France: Fight state racism / FRFI 217 Oct/Nov 2010

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FRFI 217 October/November 2010

100,000 people marched in cities across France on 4 September and other demonstrations were held in European capitals in protest against the destruction of Roma camps in France and subsequent deportation of nearly 1,000 Roma men, women and children.

So appalling and overtly racist were the actions taken by the French government in August that they were even condemned by the European Union (EU). France now faces the unprecedented threat of prosecution by the EU, with Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding saying she had been appalled ‘by a situation which gave the impression that people are being removed from a member state of the European Union just because they belong to a certain ethnic minority. This is a situation I had thought Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War.’

Even a member of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s own right-wing UMP party described the raids on Roma camps as ‘rafles’ – the word used for German Nazi raids on Gypsies and Jews during the Second World War.

Raids have been carried out in all the main cities of France to meet the government’s aim of dismantling 300 illegal camps before the end of 2010. Between 28 July and the end of August, 128 had already been destroyed and 979 Romanian and Bulgarian Roma expelled. In spite of the European Parliament resolution of 9 September demanding France suspend these expulsions, 100 Roma adults and children were flown from Marseilles and 130 from Paris five days later. Another charter flight is scheduled on 30 September and the French police are working hard to fill that plane. Roma families are thus constantly under the threat of eviction.

On 9 September, French Minister of Immigration Eric Besson told the EU Commission that the action was not racist – ‘France took no specific measures against the Roma population’; the same day an internal memo to prefects [regional or departmental heads of government] leaked to French newspaper Le Canard Social gave the lie to his bluster. The memo, dated 5 August, orders the ‘systematic dismantling of illegal camps, with priority given to those of Roma’, as well as ‘immediately expelling irregular foreigners.’ It stresses: ‘On 28 July the President of the Republic set some precise goals for the eviction of illegal camps; 300 illegal camps or settlements will have to be evicted within three months, among which Roma ones are a priority’.

International law is supposed to protect against forced evictions and requires local authorities to provide appropriate advance notice, compensation for lost or damaged property and to grant alternative accommodation to evicted people. Roma people who were evicted in France had a few hours to gather their belongings before seeing the rest of them bulldozed over and sent to the dump, while they were left on the side of the road with a few bags and nowhere else to go.

Discriminatory policies and overt state racism have been gradually increasing throughout the last few years in France. For the government, it is a useful way of distracting citizens from attacks on social benefits and recent corruption scandals involving members of the government. Along with the youth and the Muslim population, Roma people are publicly associated with criminal activity and their removal is promoted as part of a crackdown on crime. At the end of July, President Sarkozy demanded that ‘the Ministry of Interior put an end to the settlement of illegal camps by Roma people, these constituting no-law zones that France cannot tolerate any more.’ Having prepared the ground in this way, the government now plans legal reform to facilitate the future expulsion of Roma migrants and anyone representing ‘a threat to public order due to repeated acts of theft or aggressive begging…abusing the right to short-term stay in order to evade the stricter rules for longer stay [and] representing an unreasonable burden on [the] welfare system’. UMP leader Xavier Bertrand called those who protested against such stigmatisation of the Roma ‘complacent hypocrites’.

However, polls show that 55% of French citizens believe these measures directly contradict ‘the values of the French Republic’, despite what the Sarkozy government claims, and more mass protests are planned. The fight against state racism in France will continue.

Anjela Broustal