The president spoke in stereotypical terms about an "unacceptable situation of lawlessness that characterizes the Roma people who come from Eastern Europe onto French territory". This is racism.
About 300,000 to 500,000 Travelers live in France. They are citizens of France and maintain an itinerant lifestyle. In addition, there are approximately 10,000 to 15,000 Roma migrants from elsewhere in Europe; they are mainly nationals of Romania and Bulgaria
In the absence of alternative housing solutions, Sarkozy's announced plan will likely worsen already deplorable housing conditions of thousands of Travelers and Roma, and subject them to additional abuse from an already hostile public.
The plan Sarkozy announced is of dubious legality, both under French and international law, which protect the right to housing, the right to free movement and the right to be free from discrimination.
Why are Travelers in France living in illegal settlements? One reason is that France's government has failed to respect its own law, the so-called Besson law from 2000, which requires the state to build adequate accommodation for Travelers. In response to a complaint brought by my organization, in 2009 the Council of Europe's committee of social rights found that France had failed to meet its international obligations by not creating a sufficient number of halting sites for Travelers, by providing sites that were dangerous and unsanitary, and by evicting Travelers from unauthorized sites in a manner that subjected them to "unjustified violence".
The move followed crisis talks called by Sarkozy on Wednesday as part of his declared "war on crime" which prompted rights groups to accuse him of stigmatising the Roma, Gypsy and traveler minorities.
Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said that about 300 illegal "camps or squats" housing Gypsies and travelers would be closed in three months and foreign Gypsies breaking the law would be immediately deported.With a preponderance of voices from the international media, human rights groups, the French clergy and some politicians denouncing French President Nicolas Sarkozy for fueling negative ethnic stereotypes with his new immigrant-focused security crackdown, many Jewish community representatives in France are taking a more measured stance.
In July, Sarkozy launched some security-related initiatives that included a proposal stripping French nationality from foreign-born individuals who attack police officers and starting a program to rapidly deport Roma ~ or Gypsy ~ immigrants to Romania and Bulgaria. The French leader also is dismantling hundreds of illegal Roma homes in shantytowns in France.
Sarkozy says the government is merely upholding French and European law, not “stigmatizing.” But critics say Sarkozy is pitting communities against one another and violating the French constitution. Some have gone so far as to compare Sarkozy’s policies with the Nazis' treatment of the Jews, calling it a tactic for gaining support from the far-right National Front Party.
Jewish community organizational leaders have tried to take a more diplomatic course regarding the controversial policies of a president who, as interior minister during a wave of anti-Semitism in France in 2002-04, took a hard line against those who posed a security risk to French Jews.
At first the community leaders sat out what has evolved into a major political storm for the government. Now some are responding, but their divergent responses reflect the divisions among French Jews about the efficacy of Sarkozy’s proposals.
Our concern is that the announced plan will only amplify the problems already identified and render many people homeless. Such a plan is not the badly needed solution to the situation of Europe's marginalized minority. Such a plan will not improve public security.
France is not alone in its treatment of Roma. It is only offering up the latest example of western Europe conflating a humanitarian and human rights crisis with a perceived threat to public security. Migrant Roma as well as indigenous Roma and Sinti citizens have confronted a similar attitude in Silvio Berlusconi's Italy, which declared a state of emergency to deal with Roma in 2008 and has been evicting Roma from settlements ever since.
Two weeks ago, Denmark summarily expelled 23 Roma back to Romania.
Sweden expelled 50 Roma to Romania this year.
Germany paid more than 100 Roma to return to Romania in June 2009.
And Finland, amid public outcries about public security, threatened expulsions. In many cases, the police have undertaken operations of questionable legality after statements by public officials that Roma are predisposed to crime and other antisocial behaviour.
This small camp has since been demolished, inhabitants shipped out of France.
Scapegoating Travelers and Roma is not going to solve the problem of their marginalization throughout Europe.
Why are Roma leaving Romania, Bulgaria and other eastern European countries to come to the more prosperous west?
Because they have no jobs at home.
Because their children are segregated into schools ostensibly for children with mental disabilities.
Because they are the targets of extremist violence by neo-Nazis.
Because the vast majority of their non-Roma neighbours express implacable hostility toward them.
If European political leaders really want to address the problems of Travelers and Roma, they must stop seeking to reap political points by emphasizing public security problems. They should instead make real efforts to create equal and adequate conditions for Roma and Travelers across Europe.
They should foster welcoming environments in mainstream schools for Roma and Traveler children so that they can achieve their full potential. They should engage in serious and long-term development programs to create employment opportunities for adults and adequate housing for families. They should provide equal access to health care for Roma as for the majority population.
European politicians have recently been clamouring for a Europe-wide response to the threat they perceive as emanating from Roma communities. Curiously, this echoes the call of civil society organizations for a comprehensive policy at the EU level to address Roma marginalization.
At an EU meeting on Roma in April, the European Commission's vice president, Viviane Reding, said:
"We must admit that, despite our best efforts, the situation of many Roma seems to have deteriorated over the years. That is simply not acceptable." With EU member states acting against Roma in an increasingly aggressive and too-often illegal manner, the time has come for European leaders to redouble their efforts to address the root causes of the "Roma problem".
The French government said many in the camps or settlements were involved in "smuggling, exploiting children for begging, prostitution or delinquency".
France will also ask Romania and Bulgaria to send about 20 police officers to the greater Paris region, where many Gypsies live, and proposes sending its own forces to the two countries to fight trafficking.
Anti-racism groups, however, were outraged, accusing Sarkozy of singling out and smearing a minority for electoral gain.
"The Elysee wants to stir fear in order to deploy security measures and a surveillance society," said Dominique Sopo of the pressure group SOS-Racism.
Sarkozy stirred controversy by warning ahead of the meeting that some members of the itinerant minorities posed security "problems", in response to an attack on a police station in Saint-Aignan, central France last week.
Masked rioters tried to break down the door of the station, damaged other buildings and burned cars during the attack, sparked after police shot dead a Gypsy during a car chase.
Sarkozy called the meeting of ministers and police chiefs to review what he dubbed "the situation of traveling people and Roma and the problems that certain members of these communities pose to public order and safety".
Gypsy groups and political opponents said Sarkozy's approach stigmatizes minority communities and did not distinguish between ethnic Roma and Gypsies, and the separate community of French "travelers".
"If Nicolas Sarkozy must repeat his declaration of war, the Collective of Gypsy Associations will be prompted to take legal action for incitement to racial hatred," the rights association UFAT said in a statement.
The group said it wanted to meet Sarkozy to discuss a solution for the 400,000 Gypsies and traveling people in France.
Authorities estimate that in France there are about 15,000 Roma, an ethnic group widespread in eastern Europe.
Most in France are thought to be from Romania and Bulgaria, which both joined the EU in 2007. Many live in slums in suburbs such as Aubervilliers on the outskirts of Paris.
There, Socialist mayor Jacques Salvator runs an "insertion village", a cluster of publicly-funded plastic cabins that are home to about 12 Roma families while they wait to be allocated public housing.
Salvator said that "50 projects like this one would be enough to solve the problem in the Paris region."
The cabins are home to Roma such as Dominica Mierriutu, 53, and her husband Mircea, 58, who came to France from Romania and were moved to the "village" from a nearby slum along with their five-year-old granddaughter Rebeca.
"We are lucky. It was a miserable life in the slum shack. Now the children go to school, we have hot water and all that," Dominica Mierriutu told AFP.
Prasquier warned, however, against allowing prejudice to develop against Roma migrants who are French citizens.
“When we become French citizens, it must be merited,” he said.
In explaining Jewish reticence to weigh in on the matter, Marc Knobel, the editor for CRIF’s newsletter, said that “Jewish institutions are generally more discreet when handling questions that mostly concern the French.”
The tepid reaction from Jewish officialdom has upset some Jews here.
"I think it's the role of the Jewish community to be heard,” said Patrick Klugman, a member of the CRIF director’s committee and co-founder of JCall, a European-wide group that supports pressuring Israel into cutting a two-state deal with the Palestinians.
Jewish leaders traditionally were “reminders of the principles of equality,” Klugman said. Now, "I notice that almost all of French society has criticized Sarkozy, except the Jewish community.”
Catholic leaders have not been silent as Sarkozy has dismantled Roma shantytowns and deported Roma.
With Sarkozy’s security program, “an unhealthy climate has developed in our country,” André Vingt-Trois, the archbishop of Paris, told French radio last week.
One Catholic priest returned his national medal of honor to protest Sarkozy’s policies.
The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance said it is “deeply concerned” about the treatment of Roma in France and warned that Sarkozy’s “government has taken action stigmatizing Roma migrants” who “are held collectively responsible for criminal offenses.”
“Government policies or legislative proposals that are grounded in discrimination on ethnic grounds are impermissible and run counter to legal obligations binding on all Council of Europe member States,” the commission said in a statement.
France’s chief rabbi, Gilles Bernheim, was more circumspect.
“This affair is not easy,” he said last week. “It requires both moderation and firmness.”
While Bernheim said he hoped decisions on security “are made case by case, and that we never stigmatize a community,” he also voiced support for Sarkozy’s tough-cop proposals.
“I haven’t forgotten that there’s a real war that has been established against the police, against the forces of order, and when I see the violence that is exercised against the representatives of public order, I tell myself that we also need firmness to react to that,” he said.
Like Jewish officials, most official Muslim community representatives, traditionally reluctant to publicly comment on French policy that does not refer directly to their community, also have stayed quiet about Sarkozy’s security plans.
The new security measures were announced following two separate incidents of violent skirmishes between youth, believed to be partly of immigrant origin, and the police, plus a case involving violence by some Roma migrants who appeared to be French citizens.
Sarkozy’s new policy proposals include denaturalizing those who attack public officials if they had become French fewer than 10 years before committing the crime, and denying automatic citizenship to immigrant youth approaching the age of eligibility but who are “anchored” in criminal activity.
He is also dismantling Roma encampments that include people of Roma origin who are French citizens and has proposed legislation that will make it more difficult for deported Roma to return to France.
Roma have been subject to discrimination throughout Europe for decades, and hundreds of thousands were exterminated in Nazi death camps. Roma rights groups say Sarkozy’s new policies paint them as criminals.
Alain Finkielkraut, a leading French Jewish intellectual, said the attacks against Sarkozy’s policies are politically motivated and overreactions.
“I’m happy that for the moment the Jewish community has refused to give in to this critical rush of enthusiasm,” he said, adding that the current media storm had “lost sight” of Sarkozy’s intention: to curb crime.
Depicting France as fascist and comparing Sarkozy’s policies to the Vichy government’s Nazi collaboration is “shameful,” Finkielkraut said, adding that he does not see the security measures as racist in themselves.
“The whole world is revolting against Sarkozy," he said, "but what is really dismal is the continual elevation of violence in France.