Sarkozy on defensive over Roma, as Romanian ministers arrive
French President Nicolas Sarkozy was on the defensive over his Roma deportations policy Wednesday as two Romanian ministers arrived in Paris to meet ministers. Earlier two former prime ministers joined the chorus of disapproval of Roma being sent back to eastern Europe.
Ministers must redouble their efforts at “dialogue and explanation” after the “often excessive and unfounded criticisms” the policy is facing, Sarkozy told the first cabinet meeting after the summer holidays.
Some 8,030 Roma have been sent back to Romania or Bulgaria this year, Immigration Minister Eric Besson said Wednesday. Most of them took up the government’s offer of cash to go, he said, with a minority of 1,291 being forcibly deported.
The government is preparing for stormy political weather in the autumn, as criticism spreads of the law and order campaign launched by Sarkozy and his closest allies.
On Tuesday former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin called for a reversal of the “rightward shift” of the UMP – the ruling party to which he still belongs. He implicitly criticised current PM François Fillon and other ministers for not speaking out against it.
And another former prime minister, Dominique de Villepin – a bitter political enemy of Sarkozy – called the policy “a shameful stain” on the French flag.
Fillon, whose standing in opinion polls has remained stable as Sarkozy’s has sunk, earlier appeared to distance himself from the policy, calling for “neither permissiveness nor excess” in handling law and order issues.
In a number of statements over the summer Sarkozy has linked immigration and crime, not only trumpeting a tough line with Roma but also pledging to strip people of immigrant origin of their nationality if they shoot at the police.
Members of Sarkozy’s party openly declare that the law and order rhetoric an attempt to distract attention for the scandal involving Justice Minister Eric Woerth and a reaction to the president’s declining popularity.
“The security drive aimed to make people forget the Woerth affair,” UMP MP Christian Vanneste told the 20 Minutes free paper, while MEP and former justice minister Rachida Dati has slammed “those who, in order to satisfy their political ambitions, want to categorise French people without regard to fraternity”.
Two Romanian ministers arrived in Paris today – five days earlier than initially planned. They were expected to meet Besson, as well as Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux and European Affairs Minister Pierre Lellouche.
The government wants closer cooperation with the Romanians, Besson said ahead of the meeting, calling for European Union cash to be used more effectively to help integrate Roma into Romanian society.
With a group of 11 Roma expected to arrive in Bulgaria Wednesday evening, minsters there tried to play down the issue.
It has been “exaggerated”, Foreign Affairs Minister Nilkolai Mladenov told local television, adding that no Bulgarian citizens have been forcibly expelled. A first group of 13 arrived in Sofia on Friday, with another nine expected on 9 September.
France’s Human Rights League has launched a petition against “xenophobia and the politics of the pillory”, accusing Sarkozy of endorsing the “old lies that immigration is costly and linked to crime”. It has called for a demonstration on 4 September.