World News

France to dismantle Roma camps, expel offenders

PARIS (Reuters) - President Nicholas Sarkozy on Wednesday ordered the dismantling of 300 illegal camps of travelers and Roma across France as part of a fight against crime and urban violence that has alarmed some rights groups.

Sarkozy also ordered the “almost immediate” expulsion of Roma from Bulgaria and Romania who had committed public order offences.

The conservative leader, who made his name as a tough-talking interior minister under former President Jacques Chirac, promised a crackdown last week after a weekend of rioting in two cities, one involving an attack on a police station by Roma.

In a statement issued after a special ministerial meeting to discuss the Roma “problem,” the president’s office also announced new legislation before the end of the year to make it easier to expel groups such as Roma for security reasons.

Some 10,000 Roma were expelled from France last year alone.

“Within the next three months, half of the illegal camps will be dismantled -- camps and squats -- that is to say some 300,” Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said after the meeting.

This month’s riots revived memories of the widespread violence that spread across the country from the Paris suburbs in 2005, triggered by the death of two young people of immigrant origin who were fleeing police.

In mid-July riots in Grenoble, at the foot of the French Alps, followed the death of a local man fleeing police after allegedly holding up a casino.

In the small town of Saint-Aignan, in central France, a group of around 50 Roma rioters armed with axes attacked a police station and government property after police shot and killed a 22-year-old.

Sarkozy, promising a “relentless fight against crime,” said last week that the violence at Saint-Aignan “highlighted the problems posed by the behavior of certain travelers and Roma.”

Human rights groups said Sarkozy’s comments and his decision to call a ministerial meeting to discuss the Roma risked stigmatising a social group with long-established cultural traditions.

The government has said it is not a question of ethnicity but of respect for the law.

The statement from the president’s office described the illegal camps as “sources of illegal trafficking, of profoundly shocking living standards, of exploitation of children for begging, of prostitution and crime.”

The opposition Socialists say the outbreaks of urban violence are connected to severe social and housing problems in poor neighbourhoods, and want the government to address these problems rather than focus on tougher security measures.

Writing by Daniel Flynn, editing by Tim Pearce