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20th Sep 2019

French ministers lash out at 'grotesque' criticisms of Roma policy

  • Human rights groups accuse France and other EU countries of triggering a 'licence to kill' climate toward Roma (Photo: Magne Haagen)

French government ministers in Brussels on Tuesday (31 August) to defend the country's Roma expulsion policy lashed out at what they described as "grotesque" attacks and mischaracterisations of the country's round-ups launched in July.

Immigration minister Eric Besson, speaking to journalists in Brussels after the meeting with EU commissioners, attacked such criticisms of the French policy calling them "needless and scandalous accusations."

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His colleague, Europe minister Pierre Lellouche, described the meeting with the EU executive as "frank, far-reaching and constructive," but hit out at the "numerous unacceptable caricatures" of France.

"There has been no ‘collective' expulsion put in place," Mr Besson continued, stressing that individuals are being expelled for theft, for "aggressive begging" and other crimes and that other EU citizens who are not Roma have also been expelled in the past.

"There is no so-called ‘Roma Plan'. This is absurd," he said, insisting that French policy respected EU laws.

The ministers made the comments after a Slovak gunman shot and killed six members of a Roma family and another woman in Bratislava on Monday, a development that human rights groups are explicitly linking to what they describe as a growing aggressive discourse regarding Europe's largest ethnic minority.

On Tuesday the European Network Against Racism (Enar), an EU-funded civil society network of some 700 anti-racism NGOs, said that European countries engaged in expulsions had created an anti-Roma climate that has "triggered a licence to kill."

According a surviving member of the Slovak Roma family quoted in SME, a domestic daily, the gunman had repeatedly harassed the family. "He'd always been very hostile to coloured people and hated us," said a young woman who identified herself as a granddaughter of one of the victims. "He picked on us all the time."

"We are extremely worried that recent discriminatory measures and statements targeting the Roma population and stigmatising this ethnic group in a number of countries, including France, Italy, Denmark and Sweden, have led to a climate of impunity for those who want to target this population," said Enar in a statement.

Pressed by one journalist whether Mr Besson saw any link between the murders in Bratislava and Paris' discourse linking Roma to criminality, Mr Besson said: "If you were French, I would describe such a question as grotesque."

Mr Lellouche suggested that the problem lay with Romania, arguing that of the €4 billion a year the EU delivers to the country, "only €80 million" is spent on social projects for Roma integration.

Asked how much France itself spent on Roma integration, Mr Besson said he did not know because France does not treat its citizens based on their ethnicity but that the figure was "enormous."

Bucharest: ‘Stunned at France's xenophobia and racism'

Bucharest, for its part, hit back at the French accusations. Three Romanian ministers were also in the EU capital to meet with the European Commission. Briefing journalists, the officials said that some seven percent of EU social funds allocated to Romania had already been spent on Roma projects.

Europe minister Bogdan Aurescu denounced France's "game with statistics" and added "this ping pong cannot go on."

"There is a shared responsibility between the state of origin, and Romania happily accepts its role here, the state of arrival and the EU as a whole," he said.

Valentin Mocanu, a junior minister recently appointed to deal with the Roma upon a French request said: "I am stunned to notice that the rhetoric has continued with a risk of going beyond normal and toward xenophobia and racism."

The ministers said they have also requested that the commission investigate the expulsions, as out of the hundreds so far returned to Romania, said Mr Aurescu, "not one had a criminal record either in Romania or France," and question whether "they are really that voluntary. People have been threatened with forced evacuations if they do not accept the cash."

Mr Aurescu accused France of closing the door on the right of EU citizens to move freely throughout the bloc.

"We do not accept any restriction of freedom of movement. After 50 years of Communism, it is a very special and important right we have achieved," he said, referring to a push from France and Italy for the introduction of a minimum personal income to be attached to European freedom of movement. "This would clearly target countries that are poorer within the EU."

"We do not want to see a new curtain rising based on this criteria."

Concrete Roma integration projects

According to the commission, Ms Reding had reminded France that the country needed to respect EU freedom of movement.

As a result of the events related to the Roma community of the past few months, it is understood that Ms Reding is to ask all member states to regularly update on Roma-dedicated projects, not just Romania.

"But also not just a number attached to some amount of cash, but actual concrete projects," said one commission official.

She is also to request that the Roma question be regularly placed on the agendas of the Council of Ministers, the EU formation that brings together member-state government ministers.

Ms Reding is to give an initial analysis of the Roma expulsion policies on Wednesday to the full meeting of the college of commissioners, but has requested France submit further information.

The Brussels meetings came as an administrative tribunal in Lille cancelled the deportation orders of seven Roma on Monday, saying the cases did not pose ''a real, immediate and sufficiently grave threat."

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