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France launches crackdown on Roma and traveling communities

Illegal Roma, Gypsy and travelers camps in France will be torn down due to 'security problems,' the government has announced. Critics have accused President Nicolas Sarkozy of trying to create a scapegoat.

A Roma family in a makeshift camp in Saint Denis, a suburb of Paris

Travelers live in makeshift camps all over France

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has ordered the dismantling of 300 illegal camps of Romany and traveling folk.

The announcement, which has attracted criticizm from human rights groups, followed crisis talks with ministers in Paris on Wednesday.

Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said that half of France's illegal camps would be dismantled in the next three months, and that illegal Roma immigrants breaking the law would be immediately deported.

"Tax inspectors will be sent to inspect the households of the inhabitants of these illicit and illegal camps because a lot of our compatriots are rightly surprised to see the caravans pulled by certain powerful cars," he said.

'Security' problems

President Sarkozy described the "security problems" caused by traveling groups and Roma, a week after declaring "war on crime" following riots in different parts of France over a weekend.

Roma travelers rioted in the small village of Saint-Aignan, in the Loire Valley region of central France, on Sunday morning. Armed with hatchets and iron bars, they felled trees and traffic lights, torched cars and attacked the local bakery and police station. 300 soldiers were called in to ensure no more trouble.

Sarkozy said those responsible for the clashes would be "severely punished" and ordered the government to expel all illegal Roma immigrants.

The attacks followed the shooting of a 22-year-old man belonging to one of the traveler groups. His vehicle failed to stop at a police checkpoint, and an officer opened fire.

Rioters also torched shops and cars in a suburb of Grenoble in southeastern France. Four people were arrested, after attacks not linked to traveling communities.

Sarkozy under fire

President Sarkozy has been accused of stigmatising and failing to distinguish between Roma, Gypsy and traveling folk.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the Elysee Palace in Paris

Sarkozy, with an investigation into donations and low poll ratings, is under pressure

"He has it in for all Roma camps which were illegally established," said Jean-Pierre Dubois, President of the French League of Human Rights. "It is therefore a question of an ethnically-grounded collective penalty. If you substitute the word 'Roma' for 'Jews,' then you can immediately see where the words of the President lead."

Sarkozy, who rose to prominence as an Interior Minister who was tough on crime, has also been accused of trying to gain political capital, to divert attention away from the Bettencourt scandal, which sees his UMP party under investigation for receiving illegal donations from France's richest woman.

"As happens too often in history, Gypsies are once more being made scapegoats by a ruling class tangled up in political and financial scandals," the Gypsy rights association UFAT said in a statement.

Established communities

Ethnic Roma trace their origins to medieval India. They have large populations in southeastern Europe and an established presence in France, where around 15,000 currently live.

There are around 400,000 Gypsies, of which Sinti communities are a part, and French-national travelers in the country.

Author: Thomas Sheldrick (AFP/Reuters/AP)
Editor: Rob Turner

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