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Thousands Protest at France's Repression of Roma

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Thousands Protest at France's Repression of Roma

Defend Our Roma!

European Parliament Opposes Anti-Roma Actions of France and Italy

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Thousands Protest at France's Repression of Roma

Tens of thousands protested across France on Saturday, September 4, against a clampdown on immigrants, launching a week of action over policies on which President Nicolas Sarkozy has staked his political reputation.

Demonstrators opposed to measures including repatriation of Roma to eastern Europe waved flags and placards and chanted slogans including "Stop repression" and "No to Sarkozy's inhumane policies". Bands and drums made the atmosphere friendly rather than combative.

CGT union leader Bernard Thibault told journalists at the main rally in Paris: "Defending freedom and the principles of democracy and defending social rights go hand in hand. And in general, when freedom decreases, social rights decrease too."

Saturday's protests also targeted the revocation of French nationality for immigrants found guilty of attacking police officers.

Thousands of demonstrators representing human rights groups, left-wing political parties and unions marched in bright sunshine through central Paris, led by Roma.

"There are many of us calmly saying that the future of this country is not a return to the old hatreds and racist prejudices," Jean-Pierre Dubois, president of France's Human Rights League, told Reuters TV. The association estimated national turnout at 100,000. Police estimated the turnout at 12,000.

Tens of thousands more rallied in Marseille, Lyon, Bordeaux and some 130 other towns and cities. One protester in Marseille sported a T-shirt emblazoned with Sarkozy's face and the slogan "Expellable in 2012".

Sarkozy's security policy, especially on Roma, has drawn criticism outside France too, and demonstrations were due to take place outside French embassies in other European capitals.

High school principal Jean-Louis Tetrel, 62, commented: "There is a feeling of deepening rage against the government which is rather new, which has been growing in the past few months ... Things are really boiling over now."

France has expelled some 1,000 Roma to Romania and Bulgaria in recent weeks. There are estimated to be between 10 million and 12 million Roma in the EU, most living in dire circumstances, victims of poverty, discrimination, violence, unemployment, poverty and bad housing. An estimated 1.5 million of them live in Romania, a country of 22 million, which has the largest Roma population in Europe.

The expulsions have been criticised from many quarters including the United Nations and even members of Sarkozy's government.

A Roma leader compared French president Nicolas Sarkozy to Romania's pro-Nazi wartime leader. Speaking during an annual feast held on a hill at the foots of the Carpathian Mountains, Iulian Radulescu told the Associated Press that Roma are being unfairly expelled from France. He said that hundreds of Roma are paying the price "for the crimes of the few".

Iulian Radulescu compared the expulsions to those carried out by Romania's pro-Nazi fascist ruler Marshal Ion Antonescu, who was convicted as a war criminal. Antonescu, as part of the Axis powers during World War II, deported 25,000 Roma from Romania to the Romanian-occupied Soviet region of Trans-Dniester in 1942, along with Jews, opponents of the regime and those deemed “undesirable”. Some 11,000 died from criminal neglect, exposure, typhus, starvation and thirst. According to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the number of Roma killed during the Holocaust was between 220,000 and 500,000. "Sarkozy is doing what Antonescu did," Iulian Radulescu said.

A French foreign ministry spokesman, Bernard Valero, dismissed the comments, saying he declined to enter into "fruitless debates". "We consider that it is a European problem that should be solved with a European solution," Mr Valero said. The issue of expulsion will top the agenda of planned talks between French Immigration Minister Eric Besson and the Minister for European Affairs, Pierre Lelouche, Valero said.

Another Roma leader Florin Cioaba told hundreds gathered that they are being discriminated in Europe. "There is one set of laws for European citizens and different laws for the Roma," Mr Cioaba said.

The issue in France is presenting itself as one of integration or negation of civil and national rights. “Integration” is presented as the “challenge”, and without “integration” the Roma will not be treated as human beings or citizens. It is the same paradigm that has given rise to the laws in France against the use of the niqab, as well as the headscarf in schools. Without the appropriate documentation, the Roma are being treated by the French state as non-persons. They are being given no say in deciding what becomes of them. In opposition, it must be affirmed that No One Is Illegal!

(sources: AP, Reuters)

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Defend Our Roma!

Pallavi Aiyar, Brussels, September 3, 2010 (extracts)

In a post-9/11 world, the discourse on minority integration in Europe is dominated by the continent’s relatively new Muslim immigrants, with headscarf and burqa bans having emerged as the issue’s most emotive symbols.

But Europe also faces a much older integrationist challenge, one that persists unresolved over hundreds of years: the Roma.

The Roma or gypsies as they are pejoratively also known, are linguistically and ethnically related to north Indians. It’s believed they left their homeland during the 11th century for reasons that remain debated, possibly a result of Muslim invasions. They never returned.

Instead, their long journey west eventually saw them entering Eastern Europe around the 14th century, where locals believed them to be Egyptians (hence the misnomer, Gypsies). Despite hundreds of years having passed, this group of “travelling people” has remained nomadic, poor and reviled by native populations. Targeted by the Nazis for extermination along with Jews and homosexuals, the Roma also suffered 500 years of slavery in the Romanian territories until abolition in 1856.


Today the Roma are estimated to number between two million and five million, the majority of whom live in the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Romania. As new member states of the European Union, the citizens of these Eastern European countries now enjoy freedom of movement across the 27-nation bloc. As a result, the Roma are increasingly moving to the richer countries of Western Europe where despite the ingrained rhetoric of human rights, they find themselves as unwelcome as ever.

The ‘Roma problem’ is currently in the spotlight after French President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed to rid the country of all “illegally” resident Roma, following an attack on a police station in July in which Roma were allegedly involved. Despite sharp criticism from the United Nations, human rights groups and even the Pope, France expelled 283 Roma last week, bringing the total number of Romanian and Bulgarian Roma expelled this year to 8,313.

Although they are EU citizens, the Roma are required by French law, like other non-French nationals, to have a work permit and prove they have the means to support themselves if they intend to stay in the country for more than three months. Many of the Roma in France are, however, without permits and according to the French government are engaged in “aggressive begging” and crime.

French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux has said one in five thefts in the Paris area was carried out by Romanians and that crimes committed by Romanian citizens in the French capital had risen by 259 per cent over the past 18 months. The French government has already dismantled some 50-odd Roma camps and has said it will close up to 300 settlements over the next three months.

The UN's Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has criticised the tone of political discourse in France on race issues, stating that racism and xenophobia were undergoing a "significant resurgence" there. Other critics of the policy claim it to be a ploy by Sarkozy to win support from the far right at a time when his popularity is flagging.

Some of the Roma living in France are part of long-established communities of travelling people who are French nationals. In addition, there are an estimated 12,000 Roma who are recent immigrants.

The European Union has expressed concern over the situation and promised to launch an investigation into whether any of the bloc’s rules are being broken by the French action.

The debate in Europe has thus come to turn on technicalities of the law, with the French insisting on their legal right to deport Roma without permits. They also assert the majority of those deported left voluntarily in return for a small cash handout. Critics however say that collective deportation of people by quota is illegal and to justify the expulsion of a EU citizen, there must be an individual evaluation of every case.

But beyond the legal technicalities, the current predicament of the Roma points to the deeper problems of integration that Europe faces. […] As a result, there is no place within European society for peoples who resist homogenisation, as the Roma have for hundreds of years. Despite efforts to settle them, the Roma remain nomadic, rarely send their children to school and often eschew conventional employment.


This week, the European Network Against Racism, a lobby organisation, pointed out that France is not the only guilty party, saying it was “extremely worried that recent discriminatory measures and statements targeting the Roma population and stigmatising this ethnic group in a number of countries, including France, Italy, Denmark and Sweden, have led to a climate of impunity for those who want to target this population.” […]

Journalist and author Pallavi Aiyar reported from China for the Hindu and Indian Express. She currently lives in Brussels, where she writes about Europe for the Business Standard. Pallavi has degrees in Philosophy, History and Media Sociology from St Stephens College Delhi University, Oxford and the London School of Economics.

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European Parliament Opposes Anti-Roma Actions of France and Italy

Italian police yesterday (7 September) resumed the dismantling of Roma camps near Milan and Rome and transferred some of the inhabitants to temporary housing, with the mayor of the Italian capital pledging to accelerate the demolitions.

Milan police tore down barracks and tents housing some 250 Roma, who "left without creating any problems," a police spokesman told AFP. Social services in the northern Italian city offered temporary housing to the displaced, but only two dozen women and children accepted the offer. The city's right-wing mayor Riccardo De Corato said the crackdown, which has seen 315 settlements levelled since 2007, has allowed him to "contain the influx of Roma whose status is illegal". Currently there are some 1,200 Roma in Milan, compared to 10,000 three years ago, he noted.

Similar actions were carried out on the outskirts of Rome on Tuesday, with police saying demolitions will continue throughout the week.

Rome's mayor Gianni Alemanno on Monday said police would tear down some 200 settlements at the rate of three or four each week and transfer inhabitants to 10 official camps overseen by local authorities.

He spoke after meeting French immigration minister Eric Besson in Paris, just as France is trying to shake off EU and international criticism for deporting Roma back to Romania and Bulgaria.

Mr Alemanno said he would accelerate the action against illegal camps after a three-year-old Romanian died in a fire in a camp near Rome in August. He added that Rome could host a maximum of 6,000 nomads in about 10 "legal" camps, compared to the 7,100 currently living in the city. He did not specify what would happen to the rest.

Meanwhile, in Strasbourg, euro-deputies on Wednesday are voting on a resolution condemning the politicisation of the Roma issue by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who linked a rise in crime to the existence of the irregular settlements.

Speaking in plenary on Tuesday, Livia Jaroka, the only Roma MEP in the EU legislature, stressed the right of freedom of movement of citizens, while acknowledging it is "not unconditional".

"We the European Roma refuse the political misuse and interpretation of our issues," she said. A European solution, instead of political ping-pong between capitals, is the only way to solve the problem of the some 12 million Roma living on the continent, she added.

Her own party colleagues – Ms Jaroka is a member of the centre-right European People's Party from Hungary – tried to make political capital on her intervention however, by saying their group is the only one containing a Roma MEP.

The EPP is in a delicate position because Mr Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi are both part of its political family.

The group – which is the largest in the parliament – has tabled its own text on the Roma issue in which Mr Sarkozy's actions are not criticised. The centre-left and Green groups, however, are pushing for stronger wording.

Faced with an avalanche of criticism from MEPs, EU fundamental rights commissioner Viviane Reding said she would not hesitate to challenge France in court if there is "solid proof" that it violated EU law when deporting Roma to Romania and Bulgaria.

"Our legal services continue to analyse what are the facts on the ground. We can't just go there and declare war on a member state," Ms Reding defended herself in front of furious MEPs who deemed her initial speech "scandalous" for not saying clearly if France was in breach of EU law or not. "You can be assured that if there is legal evidence on France or any other country [breaking EU law] normally I win this in front of the court."

The commission's experts were still examining if all the roughly 900 Roma deported from France in August had received notice one month, if the measure was proportionate and if each case was evaluated individually – all criteria required by EU law.

Ms Reding insisted that the EU's protection of fundamental rights is just as strong as its protection of the internal market.

"Europe is not just a common market, it is a community of values and fundamental rights. The European Commission condemns inflammatory rhetoric not only in France, but in many other states," she said, in reference to the linkage made by French President Nicolas Sarkozy between immigration and an increase in crime.

Paris also received a letter from Ms Reding on Tuesday in which she criticises the fact that France did not completely transpose into national law the 2004 EU directive on the freedom of movement.

A special "task force" on the Roma issue will be set up within the EU commission to monitor the way member states are using community funds in order to better integrate this populous minority into their society. The evaluation will also look at the effectiveness of those programmes, she said.

Out of the 27 member states, 12 – Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Spain, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Romania, Slovenia and Slovakia – have support programmes in place targeting Roma, for a total budget of €17.5 billion.

Ms Reding also requested a "jumbo council" meeting of interior, justice and social affairs ministers on the Roma issue – an exercise which should then occur on an annual basis in order to keep this item on the political agenda "not only in the month of August."

"Member states don't take their responsibilities to change the situation on the ground for the Roma people," she said.

For instance, a meeting in Cordoba organised by the Spanish EU presidency earlier this year only saw two Spanish ministers, a French secretary of state and Finnish minister attending, she noted.

The softer tone in Ms Reding's initial speech, which praised the French authorities for exchanging a lot of information and "giving reassurances" that they did not violate EU law comes one day after a meeting between commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

A spokesman for Mr Barroso confirmed that the Roma issue came up and said that the two leaders agreed that "there was no interest for both parties to create a controversy out of this issue."

In his "State of the European Union" speech earlier on Tuesday, Mr Barroso made only an implicit reference to the Roma issue, without singling out France.

"Everyone in Europe must respect the law, and the governments must respect human rights, including those of minorities. Racism and xenophobia have no place in Europe, " he said.

When pressed by MEPs to give a clearer answer on whether he endorses Mr Sarkozy's policy on Roma, Mr Barroso pointed deputies to the debate with commissioner Reding, scheduled three hours later.

(sources: AFP, EUObserver)

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