Free movement, not free settlement, says minister as order suggests Sarkozy policy saw ethnic minority camps singled out France vowed today to continue deporting Roma Gypsies after critics claimed a leaked document suggesting they are being targeted on President Nicolas Sarkozy’s orders means the expulsions are against the constitution and break international human rights laws on discrimination.
The leaked memo emerged a few days after France’s immigration minister, Eric Besson, insisted that sending police to destroy camps and settlements and ordering inhabitants to leave France was not aimed at the Roma. He insisted they were being treated no differently to other EU migrants who do not meet France’s residency rules.
However, the internal order, circulated to police chiefs last month as France began expelling nearly 1,000 Roma Gypsies to Romania and Bulgaria, appeared to confirm the ethnic minority was being singled out.
Today Besson repeated his claim: « France has not taken any measure specifically against the Roma [who] are not considered as such but as natives of the country whose nationality they have, » he said.
However, a leaked memo, dated 5 August 2010 and signed by the chief of staff for interior minister Brice Hortefeux, reminds French officials of a « specific objective » set out by Sarkozy.
« Three hundred camps or illegal settlements must be evacuated within three months; Roma camps are a priority, » the memo reads. « It is down to the préfect [state representative] in each department to begin a systematic dismantling of the illegal camps, particularly those of the Roma. »
Besson told France 2 state television that he was not aware of the leaked circular: « I wasn’t a recipient, and therefore I didn’t need to know about it, » he said.
He refused to make any further comment but added: « The concept of ethnic minorities is a concept that does not exist among the government. »
Later, in a press conference, he said: « We will maintain our policy of expelling illegal immigrants. This is not something new. » He said 5,000 Romanians and Bulgarians had been expelled so far this year, compared with 10,000 in 2009.
He admitted there had been an increase in deportations since August, following « Nicolas Sarkozy’s demand to go ahead with the dismantling of all illegal camps ».
In what was seen as a criticism of the Romanian authorities, he added: « Free movement in the European area doesn’t mean free settlement. What has been forgotten is that each of the European countries is responsible for its own national citizens. »
The document has sparked furious reactions from the opposition and critics of the expulsions. The Group for Information and Support for Immigrants (Gisti) says it is examining the memo to establish if it breaks any criminal laws.
« Can you imagine a circular specifically naming Jews or Arabs? » said Stephane Maugendre, a lawyer and president of Gisti.
The Socialist party has also questioned whether the document is legal and said it smacked of « xenophobic policy ».
« I ask the European commission and its president José Manuel Barroso to initiate infringement proceedings against the French government to end the indignity and stigma unacceptable to the European citizens that are Roma, » said Harlem Désir, a French Socialist MEP.
France is continuing the Roma deportations despite vehement criticism at home and from the EU and United Nations.Last Thursday the European parliament passed a resolution by 337 votes to 245 calling on Paris to « immediately suspend all expulsions of Roma », saying the policy « amounted to discrimination ».
The MEPs admitted their demands were not legally binding but pointed out that mass expulsions are prohibited under EU law « since they amount to discrimination on the basis of race and ethnicity ».
Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt, a former prime minister, said it was unacceptable for politicians to be « tempted by populist, racist and xenophobic policies ».
German MEP Martin Schulz, head of the European parliament’s socialist group, said: « The country that gave us liberté, égalité and fraternité has taken a different, regrettable path today. »
The French authorities appear determined and defiant in the face of such international condemnation. Yesterday officials in Marseille announced more than 100 Roma would be flown back to their home countries today having accepted €300 to return.
Several groups representing immigrant organisations plan to ask the French Council of State to consider the leaked memo to see whether it contravenes the French Constitution. If the Council, the country’s highest administrative court but made up of government members, is formally approached the authorities may be forced to temporarily suspend expulsions or Roma. The French government would be at liberty to then send around another memo, but one that did not specifically mention the Roma.