France for centuries and are loath to be confused with Eastern European Roma.

Hundreds of traveling folk are locked in a stand off with the mayor in Bordeaux, after officials in the Atlantic coastal city forced them to vacate an encampment there. The city offered them two alternative sites to set up camp in, but the families refused, citing inadequate facilities.


Associated Press writers Alina Wolfe Murray in Bucharest, Oleg Cetinic in Crecy-la-Chapelle, France, and Jenny Barchfield in Paris contributed to this report.