French crackdown on Gypsies raises concerns about discrimination

CHOISY-LE-ROI, France (AP) — Since French police moved in on a Gypsy squatters' camp a week ago, confiscating trailers and turning everyone out, the group has taken refuge in a gymnasium outside Paris. At night, wailing babies keep many awake — to ponder their uncertain future.

President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative government is cracking down on Gypsies, or Roma, linking them to crime, dismantling their illegal camps and sending some home to Eastern Europe. But the policy is attracting increasing concern, at home and abroad, from those who fear it discriminates against one of the European Union's most vulnerable and impoverished communities.

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

A spokesman for the EU justice commissioner said the commission was following the developments in France. Romania's foreign minister said Wednesday that he hoped expulsions of Roma to his country had been carried out legally.

"I also express my concern about the risk of a populist backlash and generating xenophobic reactions against the backdrop of the economic crisis," Teodor Baconschi told RFI radio.

The French Foreign Ministry, in response, said that France and Romania are cooperating closely on the issue. Many of the Roma in France are from Romania, as are the 70 people staying temporarily in a gymnasium in the Paris suburb of Choisy-le-Roi. About 30 of them are children, and the youngest is only 15 days old.

Last week, a United Nations anti-racism body expressed concerns about France's policies toward the Roma and about another of Sarkozy's recent security proposals: revoking the French citizenship of people of foreign origins who endanger the life of police officers.

On July 28, Sarkozy pledged that illegal Gypsy camps would be "systematically evacuated," calling them sources of trafficking, exploitation of children and prostitution. Several dozen camps have been evacuated since then.

Jean-Pierre Grand, a center-right politician, has spoken of "rafles" — a French term that means police roundups but which strongly evokes the memory of massive arrests of French Jews and Gypsies during the Nazi occupation.

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.

Immigration Minister Eric Besson criticized allusions to World War II and said France couldn't just let people occupy land illegally.

Despite the new media attention that Sarkozy's comments about the Roma have brought, France has for years closed down illegal camps and sent their inhabitants home. Last year, 10,000 Roma were sent back to Romania and Bulgaria, about 30 percent of those against their will and 70 percent going voluntarily and opting for French aid of €300 per adult and €100 per child to help resettle, the Immigration Ministry said.

Figures for this year were not yet available. A charter flight of 79 people recently evacuated from their camps was scheduled for Thursday — the first of 700 people the government hopes to send home before the month's end.

Human rights groups say the policy is absurd because many Roma simply return to France. Romania and Bulgaria are members of the European Union, and their citizens can enter France without a visa, but they must get work permits to work in France or residency permits to settle long-term.

Cristian Boti, a 24-year-old father of two from Romania who is staying in the gym, says: "If they send me home, I'll come back."

He has lived in France since 2003, moving from camp to camp, and has lived through about a dozen police evictions. There is much less discrimination against Roma in France than in Romania, he says, and he can make a living here collecting scrap metal.

Police moved in last week on his most recent camp, enforcing a court order. The Communist-run mayor's office in Choisy-le-Roi offered to let his community stay in the gymnasium temporarily, but it says another solution must be found before the month's end.

For now, the group is sleeping on mattresses lined up under the gym's basketball nets.

On Wednesday morning, children played with dogs and kicked around balls as a few of their parents buried themselves under comforters, napping — several said they spend sleepless nights because of the noise, and because of their worries.

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Associated Press writer Alina Wolfe Murray in Bucharest contributed to this report.