Roma people in France have faced a round of evictions this week, with hundreds of men, women and children being forced from their encampments near Paris, Lyon and Lille.
Police forces swept in to clear the encampments, according to Reuters. There is no evidence that alternative shelter has been provided.
In a statement on Wednesday, French Interior Minister Manuel Valls explained the initiative.
"Unsanitary camps are unacceptable," he said. "Often located in the midst of working-class neighborhoods, they are also a [danger] to community life."
These evictions recall a similar expulsion in 2010, when then-President Nicolas Sarkozy expelled hundreds of Roma from at least 88 camps in a matter of weeks. This followed an inflammatory speech during which Sarkozy said that Roma camps were "sources of illegal trafficking, profoundly degrading living conditions, [and] exploitation of children for the purposes of begging, prostitution and criminality."
The Roma people -- they are also referred to as 'Gypsies,' although many consider this a derogatory term -- are understood only hazily by outsiders. They inhabit countries all across Europe, with heavy concentrations in Romania and Bulgaria. Though often considered shiftless and mysterious, the Roma tend to settle where they can and adapt to the countries of their residence. Today, they are too diverse to fit into any single stereotype.
What they do share is a history of marginalization. No matter where they live, found a May report from the European Agency for Fundamental Rights, they are routinely ostracized. This results in higher levels of poverty, illness and illiteracy in Roma communities. In response, some Roma resort to begging and petty crime in order to get by.
In countries all across Europe, policies toward Roma migrants tend to favor expulsion rather than integration. Following the evictions in France, for instance, the Roma adults were given the option to collect 300 euros each, on the condition that they then board flights to Romania.
This policy seems to be based on an assumption that all French Roma come from other countries, but that's an oversimplification of a complicated reality.
Can't Go Home Again
Hundreds of thousands of French Roma are indeed citizens of the country, with little or no connection to Romania or any other nation with a significant Roma population. Those Roma who do come from other European countries number only in the tens of thousands, according to the Guardian.
Domestic origins notwithstanding, French Roma still face endemic discrimination. Since many are itinerant, travel restrictions have been used by the government to police their activities. Lacking permanent places of residence, most French Roma have difficulty voting and are essentially dismissed from political discourse. They are, however, often required to pay taxes on their caravans.
A spokesperson from the Council of Europe, a pro-democracy and human rights organization, explained that France's policies toward Roma people are woefully short-sighted. Those Roma who do not fly to Romania following this week's evictions will likely find another place to reside in short order. Having lived itinerant lives, they are able to relocate with relative speed and have the connections necessary to establish new communities in nearby locations.
All the evictions accomplish, then, is an interruption of the Roma peoples' livelihoods. Employed Roma will have difficulty adhering to a schedule amid repeated evictions, and Roma children -- who, according to French law, must attend public school whether or not they are legal residents -- will see their education interrupted.
This results in a vicious cycle of non-integration and entrenched isolation. The policies aimed at evicting the Roma from France achieve only the continued interruption of their daily activities, making it nearly impossible for them to establish healthy communities and contribute to French society. They are therefore perceived as a burden and subject to constant eviction efforts.
That's why Hollande promised a new approach to dealing with the Roma community while he was campaigning for the presidency. He told a gathering of pro-immigrant activists that the policies of Sarkozy would not be repeated, according to the World Socialist Website.
"When unhealthy camps are dismantled, alternative solutions must be proposed. We cannot continue to accept that families can be forced out of locations without solutions," he said in March.
But this week's evictions do not seem to be all that different from those that occurred under Sarkozy. Expulsion from the country seems to be the only alternative offered to the displaced Roma, even though many consider France their permanent home.
In Pursuit of Approval
The Roma evictions reflect an unfortunate political reality.
Polls conducted in 2010 suggest that despite some very visible and vehement opposition, most of the French public approved of Sarkozy's tough stance on Roma settlements. Hollande can expect similarly high levels of approval for this week's evictions, especially since a recession-weary France is showing signs of decreased tolerance.
Anti-foreigner sentiment was noticeably high around the time of the French presidential election, when an extremist candidate made a surprisingly strong showing. Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front, with its history of racism and anti-Semitism, came in at third place in the first round, just after Hollande and Sarkozy.
Le Pen's intensely nationalist rhetoric had a strong appeal to growing segment of French voters who were desperate for a new direction. These citizens felt that globalization had resulted in the exportation of jobs, that joining the euro zone had tanked the French economy, and that immigration had become a security threat. Sarkozy himself tried to siphon off some of the far-right vote by promising to clamp down on immigration.
Hollande's anti-austerity platform helped him to win the election without resorting to significant anti-immigration rhetoric. But after a scant three months in office, his honeymoon period is decidedly over and the Socialist president may be changing his tune.
France is scrambling to meet budgetary targets for 2012, and public debt is soaring. Unemployment has reached 10.1 percent. Low-income workers are making less than ever before, according to Reuters, and the industrial sector is struggling. Hollande pledged during his campaign not to impose tough austerity measures on middle-class citizens, so in order to generate much-needed funds, he's been raising taxes on wealthy citizens to sky-high rates. But apparently, that hasn't been enough.
Confidence in Hollande's policies had been trending downward. A July survey conducted by French pollster LH2 found that Hollande's approval rate fell to 53 percent in July -- not bad, but down five points from June.
If this week's Roma evictions prove to be as popular as they were in 2010, it would be a boon for the president's approval ratings. It may be that Hollande has taken a page from the far-right playbook: During tough times, targeting foreigners (or those people perceived to be foreigners) is a winning political tactic.
For the Roma people of France, political concerns and presidential approval ratings make little difference. The end result is the same, and each new eviction only continues the pattern of social stigmatization and political marginalization.