French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday ordered authorities to expel Gypsy illegal immigrants and dismantle their camps, amid accusations that his government is acting racist in its treatment of the group known as Roma.
Sarkozy called a government meeting Wednesday after Gypsies clashed with police this month following the shooting death of a youth fleeing officers in the Loire Valley.
Sarkozy said those responsible for the clashes would be “severely punished” and ordered the government to expel all illegal Roma immigrants, almost all of whom have come from eastern Europe.
He pushed for a change in France’s immigration law to make such expulsion easier “for reasons of public order.” He said illegal Gypsy camps “will be systematically evacuated,” calling them sources of trafficking, exploitation of children and prostitution.
Community leaders contend the very principle of the meeting–which singled out an ethnic group in a country that is officially blind to ethnic origins–is racist and warn of grave consequences if their side isn’t heard. France’s government does not count how many of its citizens are of a certain ethnicity; everyone is simply considered French.
France’s relationship with what it calls Gypsies is complex and complicated by divisions among the disparate populations.
One, formally given the administrative label of “traveling folk,” includes several hundred thousand French citizens who have lived in France for centuries, and were traditionally nomadic but have become increasingly sedentary in recent years.
The other main Gypsy population is made up of recent immigrants who come mostly from Eastern European countries like Romania and Bulgaria, usually illegally, and are often seen begging on the streets of French cities.
Those in the more established communities say they are being unfairly lumped together with illegal new immigrants. Sarkozy’s orders Wednesday targeted Roma, though the violence in Saint-Aignan earlier this month was in a community of traveling folk established in the region for years.