With an estimated 10 million citizens in the EU, the Romani (or Roma) are Europe's largest minority. Seen as perennial outsiders, they are discriminated against in Romania and Bulgaria no less than in France and Italy.
Now -- suffering in the polls -- France's President Sarkozy has ordered that the police clear 300 camps of people, explicitly ordering them to discriminate against the Romani ones. It is an intensification of a trend which has seen 8,000 people deported from France to Romania and Bulgaria this year.
France says they can claim cash resettlement grants. But the climate of fear that the crackdown has created, often compounded by illiteracy and inexperience with interacting with the government, has meant that in practice, many have to leave without the grant, effectively fleeing the country.
Because Romania is a member of the EU, its citizens have the right travel to France and work there. But because Romania is new to the EU, if they can't find work, they only have the right to be there for three months more. Because of this, Sarkozy's roundup will affect people who are in France both legally and illegally.
It is this callous disregard for due process, such as checking that someone has no right to be in the country before you deport them -- the fussy business of treating people as equal under the law -- which is why this plan is so thoroughly illegal and immoral.
Needless to say, France's crackdown is utterly illiberal. It has been threatened with legal action by the EU's Justice Commissioner. This from a country which historically prided itself on its liberty.
Still, you cannot measure a country's values by one action of one government. It is like trying to measure a climate from one temperature reading.
You can, though, measure a country's values by what its people fight for or protest about. And the French, lest we forget, love a good protest. Earlier this month, over one million people took to the streets in an extraordinary uprising of rage at the government's proposal to raise the retirement age by two whole years, from sixty. Earlier this year, in May, a powerful farmers' union decked the Champs Elysees out with grass and showcases of sheep and crops as a 'celebration' of French farmers, which resembled nothing so much as a stern reminder to the political class of the farmers' raw political power at the time when their subsidies are under threat (as they should be).
Given this love of protest and the French pride in the value of liberté, you would expect the streets to be full in outrage at such callous treatment of such a politically defenseless minority.
The grounds for protest are multiple, clear, and emotive. A country built on the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity doing something so illiberal, discriminatory, and cruel; a country with memories of the deportations of Jews -- the Roma of their day -- under Vichy, doing something so fearfully evocative; a country which aspires to lead a regional group -- Europe -- which is based on the principle of free movement, denying this principle to people within its own borders; a country which sees itself at the head of a Europe which is expanding eastward sending a clear message that those newcomers were never really wanted; a country unashamed to force some of its weakest residents to pick up their children, their belongings, their careers and hopes, walk out of their front doors, and leave.
A country like France -- which sees itself as a leader in Europe -- will, of course, be seen as legitimizing discrimination and perhaps even violence. In the last few years, Romani in Hungary, the Czech and Slovak Republics have been beaten, shot, stabbed, and firebombed, with many of the victim's families and children. Eight have died and dozens have been injured. Each of these crimes has a perpetrator. And if you can picture one of those thugs with a bloodied knife or baseball bat in hand, walking away from a beaten man lying behind him, you have to ask yourself -- what message is someone like that likely to take from this new crackdown in France? Surely it is that his violence has been somehow sanctioned and legitimated by the actions of the French government. Surely the message which someone like that will take from the actions of the French government is that somehow -- he was on the right track.
In a country which prides itself on both its liberalism and its willingness to protest, you might expect some protest in the name of liberalism.
But such protests as there have been have gathered about 80,000 -- not a number that can hold a candle to those protests against a raise in the retirement age or the chance that favored groups will lose their subsidies. Worse, a large majority -- about 65% -- support the crackdown.
But the really terrifying thing about both the crackdown and the minimal protest it has inspired, is the idea that it might show us where Europe is headed.
Discrimination against minorities in Europe has become ever more blatant in the last ten years than it ever had been before. The last decade saw the National Front reach the final round of the French Presidential Elections, the rise of far right parties in a number of countries, burka bans in France and a ban on new minarets in Switzerland. Intolerance on the continent is in danger of going mainstream -- arguably, it already has.
With his deportation of Romani people because they are Romani people -- whether or not they are in the country legally -- for electoral gain, we are seeing the start of something much more sinister. The embrace of heavy-handed discrimination of a vulnerable minority by a mainstream political party of a leading European country.
If Sarkozy gets away with it and reaps political gain, surely it is only a matter of time before other European countries follow suit, group deportations are the norm, and Europe sleepwalks towards populist authoritarianism. Surely it is only the European voter who can now prevent that sorry outcome.
Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and Chairman and CEO of Ibrahim Associates.
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