At last. Those are the only two words that seem appropriate now that EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding has finally come out with a direct attack on the French government’s deportations of Roma people. At last she is “appalled”; at last she is threatening the Sarkozy regime with legal action. One wonders where she has been for the last 18 months as hundreds of men, women and children have been rounded up by French police, with no time to gather their possessions, publicly branded as criminals and sent back to Romania and Bulgaria. Let’s just remind ourselves: these are EU citizens, being deported from one member state to another because of their ethnicity. Imagine the outcry if Sarkozy started deporting people who happened to be Jewish or black. Would it have taken 18 months for the EU to react?
So now, while the French government remains unapologetic, we wait to see if the commissioner’s outrage has any teeth. There is talk of a hefty fine. A fine? Why not just expel France from the EU? Turf the French out with as much ceremony as they are allowing the Roma families. A racist regime has no place in a civilised Europe. If Sarkozy needs no legal sanction in order to expel people from his borders then why should we allow him any due process before kicking him out of the union?
There are an estimated 10 million Roma in Europe, 86% of whom live below the poverty line, and they are our continent’s fastest growing ethnic minority. Extreme as the French action is, it is only the most overt example of the widespread growth of anti-Roma measures being undertaken across Europe. In the UK, anti-Romany feeling is couched in complaints about “lifestyle”, but politicians also know there are few votes to be lost by measures against Travellers. Eric Pickles, the communities and local government secretary, campaigned against a Traveller site in his own home borough of Brentwood long before he came to power in the coalition government. He is now in charge of changing the planning laws to make it more difficult for such groups to claim retrospective planning permission for homes on land they legally own, however long they have been there.
Pickles has at least found it wise to couch his moves in measured terms. “Like the rest of the population, the majority of Travellers are law-abiding citizens, and they should have the same chance of having a safe place to live and bring up their children.” Not so in other European countries. When Italian Roma camps were firebombed by local thugs in Italy in 2008, Umberto Bossi of the far-right Northern League, a minister in Silvio Berlusconi’s government, declared: “The people do what the political class isn’t able to do.”
It will be interesting to see how EU action against Sarkozy plays in France. Reports have claimed that 60% of voters are in favour of Sarkozy’s stand, but humiliation before the courts in Brussels may prove a different matter. Despite its culturally protectionist attitude, France has always prided itself on being at the heart of Europe. Two years ago, Berlusconi was forced to back down on a plan to fingerprint and photograph Roma immigrants into Italy after widespread condemnation. He will no doubt be watching Brussels with interest now.
This is why the standoff between the justice commissioner and the French government is so important. If Sarkozy is allowed to get away with his deportations, other rightwing governments will understand that the persecution of the Roma is a vote-catching measure that costs them nothing. Reding must act hard and fast if her volte-face on this issue is to have any impact – and other European governments, including Britain’s, must back her loud and clear.
Louise Doughty, a novelist, playwright and critic.