French memo targets Roma camps for crackdown


A leaked government document instructing French police to prioritize the systematic elimination of illegal Roma shanty towns, above other unauthorized squats, is fueling accusations that the state is discriminating against a specific group.

The letter dated Aug. 5 from the Interior Ministry to local police prefects calls for “systematic steps for the dismantling of illicit camps, in priority those of the Roma.”

The circular, published by French news media late Friday, has supplied evidence for human rights groups and other individuals to take legal action against the government over its drive to rapidly dismantle illegal camps and deport Roma, also known as Gypsies, to Bulgaria and Romania.

In response, the Interior Ministry announced Monday night that it had rewritten the circular, which stated, “Three hundred illegal camps or sites must be evacuated in three months, in priority those of the Roma.” The new circular does not specially mention Roma. But the edits are not likely to silence critics.

“This openly anti-Roma circular…is the symbol of the discriminatory and xenophobic policy which the government has led for several weeks against this population,” the Socialist Party national secretary, Harlem Desir, said in a statement Sunday. He also asked the European Commission to begin a “procedure” to sanction France for breaking the law; the commission said it would study the development.

With the circular, “we link actions to words. We have targeted a group of people because of their affiliation to a community,” said Stephane Maugendre, president of Gisti, a French legal defense group for immigrants. The group said it was preparing an official complaint against the government’s initiative, to be submitted to France’s State Council, a top judicial body.

Though President Nicolas Sarkozy made it clear in July that he wanted to “put an end to the wild implantation of Roma camps” and called such camps sources of crime, he has denied stigmatizing Roma, an ethnic minority that has long suffered discrimination.

Faced with international accusations of depicting Roma as menacing criminals, Minister of Immigration Eric Besson contended Thursday, before the circular’s leak, that “France uses no specific measure regarding Roma.” The state did not “recognize ethnic minorities” as a concept, and refrains from deporting groups, he added.

On Monday, Besson said he hadn’t known about the circular, which has brought the controversy to a new level.

“We now have a very precise, operational administrative device that is aimed at a highlighted group of people,” said Jean-Bernard Auby, law professor at Sciences Po Paris university. “It’s the techno-bureaucratic quality of the thing that makes it harder to accept,” and adds legitimacy to suspicions the government is guilty of stigmatization, he said.

The circular provides human rights groups and other political opponents a written decision that is necessary in order “to attack” the government through some sort of legal means, said Auby. “You couldn’t just do this based on a press statement or a speech,” he said of official complaints.

LauterZ is a special correspondent.