By MATTHEW SALTMARSH
PARIS — President Nicolas Sarkozy has ordered the expulsion of illegal Roma and itinerant immigrants and the dismantlement of their camps in a move that has been labeled by human rights groups as xenophobic and criticized by his political opponents.
After a meeting late Wednesday, Mr. Sarkozy ordered the expulsion of Roma, with generational roots in Romania and Bulgaria, who had committed public-order offenses and said that illegal camps would be taken down. The Élysée Palace said legislation would be introduced before the end of the year to facilitate the process “for reasons of public order.”
Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said Thursday on RTL radio that over the next three months he would use decrees to dismantle about 300 illegal camps, of which 200 belong to Roma. These camps are the source of “illicit trafficking, children exploited for begging, prostitution or delinquency,” he said.
Those in France illegally or who have committed public-order offenses will be sent “almost immediately” back to their countries of origin without the possibility of returning, Mr. Hortefeux said, promising the use of digital fingerprinting technology to ensure this end.
He said the government was not stigmatizing the Roma, also referred to as Gypsies, but rather responding to concerns about public safety.
The move follows several recent incidents that have alarmed the population about public security.
This month, there was rioting in a suburb of Grenoble, in southeastern France, after the death of a local man as he fled the police, allegedly after holding up a casino. There was also violence in the small town of Saint-Aignan, in the Loire Valley, after Roma attacked a police station following an incident in which a gendarme shot and killed a traveler who had driven through a checkpoint.
As interior minister under President Jacques Chirac, Mr. Sarkozy had a reputation for talking and acting tough against delinquency. In 2005, as he sought to counter an explosion of youth violence in the suburbs, Mr. Sarkozy fueled anger by referring to the culture of “racaille,” a derogatory term variously translated into English as “scum,” “thugs,” “rabble,” “scoundrels,” “lowlife” and “riffraff.”
But Mr. Sarkozy emerged from that episode with polls showing he took the right approach in putting down the unrest. Now, confronted by stubbornly high unemployment and pushing tricky financial and social reforms, Mr. Sarkozy faces declining popularity in opinion polls and an election in 2012 against a strengthening Socialist Party.
La Ligue des Droits de l’Homme, a rights group, said the steps would “reinforce negative repressive measures.”
The government is “mixing up the situation of the European Roma with the travelers who have French nationality” and, “as a result of a few cases, developing the idea that there is an ethnic solution to the problem of delinquency.”
Amnesty International estimates that there are 400,000 itinerants or travelers with French nationality, and 20,000 Roma, in the country. They are mainly more recent immigrants with roots in Central and Eastern Europe.
The crackdown on travelers is not in itself new. Since last year, a number of camps have been dismantled. In October 2009, 200 to 300 Roma were expelled by riot police officers from their camp north of Paris on the orders of a judge. Mr. Hortefeux, the interior minister, said 9,875 Romanian and Bulgarian Roma were expelled from France last year.
Communes with more than 5,000 inhabitants are obliged by law to set aside areas for travelers. According to Amnesty International, fewer than half of them actually do so. As a result, many travelers set up illegal camps, usually on scrub or waste land on the outskirts of towns. Such camps are a common sight in small towns in the Paris region and beyond.
According to advocacy groups, many legitimate travelers already suffered discrimination before this latest crackdown, for example regularly having to present themselves at police stations, facing steps to deny them their voting rights and having difficultly educating their children.
Compounding the sense of discrimination, representatives of French Roma said that they were not invited to the presidential meeting Wednesday.
Throughout Europe, Roma were persecuted by the Nazis during World War II, with many rounded up and sent to concentration camps. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates that 200,000 were killed in this way; some estimates are many times higher.
Romania has an estimated one million Roma, the most of any other European country.
Bulgaria and Romania joined the European Union in 2007, enshrining free movement of people. But citizens from Bulgaria and Romania are subject to transitional provisions in France, requiring them to obtain a permit in order to work in certain professions.
Romania’s prime minister, Emil Boc, said Thursday that all European countries had a “common obligation” toward the millions of Roma on the Continent, The Associated Press reported.
Mr. Sarkozy also proposed that France bring in Romanian and Bulgarian police officers to work in the Paris region and send the French police to Romania and Bulgaria to help fight trafficking and other crime by Roma.
Pouria Amirshari, the Socialists’ national secretary for human rights, told the Nouvel Observateur that the president was “following a xenophobic logic.” He described Mr, Sarkozy’s intervention as “populist and demagogic.”