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Thousands protest French clampdown against Roma

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

French opposition parties, unions and civil rights groups protest against President Nicolas Sarkozy's tough anti-crime proposals in Nantes, September 4, 2010. The words on the banners read "Discrimination undermines democracy" REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

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.

Critics see expulsions of Roma gypsies as part of a drive by Sarkozy to revive his popularity before 2012 elections and divert attention from painful pension reforms and spending cuts.

The president, who says the security measures are needed to combat crime, faces a bigger test on Tuesday when workers hold a nationwide strike and protests over the pension reforms, which he says are essential to help cut the budget deficit.

“This weekend’s demonstrations will be a first indicator of the country’s mood during this turbulent return to work for politicians,” the left-leaning Liberation newspaper said.

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. Police estimated the turnout at 12,000.

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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.”

“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. But Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said in a statement that only a few tens of thousands had taken part nationwide, less than organizers had hoped, and that he would press on with reforms.

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.”

Sarkozy said on Friday he was determined to stand by his pension reforms, which among other things will raise the retirement age to 62 from 60.

Unions say everything from schools and public transport to telecommunications will be disrupted in Tuesday’s strike, which coincides with the start of debate on the reforms in the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament.


Several unions are calling for a 24-hour shutdown from 8 p.m. on Monday.

State railways are set to be affected, and Air France said on Friday that its operations would be hit.

It expects to operate all long-haul flights and 90 percent of its short- and medium-haul flights from Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport, but only half of its short- and medium-haul flights from Orly airport.

The government unveiled plans in June to overhaul the pay-as-you-go pensions system and clean up state finances. It said that, without major changes, the system would run up annual deficits of 50 billion euros ($67 billion) by 2020.

“I will not be the president of the Republic who leaves without having balanced the pension system,” Sarkozy told factory workers on Friday. “I am extremely determined.”

Additional Reporting by Elizabeth Pineau and Jean-Baptiste Vey; Writing by Helen Massy-Beresford; Editing by Kevin Liffey