Sarkozy Gets Tough with Illegal Immigrants and Gypsies--Partly for Electoral Reasons     Print Email

Two recent riots against police forces in France have once again brought to the forefront the thorny issue of the integration of marginalized minorities. In response to this violence and with an eye on the 2012 elections, President Nicolas Sarkozy has seized on the law-and-order issue that helped him win office three years ago. This time he has gone even further, announcing plans to strip their French nationality from naturalized immigrants convicted of attacking police or other authorities in France.  His new stance combines tougher repressive measures with rhetoric lumping together crime and immigration, even legal. (In that sense, his view is more radical even than that of the Arizona governor who wants the police to detain illegal immigrants involved in an incident with the authorities.)

Sarkozy’s stance is proving controversial in France, where ethnic minorities have not been singled out for “denaturalization” since the Vichy regime took such steps against Jews.  But in his singling out of the Roma community, in particular, is further proof that the integration of the latter is a European-wide problem, and not confined to certain parts of the continent

The two riots, although not connected, took place during the national Bastille Day holiday weekend, July 16-18.  In the first case, in a suburb of Grenoble in the Alps foothills, a young delinquent of North African descent was killed by police forces in a shoot-out following an armed robbery against a casino; in the second case, in the small town of Saint-Aignan, a young Gypsy, who had just committed minor theft, was shot dead by the local police after he tried to run a road checkpoint. In both cases, members of the local ethnic communities reacted with great anger, burning cars, looting shops, and launching violent protests against police forces.

The French government reacted fast: the following week’s cabinet meeting produced a presidential statement declaring war against criminals – and announcing a special meeting on 28 July to tackle the problems posed by the behavior of some in the Roma communities.

After the subsequent meeting, the French President ordered the dismantlement of 300 illegal camps of Roma, and confirmed that those in the camps found to be living illegally in France would be expelled. Two days later, during a speech in Grenoble, he went even further. Sarkozy vowed to strip French citizenship from any naturalized immigrant convicted of harming a policeman or a public official, and blamed much of the erosion of law and order on fifty years of unregulated immigration. Opposition politicians quickly condemned these various initiatives, the lumping together of immigrants and crime, and accused the President of aping the far right.

There is no doubt that opportunism and domestic political considerations are playing a big role here. Sarkozy, in great difficulty in the polls – only a 32% approval rating, his lowest score since his election in 2007 – is eyeing the Presidential elections of 2012, and is banking on a return to the law and order discourse which led him to victory in 2007.  In addition, he is hoping that his tough rhetoric on immigration could not only undercut the support for the far-right National Front, but also move the media spotlight away from the embarrassing ramifications of the Bettencourt affair.

But, these incidents in France are also indicative of broader dangers, namely the fact that in a period of economic difficulty, illegal immigrants are providing convenient scapegoats for populists around the world – be it in Arizona, Israel or other parts of Europe, to name a few. In the case of the Roma community, there is clear evidence that in the last few years, they have been increasingly victims of violence and increasingly stigmatized. That treatment is happening not only in Central and Eastern Europe, but also in Western Europe. Only recently, Germany and Denmark decided to deport a sizeable number of Roma.

It seems apparent, therefore, that the thorny question of the integration of the Roma can only be, and must be, tackled efficiently at a European-wide level. Unfortunately, this issue is still being tossed around like a hot potato, and no party seems yet willing to take responsibility. In this latest incident, thus, Pierre Lellouche, the French secretary of state for European Affairs, suggested that the integration of Roma was first and foremost the responsibility of Romania, and that this could jeopardize their accession to the Schengen area of border-free travel in March 2011. The Romanian government quickly responded that the Roma presented a problem for the whole EU community, while the EU commission washed its hands altogether, declaring that it was up to member states to decide whether or not they wanted to expel Roma people.

Garret Martin, Editor at Large