Sarkozy vows to continue expulsions of Roma from France

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Media captionPolice raid a Roma camp near the city of Lille

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has said he will continue his controversial crackdown on Roma (gypsies).

He was speaking at his first cabinet meeting after the summer break, amid growing questions over his leadership.

Hundreds of Roma have been sent back to Romania and Bulgaria and more than 100 illegal camps dismantled.

The operation has been criticised by human rights watchdogs and Mr Sarkozy's opponents, who accuse him of using the issue to boost his flagging support.

Mr Sarkozy is under pressure to tackle soaring public debt, but unions are threatening major strikes over plans for pension reforms.

Romania has questioned whether the repatriations comply with European law and the EU Commission has said it is concerned about them. The Commission is to report on the expulsions next week, says the BBC's Christian Fraser in Paris.

France, which says it expelled 10,000 Roma last year, says it is acting in accordance with EU law by repatriating Roma who have been in France for more than three months without work. It also says most of the repatriations are voluntary.

About 635 Roma have been sent back to Romania and Bulgaria, after their camps were shut down in a crackdown announced last month, Immigration Minister Eric Besson said on Wednesday.

By the end of the month "around 950" will have been repatriated, he told Europe 1 radio.

Mr Sarkozy has said the Roma camps are sources of crime, prostitution, trafficking and child exploitation.

At the cabinet meeting, he urged his team "not to get sidetracked by useless controversies," Immigration Minister Eric Besson said.

Former prime minister and likely presidential challenger Dominique de Villepin said the policy was "shameful".

"It's an electoral strategy. This will contribute nothing to the security of French people."

Protests possible

Having been elected on a plan to fix the economy, the next two months will be the most critical point of Mr Sarkozy's presidency, says our Paris correspondent.

Image caption Polls show Nicolas Sarkozy's approval ratings hovering above 30%

Mr Sarkozy even asked ministers to interrupt their summer holidays for a meeting at his official retreat, Fort de Bregancon, to discuss how France is going to cut its deficit.

The president has to find 100bn euros (£82bn) of cuts by 2013.

Following that meeting with senior finance ministers, France cut its forecast for economic growth next year.

The French economy is now forecast to grow by 2% next year, down from the previous forecast of 2.5%.

Another challenge for Mr Sarkozy will be pension reform.

Moves to increase the age of retirement from 60 to 62 years old are deeply unpopular, and street protests are planned for 7 September - the day on which parliament debates the pension plans.

The unpopular proposals led some 800,000 people to take to the streets in June in protest.

A poll published in Liberation newspaper on Monday suggested that more than half of French people want to see the opposition Socialists win the 2012 presidential race.

BBC website readers have been sending in their comments. Here is a selection of their views.

I find the measures unexpected although Roma had similar treatment from Italian authorities several years ago. Still I wonder how different EU states are able to handle their social order such as not to have public scandals like this one. It's unexpected because France has a Roma minority and I thought they found the recipe to integrate them. Obviously we (Romanians) didn't. And yes, it's true, they are discriminated here although few will admit. Here, Roma integration is thought of as being a lengthy and expensive measure with little chance of success.

Alexandru Lancu, Bucharest

If I were in Sarkozy's place, I would do the same thing. We have a big issue with the gypsies here in Bulgaria and I think we should deal with this problem. The other countries only suffer from this and it is not fair at all.

Alexandra Garbeva, Sofia, Bulgaria

With a VAT raise of 5%, a reduction of 25% of the salaries and a 25% reduction in personnel, the last thing on Romania's agenda is the Roma problem. Nothing will be done for them. I think most of them will go to another EU country as soon as they come back. It's all part of a long-lasting problem that most countries are trying to hide under a carpet. The EU is doing pretty much nothing but pointing out Romania and Bulgaria as the ones that have a problem - but what about the other member states? Are we the only ones who have it? We're so far away from a united Europe.

Claudia, Brussels

In Lille there are a lot of child beggars who stand at traffic lights and ask you for money when you stop at a red light. They are often dirty and their clothes filthy. I saw one young male beggar whose knee had been broken so badly it bent backwards, it was horrifying. Many locals believe these beggars are being controlled by criminal groups. However it is sad that France is expelling people just because they are Roma, which, apart from being racist, also avoids the root of the problem such as criminal groups. There is nothing stopping the Roma returning to France in the future, which is their right as EU citizens.

Daisy, Lille, France

We are talking about expelling EU citizens by an EU country to another EU country. They are nomads, have no country, are not stable in one place, and never will be. All that France does is toss them around, and they will be right back. In many aspects the Roma are more European than 80% of the EU population. They lived, worked, and were born, in more than four or five EU countries. The Roma issue is not a problem of Romania or Bulgaria, but is a problem for the whole of Europe, and problems are not solved by ignorance or expelling people since in one week 70% will be right back. It happened in Italy, it will happen in France. Bottom line, before 2007 EU countries criticised Romania for not dealing with the Roma problem, well, now they can put their money where their mouth is. Start schools for them, get EU funding for integration of the Roma people instead of all the moralising talk they have given us for two decades.

Adrian Rista, Bucharest, Romania

I find the French reaction rather funny. Some years ago we were heavily criticised that we were not doing enough for Roma so they can be included in society. When some of them moved westwards, some EU countries woke up to the fact that you just can't change their ways of life as they have been living it for the last 2,000 years, especially when the Roma population fiercely opposes it. So they will return them here, ask us to "socialise" them (which they could not) AND criticise us for possible human rights violations. Funny, isn't it?

Radoslav, Sofia, Bulgaria

As long as gypsies that have stood in France for less then three months are allowed to remain, and those that are working legally are also allowed to remain, I personally have no problem with this. But I sincerely doubt this mass deportation of one ethnic group is lawful and fair. The gypsies are not the sole problem of Romania, they have roamed freely over Europe and Asia for hundreds of years. It is part of their unique cultural identity. In my opinion, they should have special representation in the EU, a leadership structure to ensure they are not exploited by the various national states they inhabit. Perhaps a special law that gives them the right to live in any EU member state, based on historical grounds, and obliges the member state to provide for them. Deporting them en masse to Romania is not a solution, it is unjust for them and it encourages the Romanians and other nations to treat the Roma in a similar manner.

Sergiu, Romania

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