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Crackdown on illegal Gypsies stirs French Roma

Associated Press / July 29, 2010

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SAINT OUEN, France — President Nicolas Sarkozy ordered authorities yesterday 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 the government meeting after Gypsies clashed with police this month following the shooting death of a youth fleeing officers in Loire Valley.

He said those responsible for the clashes would be “severely punished,’’ and he ordered the government to expel all illegal Roma immigrants, almost all of whom 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.

The language has chilling undertones in a country where authorities rounded up Gypsies and sent them to concentration camps during the Nazi occupation in World War II. Jacques Chirac, the former president who was the first French leader to acknowledge the state’s role in the Holocaust, condemned “the Nazi madness that wanted to eliminate the Gypsies.’’

Around Europe, some 250,000 to 1.5 million Roma were killed during World War II. Accurate figures are difficult to find because many Roma were rounded up away from public view, executed, and dumped into mass graves.

French Roma representatives were not invited to yesterday’s presidential meeting, and said they are the only ethnic group authorities openly target.

Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux insisted that the tough new measures “are not meant to stigmatize any community, regardless of who they are, but to punish illegal behavior.’’

Romania and Bulgaria are members of the European Union, and their citizens can enter France without a visa, but they must get work permits to take a job and residency permits to settle long term.

Community leaders contend the very principle of the meeting — which singled out an ethnic group in a country officially blind to ethnic origins — is racist.

“Today . . . I am afraid we’re preparing to open a blighted page in the history of France, which could sadly lead to acts of reprisal in the days ahead,’’ lawyer Henri Braun said at a news conference French Roma leaders held yesterday.

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