A Roma woman protests against housing officials last week in Marseille,… (Boris Horvat, AFP/Getty…)
PARIS — French police on Thursday cleared out two illegal settlements of Roma in Lille, provoking the fury of immigrant organizations that accused the country's new Socialist leader of reneging on election promises and behaving like his conservative predecessor.
The government of President Francois Hollande said it had acted because the camps posed a risk to public health.
The raid appeared to be part of a national wave. On Wednesday, police targeted two illegal Roma settlements, home to about 160 people, in a northern district of Paris and several camps in the southeastern city of Lyon and the southern port of Marseille.
About 240 Roma from the Lyon camps were put on a flight to Romania on Thursday after agreeing to leave in exchange for compensation of about $320 per adult, voluntary removals that human rights campaigners called deportations in disguise. They also contended that the payments were a waste of money because many of the Eastern European Roma, who complain of discrimination in their home countries, are expected to return to France.
Roma have been the target of frequent crackdowns against illegal immigration in France and elsewhere in Europe in recent years, particularly in the face of tough economic times.
Critics say the Socialists are copying the strong-arm tactics of the administration of President Nicolas Sarkozy, which was criticized by the European Union for its crackdown on Roma. The critics accuse Hollande of breaking a campaign pledge, made in a letter to Roma groups, not to dismantle the camps until other accommodation could be found for residents.
Malik Salemkour, vice president of the French Human Rights League, told French journalists, "We have gone back to the rhythm of the previous government.
"These camp evacuations are the same as those carried out by Nicolas Sarkozy," he said. "And all it is doing is displacing the families."
Interior Minister Manuel Valls defended the raids, citing health risks to those living in makeshift camps.
"Unsanitary camps are unacceptable," Valls said. "Also, they are often located in the midst of working-class neighborhoods and are a challenge to local community life."
Court orders to remove illegal camps will be executed "with firmness," he said. He also said that he had instructed officials to look at rehousing vulnerable residents, including children and pregnant women.
A series of raids carried out by Sarkozy's government in 2010 saw gendarmes break up Roma camps across the country. The crackdown was criticized by the Roman Catholic Church and human rights groups as well as the EU. About 10,000 Roma were deported from France in 2009 and a similar number in 2010.
"Roma" is a term used to refer to Europe's nomadic people whose ancestors are believed to have left northwestern India at the beginning of the 11th century. There is believed to be an established community of at least 400,000 Roma in France, as well as the estimated 15,000 to 20,000 from Eastern Europe. Many of the immigrants live in makeshift illegal camps.
The Roma from European Union countries have the right to enter France without a visa, but under special rules they must have work or hold residency permits if they wish to stay longer than three months.
Highlighting the idea that Hollande was no better than his rival and predecessor, the French newsmagazine L'Express wrote, "Roma: Hollande, Sarkozy, the same battle?"
Willsher is a special correspondent.