French police were yesterday breaking up gipsy camps and deporting illegal immigrants found in them.
Dozens of officers in riot gear descended on a settlement near Lille shortly after dawn to oversee the evacuation of some 200 Roma living in mobile homes.
One hundred people were evicted from a site in Lyon, with similar round-ups happening in other major cities including Marseille. Caravans and huts were destroyed in the Belleville area of central Paris on Wednesday, making another 100 people homeless.
‘Many of those evicted will be flown home to Romania,’ said an interior ministry source, who insisted the deportations were aimed at ridding France of ‘illegal’ communities.
Greece has also begun a crackdown on immigrants, with Athens claiming the country faced an ‘invasion’.
The policy being pursued by France’s socialist government was formulated by former conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy, who was frequently accused of pandering to the far right.
His government linked Roma camps with crime, suggesting that many of the thieves and muggers operating in big cities were homeless Romanians.
Many expected the more liberal socialists to show a more relaxed attitude toward immigrants, especially those from European Union member states. But Manuel Valls, the new interior minister, said the camps were a ‘challenge’ to ‘people living together’.
He insisted the police would uphold all court orders aimed at dismantling them.
Neighbours of the camps often complained about noise and anti-social behaviour, as well as serious crimes, said Mr Valls.
Humanitarian organisations have also linked the camps to ill health, including serious diseases such as tuberculosis.
Mr Valls said everything would be done to ensure that vulnerable people, and particularly ‘children and pregnant women’, were rehoused as quickly as possible.
Mr Sarkozy started a purge on Romas in the summer of 2010, pointing to the fact that up to 15,000 were living in camps across France. Mr Sarkozy even proposed that police travel to Romania to fight trafficking and other crimes committed there by Roma.
In turn, Roma groups accused Mr Sarkozy of ‘ethnic cleansing’, pointing to the fact that gipsies had been targeted by the Nazis during the Second World War.
They said that the purge was all part of a generally racist strategy adopted by Mr Sarkozy against all foreign groups, including some six million Muslims living in France.
Romania has been a full member of the European Union since 2007, and its citizens can enter France without a visa.
But they must get residency permits if they want to settle long term and work.
Britain, like France, has transitional controls on Romanians seeking to settle in the UK.
Until next year only those Romanian migrants who have a job or can support themselves are allowed to stay in Britain.