SAINT OUEN, France -- French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday ordered authorities to expel gypsy illegal immigrants and dismantle their camps, amid accusations that his government is acting racist in its treatment of the group known as Roma.
Sarkozy called a government meeting Wednesday after Roma clashed with police this month after the shooting death of a gypsy youth fleeing officers in the Loire Valley.
Sarkozy said those responsible for the clashes would be "severely punished" and ordered the government to expel all illegal Roma immigrants, almost all of whom have come from eastern Europe.
He pushed for a change in France's immigration law to make such expulsion easier "for reasons of public order." He said illegal gypsy camps "will be systematically evacuated," calling them sources of trafficking, exploitation of children and prostitution.
French Roma representatives were not invited to Wednesday's presidential meeting, which included the interior, justice and immigration ministers and top police officials.
Community leaders contend the very principle of the meeting -- which singled out an ethnic group in a country that is officially blind to ethnic origins -- is racist and warn of grave consequences if their side isn't heard. France's government does not count how many of its citizens are of a certain ethnicity; everyone is simply considered French.
"Today ... I am afraid we're preparing to open a blighted page in the history of France, which could sadly lead to acts of reprisal in the days ahead," said lawyer Henri Braun said at a Wednesday news conference by French Roma leaders. "There is a huge problem of racism in France towards this population, there is enormous discrimination."
France has two main populations often termed gypsies. One, known as "traveling folk," includes several hundred thousand French citizens who have lived in France for centuries, and were traditionally nomadic but have become increasingly sedentary in recent years. The others are recent immigrants who come mostly from Eastern European countries like Romania and Bulgaria, usually illegally, and are often seen begging on the streets of French cities.
Those in the more established communities say they are being unfairly lumped together with illegal new immigrants.
Alice Januel, whose organization represents Catholics among the French Roma, warned that "If Mr. Sarkozy thinks that by clamping down he is going to calm the youth, I don't think that he will succeed. We have a youth that is rebellious."
Sarkozy also proposed that France bring in about 20 Romanian and Bulgarian police to work in the Paris region and send French police to Romania and Bulgaria, to help fight trafficking and other crime by Roma.