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Europe's New Extreme?

Nicolas Sarkozy and the French-EU Roma controversy.

8:00 AM, Oct 8, 2010 • By JOHN ROSENTHAL
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The European edition of Newsweek has discovered the face of European extremism. It peers out from the cover of the October 4 issue of the magazine. It consists neither of the hoary features of French National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, nor the fresher look of the blond-coiffed Dutch anti-Islam firebrand Geert Wilders. “Europe’s New Extreme” reads the headline. And the face on the cover is none other than that of French president Nicolas Sarkozy. “Sarkozy and the Rise of the Hard Right,” the sub-title runs.

What earns Sarkozy the title of extremist in the eyes of Newsweek is, of course, France’s treatment of the so-called Roma – or “gypsies,” as they are commonly known – and, more precisely, the decision to dismantle illegal gypsy encampments and deport their occupants.

The move came after residents of an illegal gypsy encampment near the small town of Saint-Aignan had vandalized the local gendarmerie and then proceeded to set fire to cars and commit other acts of vandalism in town. Two days earlier, on the night of July 16, a gendarme had shot and killed a young Roma man from the area. The young man had been a passenger in a car that was reportedly bearing down on the gendarme and refused to stop. The driver of the car has been arrested and charged with attempted homicide. The gendarme is under investigation. As it so happened, the rioting in Saint-Aignan occurred on the same weekend as far more violent rioting, involving Molotov cocktails and firearms, in Grenoble.

President Sarkozy responded to the events by announcing a series of measures to “restore the authority of the state,” including the dismantling of illegal gypsy encampments. Several of the measures provoked criticism from the French left. But it was the European Commission that threw the largest dose of fuel on the fire.

Thus, on September 14, EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding announced that the commission was considering the initiation of proceedings against France for violation of the European treaties and even indeed of the anti-discrimination protections contained in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. Alluding to the expulsion of the Roma and pronouncing herself “personally appalled,” Reding remarked, “This is a situation I had thought Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War.” Reding would later “regret” that her remarks were “interpreted” as the obvious allusion to the Third Reich that they were. But in face of the French expulsions, both she and commission president José Manuel Barroso would continue to insist on the commission’s role as “guardian of the treaties.”

The problem, however, is that the expulsions are clearly compatible with the treaties. For the Roma who have been expelled have not been so in their capacity as Roma, but rather in their capacity as Romanians and Bulgarians. Reding accused France, more specifically, of a discriminatory application of the EU directive on freedom of movement within the EU. But the fact of the matter is that citizens of Romania and Bulgaria are not guaranteed the enjoyment of full freedom of movement as defined in EU law until 2014. Until that time, so-called “transitional arrangements” may obtain, meaning that other EU member states may adopt national measures restricting such freedom as concerns Romanians and Bulgarians. It is, in effect, the EU treaties themselves – to which, of course, both Romania and Bulgaria agreed – that are discriminatory in this regard.

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