Protests against Roma expulsions held in France

Demonstrators march through Paris to the sound of Roma music and drums

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Thousands of people have attended rallies in Paris and 130 other French towns to protest at the government's policy of deporting Roma people.

Police say turnout across France was slightly more than 77,000 while organisers put the figure nearer 100,000.

With polls suggesting at least 65% of French people back the policy, the government played down the protests.

The EU parliament is to debate the Roma situation in Europe next week.

Start Quote

We are pushing away people that have a history of being pushed away”

End Quote Jane Birkin Actress

About 1,000 Roma (Gypsies) returned to Romania and Bulgaria from France last month, while official figures record that 11,000 Roma were expelled from France last year.

The League of Human Rights, which called for the demonstrations, said it wanted to counteract government "xenophobia" and what it described as the systematic abuse of Roma in France.

The rallies were backed by the opposition Socialist Party and the General Confederation of Labour (CGT), France's second largest trade union confederation.

'Pushed away'

Trade unionists, students, anarchists, illegal immigrants and others turned out in Paris to the sound of whistles and drums.

Analysis

The government's policy on the Roma is not a new one but the debate is building and becoming increasingly divisive.

Saturday's demonstrations show there are people in France hugely concerned at what is being done in their name.

But the protesters are also a minority. President Nicolas Sarkozy says his government's actions fully comply with EU law on migration and human rights, even though there has been a concerted effort to link illegal Roma camps with rising crime.

Opponents say that amounts to racism and hardly stands scrutiny.

Cities such as Marseilles and Nantes saw similar marches, and there were solidarity rallies in neighbouring countries like Spain and Belgium, as well as more distant states with significant Roma minorities such as Hungary and Serbia.

Addressing the demonstration in Paris, actress Jane Birkin said it was up to the French public to stand up for the rights of the Roma people.

"We are pushing away people that have a history of being pushed away," she said.

"We have to defend them because they don't have enough of a voice. We have more of a voice than them. We have to be supportive."

In the south-western city of Bordeaux, more than 1,000 people took part in a two-hour march calling for an end to "xenophobic" policies, AFP news agency reports.

"It is a right and a duty for us to take part in this demonstration, because if we let them crush us, you wonder where this will lead," said Antoinou Jimenez, a representative of a group of travellers in the area.

'Disappointment'

Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux dismissed Saturday's protests, describing the turnout as a "disappointment" for the organisers.

Nicolas Sarkozy Mr Sarkozy has faced dissent from his own cabinet on the issue

"Today's so-called 'defence of human rights' demonstrations only managed to bring out, in total, across the whole of the territory, a few tens of thousands of people," he said.

France began a high-profile campaign of clearing large numbers of illegal Roma camps last month, as part of a security crackdown announced by Mr Sarkozy.

The move was announced after a number of incidents of violence targeting the police, including involving travellers in the Loire Valley town of Saint Aignan in July.

The mass expulsions have drawn criticism from the Vatican and the UN, and President Sarkozy has also faced dissent from within his own cabinet.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon hinted that he disliked the crude links being made between foreigners and crime, while Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said he considered resigning over the issue.

Earlier this week, the European Commission criticised France over its expulsions of Roma, saying it did not put enough emphasis on the individual circumstances of those facing expulsion.

Under EU rules, the state can expel people who have been in the country for at least three months without a job or are a social burden. They can also be expelled within three months of their arrival if they are deemed to be a threat to public security.

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