By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 30, 2010; 6:42 PM
PARIS - Much of France has returned from summer vacation in a rancorous mood, disturbed by a crackdown ordered by President Nicolas Sarkozy against illegal Roma camps and naturalized immigrant youths who attack police in troubled suburbs.
The campaign, in which 50 of about 300 Roma, or Gypsy, camps have been destroyed since July, has added to political discontent already swelling over Sarkozy's plans to push back the retirement age from 60 to 62 and suggestions that a minister in his cabinet, Eric Woerth, used his influence to place his wife in a job helping manage the fortune of France's wealthiest woman.
But the unease over the action against illegal Roma immigrants, most from Romania and Bulgaria, has been particularly strong, with the expulsions drawing criticism at home and abroad.
For many, such policies undermine France's idea of itself as a haven for exiles and a beacon for human rights. Similar fears of intolerance were raised in July when, at Sarkozy's urging, the National Assembly passed a law banning women from wearing full-face Islamic veils in public.
A U.N. human rights panel sharply criticized Sarkozy's actions against the Roma camps last week and called on him to halt the campaign. Pope Benedict XVI, speaking in French to make sure the message was received, called on Catholics to respect human diversity. Taking the church's criticism one step further, the archbishop of Toulouse, Robert Le Gall, suggested a parallel with France's expulsion of Jews during the Nazi occupation in World War II.
In the political arena, the policies have generated protests from Sarkozy's opponents, on the right as well as the left. Former prime minister Dominique de Villepin, once Sarkozy's boss and now his adversary, said the president's actions have stained the French flag. The opposition Socialist leader, Martine Aubry, called Sarkozy's policies a "shame" for the country.
Their view is that the president decided to act against Roma and lawbreakers among immigrants' children as a way to recover from flagging approval ratings in the polls and distract public opinion from the continuing controversy over Woerth. In a recent poll, two-thirds of those queried approved of the campaign, suggesting the policy might provide at least temporary gains as Sarkozy maneuvers to set the stage for reelection in 2012.
But the crackdown, with televised images of Gypsy trailers being crushed by power shovels, also has caused misgivings among some of Sarkozy's own ministers. Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Monday that he had considered resigning but decided he could be more effective within the government. Defense Minister Herve Morin said instilling fear was not the answer to France's security problems.
Even Prime Minister Francois Fillon seemed uncomfortable with the tone as his government colleagues applauded Sarkozy's crackdown. "There were in my camp a certain number of remarks that I did not accept during the summer," he said Monday in a radio interview that broke a much-commented-upon silence, "because I think there is no one-upsmanship necessary in this area, and what we have to do is deal with the subject."
Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux, who as head of police is leading the charge, insisted Sarkozy's government is simply enforcing French and European immigration laws. About 700 Roma illegally in France will be expelled to Romania and Bulgaria, his ministry estimated. Hortefeux dismissed the U.N. criticism as a misunderstanding and, to emphasize his point, presided Monday over the opening of a sanitary campsite for Roma who are French citizens."One does not apply the law halfway," he told reporters at the site in southern France. "The law applies to everyone. The Roma community is not above the law, nor is it beneath the law. That means that the objective announced by the president of the republic, that half our country's illegal camps will be dismantled in three months, will be met."
In addition to the campaign against illegal Roma camps, Hortefeux's ministry has prepared legislation that would strip French nationality from the French-born children of immigrants who are convicted of attacks on police or firefighters. The proposal, publicly applauded by Sarkozy, came in response to incidents early this summer in which police were fired on after being called in to quell disorder in poor suburban housing projects inhabited mostly by Arab immigrants and their children.As French law stands, children of immigrants who are born in France automatically become citizens. Critics have suggested Hortefeux's proposal will not survive a challenge in the courts because it violates the constitution's guarantee that all citizens should be treated equally.
But the ministry also is preparing legislation to strip French nationality from citizens who acquire nationality through marriage and subsequently live in de facto polygamy. This measure originated from concern over an Islamic activist of Algerian origin who married once according to law but then took several other women as common-law wives, benefiting from welfare payments to them and their children.