PARIS (Reuters) - France will not stop its policy of repatriating Roma after almost 1,000 people were sent back to Romania and Bulgaria since a government crackdown on crime and immigration at the end of July, ministers said on Monday.
President’s Nicolas Sarkozy is facing mounting pressure from rights groups, left-wing opponents and even some politicians from his own conservative camp on the policy, which was last week rebuked by a United Nations human rights body.
“The removal of illegal camps will continue because it is legitimate and necessary,” Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said at a joint news conference with the immigration and European affairs minister.
“France is not a wasteground,” he added.
Police on Thursday put 300 Roma on planes departing from Paris and Lyon, in the latest wave of what Sarkozy’s government calls a voluntary repatriation scheme. The flights brought the number of Roma expelled from France this year to more than 8,300.
Immigration Minister Eric Besson, who travels to Brussels on Tuesday to discuss the issue with the European Commission, said 979 Roma had been repatriated since July 28 and two more planes would leave later this month.
The minister is also proposing amendments to ease deportation laws that would include expelling people for repeated public order offences such as “aggressive begging”.
The U.N. Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on August 27 urged France to try to integrate members of the EU’s biggest ethnic minority as part of a Europe-wide solution.
Police have dismantled dozens of makeshift Roma staging posts on orders from Sarkozy, whose tough law-and-order rhetoric helped sweep him to power in 2007.
Critics have denounced the move at the political level as a ploy to boost Sarkozy’s flagging popularity before elections in 2012 and divert attention from unpopular plans to raise the retirement age and cut public spending.
Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, a staunch human rights campaigner, said he had considered resigning.
“I thought about it,” Kouchner told RTL radio on Monday. “(But) What would it have achieved for the Roma?”
As Romanian citizens Roma have a legal right to travel to other countries within the EU, but must demonstrate that they have obtained employment in order to stay legally in France beyond three months.
Paris has asked Romania to do more to improve the lot of their large Roma population, many of whom quit Romania in search of a better life in wealthier Western Europe.
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon defended the government’s position saying the Roma were not being stigmatized and it was a matter of respecting the law.
“Fifteen percent of delinquency in Paris is down to young Romanians,” Fillon told France Inter radio.
More than 10 million Roma live in the EU, roughly a fifth of them in Romania. Forming the bloc’s largest minority, they struggle with poverty and social exclusion, with limited access to education, health care and jobs.
Under the French crackdown, Roma who agree to leave the country receive 300 euros ($381.6) and an additional 100 euros for each of their children.
Editing by Michael Roddy