Protesters deride French president's crackdown on Gypsies and new security tack

PARIS (AP) — Thousands of people marched in Paris and around France on Saturday to protest expulsions of Gypsies and other new security measures adopted by President Nicolas Sarkozy's government.

Protesters blew whistles and beat drums in the capital, the largest demonstration among those in at least 135 cities and towns across France and elsewhere in Europe. Human rights and anti-racism groups, labor unions and leftist political parties were taking part in the protests.

They accuse Sarkozy of stigmatizing minority groups like Gypsies and seeking political gain with a security crackdown. They also say he is violating French traditions of welcoming the oppressed, in a country that is one of the world's leading providers of political asylum.

The protests mark the first show of public discontent since the conservative Sarkozy, a former hardline interior minister, announced new measures to fight crime in late July.

Sarkozy said Gypsy camps would be "systematically evacuated." His interior minister and other officials said last week that about 1,000 Roma have been given small stipends and flown home since then.

For years, Sarkozy has used his image as a tough, law-and-order politician to win political support. Sarkozy has linked Roma to crime, saying their camps are sources of prostitution and child exploitation. The latest moves by Sarkozy came after violence between police and youth in a suburban Grenoble housing project and other clashes in a traveling community in the Loire Valley.

Sarkozy also said naturalized citizens who threaten the lives of police officers should lose their citizenship — and his leftist critics slammed that proposal as anti-constitutional and evocative of nationalist measures during France's collaborationist past in the Vichy regime during World War II.

"Mr. Sarkozy is there to stand for the Constitution, not to trample it," said Jean-Pierre Dubois, president of France's Human Rights League. "So we consider this situation extremely dangerous, that's why we are here."

Paris police said some 12,000 people took part in the protest in the capital and that no violence took place. Organizers estimated that 50,000 people took part in the capital — half of the total nationwide.

Small groups of Gypsies took part, including women in flowered skirts, sandals or wearing looping earrings, and men in jeans and gold caps on teeth in the corners of their smiles. But they were far outnumbered by left-leaning political parties, labor unions, and dozens of activist groups like those supporting illegal immigrants or gays.

"It warms the heart to see so many people out here. Fortunately, there are nice people in the world," said Delia Romanes, walking behind a banner of a 17-year-old Gypsy circus that she heads in northeastern Paris. She said the government has recently sought to strip its performers of their work papers.

Other Roma without proper residency rights were more fearful.

"We are afraid. We aren't prepared for this," said David Anghel, a 24-year-old mason from Romania, who has lived in France for eight years. Holding the banner of a Gypsy-support association, he said his wife had been served with an order to leave their camp in Fleury-Merogis, south of Paris, about 10 days ago. They fear police will come to expel them in the next few days.

Similar peaceful protests took place outside French embassies elsewhere in Europe. In Belgrade, Serbia, dozens of Gypsies chanted anti-racist slogans and held banners calling for an end to the expulsions from France.

In Rome, Marcello Zuinisi, a Tuscany-based Gypsy leader, sought to remind the French about their "liberte, egalite, fraternite" motto: "We want those values to be respected today."

In an open letter to Sarkozy published Saturday in Le Monde daily, celebrated French-Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun — whom Sarkozy inducted into France's Legion d'Honneur in 2007 — said he felt the proposal about stripping citizenship had "threatened a little bit — or at least weakened — my French nationality."

Polls have shown the French are split about the policy of sending home the Gypsies to eastern Europe — mainly Romania — though slightly more favor it than oppose it.

France's recent and highly publicized crackdown has drawn criticism from the United Nations and the Vatican, among other institutions, and has exposed dissent within Sarkozy's own government. Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said he briefly considered resigning in the uproar over the policy.


Associated Press writers Daniele De Bernardin in Rome and Jovana Gec in Belgrade contributed to this report.