What do France’s right wing President Nicolas Sarkozy and Arizona’s Republican governor Janet Brewer have in common? They both think they have found a “novel” solution to falling poll numbers: Go after the dark skinned outsiders.

In Sarkozy’s case, his government is battling corruption scandals that sharply reduced his polling numbers. The next election is not until 2012, but Sarkozy and his right wing UMP (Union for a Popular Mobilization) party are taking no chances.

Sarkozy is the son of a Hungarian nobleman whose estates were confiscated under socialism and woman whose originally Sephardic family came from Thessaloniki, Greece. He associates himself with a French right wing which, since the Dreyfus scandal of a century ago, has been notably prone to extreme cultural nationalism and disdain for foreign influences. For demagogic electoral purposes, he seems to want to project himself as the most French of all.

Sarkozy has distinguished himself by his insulting statements about youth of African and Middle Eastern origin. Starting in July, he went after a new target: Itinerant foreign born Roma people (sometimes still called Gypsies).

Today, there are between a half million and a million and a half Roma in France, most of them settled down. But a minority still travels around in caravans and lives on the margins. These include a few thousand who moved to France from Eastern Europe after the collapse of socialism.

It would not be honest to say that the Roma had no grievances under the socialist governments. But after the collapse, virulent anti-Roma prejudices gained ground, leading to violent attacks. This has led to emigration, which in turn has been met with bigotry in Western European countries such as France. These more visibly foreign Roma, who for want of other possibilities end up living in shabby illegal camps, are frequently scapegoated by local political demagogues.

On July 28, after a couple of incidents between police and Roma, Sarkozy and his Minister of the Interior Brice Hortefeux began a series of raids on Roma camps, continuing, with more fanfare, an existing policy of eliminating illegal camps and rounding up foreign born Roma for deportation. So far this year 8,313 Roma have been deported, mainly to Romania and Bulgaria.

Sarkozy may be violating the rules of the European Union on the right of people of one Union country to travel to another, and Roma deported under this program can probably simply and legally return to France. This raises suspicions that all this is being done for the TV cameras.

Sarkozy has now upped the ante by threatening to institute a policy whereby the French born children of immigrants may be stripped of their citizenship if they commit serious crimes. This too will be difficult to implement, but if the purpose is to consolidate the nationalistic and populist right behind Sarkozy and the UMP, it does not matter. In the U.S., Republican politicians are doing the same with the plan to strip U.S. born children of undocumented immigrants of their citizenship. That’s probably not going to happen either, but it plays well with the base.

The Romanian and Bulgarian governments have objected. To the Romanians, France pointed out correctly that their recent governments have done little to provide for their own large and needy Roma populations, according to an article by Steve Castle in the New York Times.

The European Commission is investigating the matter.

Within France, the crudity of the Sarkozy-Hortefeux policy led to protests by the Roman Catholic Church, civil and immigrants’ rights organizations, most of the left and even some people in Sarkozy’s own government.

The French Communist Party (PCF) denounced Sarkozy’s anti-Roma campaign.

“The Roma are European citizens since 2007. These are rights which have to be respected….. Their sanitary and social situation can’t be regularized by means of a “coup” of spectacular expulsions, of dismantling of camps for the benefit of the evening TV news programs. These practices [belonging to] another era have to stop.

“The situation of the Roma is well known. Chased from town to town, from country to country, they are weakened, made vulnerable, and …. the target of all sorts of trafficking. The degree of civilization of a society is measured by its treatment of its weakest members.” The statement calls for France and Europe to stop this mistreatment, and to provide Roma, rather, with means to become settled with full access to all rights and services.



Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.