Thousands of people have been rallying across France and in some European cities to protest against the deportation of Roma as well as other new security measures adopted by French President Nicolas Sarkozy's government.
Protests are underway in 130 French towns
Human rights groups, trade unions and anti-racism organizations across France and Europe launched protests Saturday against President Nicolas Sarkozy's policy of deporting thousands of Roma people as part of anti-crime measures.
France's Human Rights League, which called for the demonstrations, said it wanted to counteract government "xenophobia" and what it described as the systematic abuse of Roma in France.
The rallies are being backed by France's opposition Socialist Party and the General Confederation of Labour (CGT), France's second largest trade union confederation.
Protestors are also rallying against a government policy to revoke citizenship for naturalized immigrants found guilty of attacking police officers.
Over 110 groups organized demonstrations in 130 towns in France, notably in the capital and the southern cities of Marseille, Bordeaux and Toulouse.
Roma lead Paris march alongside celebrities
Organizers claim turnout in Paris at 50,000
In Paris, demonstrators included Romanian Roma as well as political and artistic figures and union organizers. They chanted: "No to xenophobia and pillory politics. Liberty, egality, fraternity."
Demonstrators including actress-singer Jane Birkin, staged a demonstration in support of undocumented migrants outside the ministry of immigration.
Police estimate some 12,000 protestors attended demonstrations in Paris alone, while organizers put that figure at 50,000.
High school principal Jean-Louis Tetrel told news agency Reuters there was "a feeling of deepening rage against the government which is rather new, which has been growing in the past few months," adding, "Things are really boiling over now."
Turnout 'a disappointment' for organizers
The Human Rights League estimated a national turnout of 100,000, but police say the figure was closer to 30,000.
French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux dismissed the protests, claiming that participation levels were a disappointment to organizers.
"Today's so-called 'defense of human rights' demonstrations only managed to bring out, in total, across the whole of the territory a few tens of thousands," he said.
Protests also took place in front of French embassies in capitals such as London, Brussels and Bucharest. Demonstrations were also held in Madrid, Rome and the Serbian capital Belgrade.
In Brussels, some 100 demonstrators held signs mocking the 300 euros ($385) compensation awarded to Roma who voluntarily return to their native countries.
Nearly 1,000 Roma have been deported to their native Romania
French President Nicolas Sarkozy began a high-profile campaign in July to dismantle half of France's approximately 600 illegal Roma camps within three months, claiming that they were breeding grounds for crime - especially human trafficking and prostitution.
French officials have said the deportations are part of a broader crackdown on illegal immigration .
The crackdown, viewed by many as a move to boost Sarkozy's popularity, has been widely criticized in France and abroad.
French media reported that Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said he was shocked by the president's anti-crime proposals and even considered resigning over the move.
In late August, the United Nations said in a statement that such tactics, as well as "discriminatory political discourse" should be "avoided."
Human rights groups say the crackdown on illegal Roma camps has left hundreds without a roof over their heads.
"This summer, there has been a veritable declaration of war which has manifested itself in the systematic destruction of the places in which they (Roma) live," said Philippe Rodier of Medecins du Monde (Doctors of the World), ahead of a demonstration against disbandment of Roma camps in Marseille.
Authorities say they have offered money to Roma to return to Romania
According to the organization, nine of the 14 Roma camps in the city had been destroyed, with hundreds of people now forced to live on the streets.
French authorities have deported nearly 1,000 Roma to Romania and Bulgaria since July. More than 8,000 have been expelled from their camps since the beginning of the year, with 9,875 expelled throughout 2009.
There are an estimated 15,000 Roma living in France. Under EU freedom of movement laws, they may legally stay in the country for three months without employment or permanent residence, before facing deportation.
Author: David Levitz (AFP/KNA/Reuters)
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar