France dismantles Roma camps in new crackdown

Socialists pursuing policy of ex-president Sarkozy

French authorities on Thursday dismantled two makeshift Roma camps housing 200 people, provoking claims the Socialist government is pursuing the disputed policies of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy.

The clearance of the two camps near the northern city of Lille came on the same day that around 240 Roma gypsies were flown from Lyon to Romania in the biggest repatriation of its kind since Francois Hollande succeeded Sarkozy as president in May.

France drew a chorus of criticism in 2010 for rounding up hundreds of Roma gypsies from illegal camps and sending them back to Romania and Bulgaria in a crackdown ordered by Sarkozy.

Roma rights groups had hoped for a change of policy under Hollande's Socialists but new Interior Minister Manuel Valls has promised to take a "firm" line on the issue, insisting that "unsanitary" camps will continue to be dismantled.

Two Roma encampments on state land near the northern city of Lille were cleared on Thursday, with around 150 people expelled from one camp and about 50 from another following complaints from residents.

"The tensions with (local residents) had become untenable," said Maryvonne Girard, deputy mayor of the town of Villeneuve d'Ascq, near where one of the camps had been located.

Girard said residents had endured "two-and-a-half years of nuisance," but rights groups blasted the move.

"What's inconceivable for us is that people are thrown out without being told where they can go. We expected better after President Hollande's words," said Roseline Tiset of the Human Rights League.

She said that during the presidential campaign earlier this year, Hollande wrote to Roma rights groups saying that under his government "when an unsanitary camp is dismantled, alternatives will be offered."

Father Arthur, a priest who defends Roma rights and had planned to baptise six Roma children on Thursday afternoon, said he felt "deceived".

"We will meet to see what we can do but for now we have nothing. At least the last president had the honesty of saying what was going to happen," Arthur said.

The 240 Roma who left Lyon on a 2:30 pm (1230 GMT) charter flight did so on a voluntary basis after receiving payments of 300 euros ($370) for an adult and 150 euros for a child, according to authorities.

But charity workers said most of them had been left with little option but to leave following the dismantling of their camps in the Lyon area.

The Socialists' stance on the camps was welcomed by the opposition UMP with the party's national security spokesman, Eric Ciotti, describing the latest moves as "just and legitimate" but also "too late".

Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front said they did not go far enough. "Year after year the French are realising that these kinds of operations... lead nowhere: the Roma are more and more numerous, the camps are still there, they are even multiplying," Le Pen said.

About 15,000 Roma are believed to live in improvised housing encampments on the edges of major cities in France, including up to 4,000 in the Paris area.

The European Union's justice commissioner, Viviane Reding, angered Sarkozy when he launched his wave of expulsions by comparing the rounding up to World War II-era deportations.

Paris insisted there was nothing racist in the moves against the Roma, saying they were rounded up simply because they had overstayed the period they were allowed in France without any visible means of financial support.


 

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