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.
At her September 14 news conference, Reding alluded to a French interior ministry circular that was supposed to be the “smoking gun” proving beyond doubt that France was discriminating against the Roma on ethnic grounds. But even this now famous or infamous administrative circular is far less damning than it appears on first glance. In fact, on closer inspection, it proves precisely the opposite. The circular begins as follows: “On last July 28, the President of the Republic established precise objectives for evacuating illegal encampments: 300 illegal encampments or settlements should be evacuated within three months, with priority being given to Roma encampments or settlements.” This appears very damning, indeed.
Until, that is, one realizes that the French administration makes a distinction between foreign gypsies – for whom it uses the nowadays politically-correct designation “Roma” – and French gypsies, for whom it uses the even more politically-correct designation “travelling people” or “gens du voyage.” The circular in question employs this very distinction. Thus, the actual meaning of the instructions it contains is simply that priority should be given to the dismantling of camps occupied by illegal aliens. The latter are then to be “returned” to their countries of origin. Obviously, if France was deporting its own citizens because they so happened to be gypsies, then Commissioner Reding would have good reason to worry that the days of Vichy France and the Third Reich are again upon us. But this is a pure phantasm: nothing of the sort is happening.
In announcing on September 29 that the commission would be going ahead with infringement proceedings against France, Commissioner Reding appeared to walk back her earlier accusations of discrimination, merely referring now to “procedural” inadequacies in France’s transposition of the free movement directive. But that the Romanian and Bulgarian occupants of what are, after all, illegal encampments do not meet the conditions for residing in France is virtually self-evident.
When interviewed by French and international media, Romanian Roma threatened with expulsion have been perfectly open about the fact that their essential economic activity consists of begging. The latter is sometimes accompanied by ancillary – if typically unrequested – services, such as the playing of music or the squeegeeing of windshields. Needless to say, however, neither begging nor squeegeeing figure among the some 150 professions in which Romanians and Bulgarians in general are presently authorized to seek work in France. Persons who have completed advanced degrees in the country benefit from more liberal arrangements.
The full absurdity of the controversy is revealed by the fact that while France is entirely within its rights to expel the Romanian and Bulgarian gypsies, those who have been thus expelled are perfectly within their rights to take the next flight right back to France. While Romanians and Bulgarians do not yet enjoy full freedom of movement as defined in EU law, they no longer have any visa requirement for travel to other EU countries. It is common knowledge in both France and Romania that many of the “expellees” do in fact return.
Indeed, a quick expulsion can even be a profitable affair. As a “humanitarian” measure, French authorities have been paying adult foreign residents of illegal camps €300 to be flown home to their countries of origin, plus €100 for every child. Now, a one-way plane ticket from Bucharest to Paris, for example, can easily be had for less than €100. Bus tickets are, of course, even cheaper. The French Minister of Immigration Eric Besson has admitted that some expelled Roma have made a practice of returning to France and getting expelled multiple times in order to maximize their “humanitarian” compensation. French authorities have created a “biometric database” that is now supposed to prevent such repeat payments. But, as Besson has likewise admitted, they are powerless to prevent people from returning.
A French police officer who spoke with the daily Le Figaro told the story of one Roma man who “was flown to Romania after pocketing the 300 euros. Over there, a bus from Bucharest to Paris costs 60 euros. Less than one week later, the person in question was back in France. And he had brought four cousins with him whose tickets he had bought with the money from his pay-out!”
John Rosenthal writes regularly on European politics for both old and new media. More of his work can be found at www.trans-int.com.