French government faces internal 'malaise' over policy of expelling Gypsies

PARIS (AP) — After sparking criticism from institutions including the Vatican and the United Nations, France's crackdown on Gypsies is now exposing cracks in President Nicolas Sarkozy's government.

Two top Cabinet ministers have voiced concerns about the government's accelerated expulsions of Roma, or Gypsies, to their home countries. And the prime minister on Monday admitted to a "malaise" in Sarkozy's conservative camp over the ensuing debate that has dented France's image as a stalwart defender of human rights.

The firestorm comes amid recent speculation that Sarkozy, whose poll numbers have been persistently low, may be looking to shake up the Cabinet in coming weeks — with an eye to the 2012 presidential election.

One Cabinet member who may be on his way out is Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who said Monday he had considered resigning over the Roma expulsions. Kouchner suggested his frustration was not with the policy, which he says he favors, but with the way the message has been spun, and gotten out of the control of French officials.

The foreign minister, a longtime human rights advocate turned political figure, told RTL radio he "isn't happy about what happened," but that he decided resigning wouldn't fix the problems faced by Roma.

For years, Sarkozy has brandished an image of a tough, law-and-order politician in an effort to win political support. Sarkozy has linked Roma to crime, calling their camps sources of prostitution and child exploitation. On July 28, he pledged that illegal Gypsy camps would be "systematically evacuated."

The government since stepped up a long-standing policy of rounding up Gypsies, dismantling their illegal camps in France, and sending them home to Eastern Europe — mainly Romania, a fellow member of the European Union.

The policy has attracted widespread scorn, and some have called it a form of racism against one of the EU's poorest minorities. Pope Benedict XVI, the U.N.'s human rights panel and the European Union have expressed their concerns.

But in vowing to press on, the French government insists the policy is legal, is not new, and that other EU countries have similar policies. Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux, speaking in southern France on Monday, said "the goal of dismantling half of the illegal camps in the next three months will be maintained."

The government has admittedly bungled the handling of its message.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon acknowledged Monday on France-Inter radio a "malaise" within the governing UMP party and criticized "the way in which this policy has been presented by some."

"We sent home more than 11,000 Roma in 2009, and nearly 8,000 in 2008," Fillon said. "Saying that young Romanians are behind 15 percent of crime by minors today in Paris doesn't stigmatize a community — it's to point out that there's a problem."

Fillon also said he was "surprised" about critical comments about the government's security policies over the weekend by Defense Minister Herve Morin — and said he would have a word with Morin.

Morin hinted that he would leave the government soon to focus on a possible presidential bid for his small center-right party that has been an ally of Sarkozy's party. In a speech Sunday in southeastern France to the Nouveau Centre party faithful, Morin said the party would "soon" recover its "freedom of speech."

He also took a jab at the government's crackdown on Roma.

Quoting from a text message from an unidentified friend of North African descent, he said: "'We, French of North African descent, are very proud to officially hand over to Roma the role of the scapegoat responsible for all of France's ills ... Good luck to them!'"