GWEN IFILL: Now, to Europe and its Gypsies, the French government’s efforts to expel immigrants, known as the Roma, have stirred opposition within France and from some of its European partners.
We have a report from Ben Barnier of GlobalPost, the international reporting Web site.
BEN BARNIER, GlobalPost: These buses are full of people being deported from France back to their home country of Romania. They are all called the Roma, or Gypsies. And the French government has argued that they are living here illegally in some 300 settlements around the country.
This year, France has expelled more than 8,500 Roma. Other smaller expulsions are also happening in Belgium and Italy.
The Roma deportations have happening quietly for years. But they became a hot-button political issue in July when a Gypsy was killed at a police checkpoint. Then a police station was attacked in retaliation. President Nicolas Sarkozy said France would crack down on illegal Roma settlements. Political columnists are saying the move was designed to boost his sagging support among his right-wing base, but reactions were split.
FRANCOIS DANO, retired dentist (through translator): The Roma must return home. They are an illegal status. They are living on someone’s territory, where they shouldn’t be. They should go back to Romania. That is normalcy.
PHILIPPE COURCIER, retired engineer: They are here without work and without papers and without money, and it’s — so, they are — they are better in their country.
HUGO PAYEN, France (through translator): You know, it might be exaggerated, but it makes me think of pogroms. It is rather scandalous.
FAYSAL BENHASSAIN, France: Those people are human beings. And I don’t see why they are expelled. They shouldn’t be. This is so-called country of equality and fraternity. It is not. It is a racist country. I think the government is racist.
BEN BARNIER: That negative feeling echoed up to the highest ranks of the European Union. At a meeting of 27 leaders in mid-September, the E.U.’s justice commissioner, Viviane Reding, sparked an uproar when she linked France’s expulsions to the continent’s dark past.
VIVIANE REDING, commissioner, European Union Justice: I personally have been appalled by a situation which gave the impression that the people are being removed from a member state of the European Union just because they belong to an ethnic minority. This is a situation I have thought Europe wouldn’t have to witness again, after the Second World War.
BEN BARNIER: Commissioner Reding later acknowledged the comparison was exaggerated, but Sarkozy replied angrily.
NICOLAS SARKOZY, French president (through translator): All heads of state in government were shocked by the outrageous statements made by the vice president of the commission. It was deeply shocking to see someone make such historically charged remarks that have profoundly hurt the whole of our countrymen.
BEN BARNIER: At this Roma community on the outskirts of Paris, rows of trailer homes form a kind of makeshift street. Children run around and women cook for their families. But life is tough. Most Roma don’t speak French and know that they are on the fringes of society.
MAN (through translator): I have been living here in (INAUDIBLE) for 10 years. I don’t have a job. I don’t have enough food.
BEN BARNIER: The government doesn’t break its criminal statistics down by communities. But police say Roma sometimes resort to criminal activity and begging to support themselves.
The Roma have actually been the target of repression and prejudice for hundreds of years. During World War II, Nazis killed hundreds of thousands of Gypsies in Central and Eastern Europe. In occupied France, they survived in interment camps.
Three years ago, the Roma population in France increased dramatically, when Bulgaria and Romania joined the E.U., which meant its citizen could cross into France freely. But French law said Bulgarians and Romanians couldn’t stay more than three months if they couldn’t obtain work permits and didn’t have means to support themselves or if they threatened French’s fundamental interests.
So most of the 15,000 Roma leaving here have no formal employment and no clear path to integrate into mainstream society. The Roma rights organizations threatened to take the French government to the European Court of Justice, arguing that the deportations are discriminatory. But according to the head spokesman of Sarkozy’s UMP party, the government is doing the right thing.
FREDERIC LEFEBVRE, Union for a Popular Movement (through translator): France should be admired for doing this. When people settle down illegally in our country, they must be sent back to their country of origin. When people live illegally, when they don’t have a job, how do they make a living?
They often exploit the youngest ones, children who beg for money. They exploit women who become prostitutes. People need to understand that illegality breeds illegality, and it is a country’s duty to prevent slums from sprouting downtown. That is how France is becoming charitable and generous.
BEN BARNIER: Roma rights group say the French should try harder to tap the $23 billion the E.U. has made available to set up schools and provide vocational training for ethnic minorities.
Advocate Martin Olivera wants the French government to give these communities a hand, rather than handing them a plane ticket to Romania.
MARTIN OLIVERA, Roma Rights Advocate (through translator): France produces exclusion, poverty and slums by preventing people from integrating. And, yes, there is an institutional stigmatization. It didn’t begin in July. It surely exploded in the past months, but it has been building up for years. It is necessary to put an end to these laws which prevent them from working legally in France.
BEN BARNIER: Despite international outrage and potential lawsuits, President Nicolas Sarkozy has decided to keep on dismantling and eliminating Roma Gypsy camps all over the country. And the E.U. has set up a task force to figure out better ways to use its funds to help the Roma.