LA COURNEUVE, France — About 100 French riot police officers swooped down on an encampment of Roma here at 7 a.m. Thursday, taking names and filling out expulsion orders. Fully padded, but without helmets, the officers were aggressive but polite, accompanied by a Romanian policeman and three interpreters.
Mihai Lingurar, 37, and his wife, Rada-Soma Rostach, were ordered to leave France within a month for overstaying their three-month allowance as Romanian citizens and being unable to prove that they had full-time work. Their fourth child, however, Marc, 5 months old, is in intensive care at a hospital here, on the northeastern edge of Paris. Marc weighs about eight pounds and has been in and out of a coma.
The police were not interested in hearing about Marc this morning, Mr. Lingurar said, through an interpreter. But he will get help to challenge the family’s expulsion, citing medical grounds, from Doctors of the World, said Livia Otal, 29, a Romanian who works with the Roma for the nonprofit organization.
The Lingurar family, along with many of the Roma — who are sometimes referred to as Gypsies, though they dislike the name — have been caught up in a major push by the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy to crack down on crime and illegal immigration. At the end of last month, after two attacks on the police, Mr. Sarkozy vowed to take away French citizenship from anyone who threatened the life of a public official and to dismantle illegal camps of Roma, most of them from Romania and Bulgaria. Mr. Sarkozy also vowed to break up the illegal camps of “gens du voyage,” known as travelers in Britain, who are French citizens moving about the country in caravans.
On Thursday, France flew some 100 Roma home to Romania — people who France insists agreed to leave voluntarily for a flight and a resettlement sum of about $385 instead of facing the chance of forcible expulsion in a month. Robert A. Kushen, executive director of the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Centre, said that by providing this essentially false choice, “the French are trying to insulate themselves from legal challenge, arguing that those who leave are doing so voluntarily and are not being expelled as a group.”
Mass expulsions based on ethnicity violate European Union law, Mr. Kushen said, and the failure of France to do individual assessments of each case — as opposed to cursory examinations of papers by the police — also violates European Union rules.
The new campaign has been roundly criticized as political, an effort by Mr. Sarkozy to revive his support on the right of the French political spectrum. The campaign has also been attacked as racist, focusing on ethnic or racial groups rather than individual criminals. The government rejects the criticism as misguided and utopian and says it is trying to fight crime and preserve public order.
But both the Sarkozy campaign and the attacks on it have sometimes confused juvenile delinquents in the poor suburbs, many of them Muslim, with the Roma, who are not French, and the French travelers, who have the right to stay in their own country. French law requires municipalities to provide space for the gens du voyage to park and hook up to electricity and water. But the mayors have been reluctant, and the government admits it has provided space to less than half of the travelers, and many of them have set up illegal camps.
France says it expelled 10,000 Roma last year — two-thirds of the estimated Roma population of France — without all this publicity. But the Roma have been skilled at returning to Romania and Bulgaria, where they say they face worse discrimination and poverty, and then slipping back into France, where, under European Union rules, they can enter without a visa.
Olivier Bernard, a pediatrician who is president of Doctors of the World in France, said that the issue was being blown out of proportion. He said that the Roma did not present a major problem, given their small numbers, and that the expulsion campaign had been going on for a few years.
It is one thing to throw them out for overstaying, he said. “But the person can come back, the next day, completely legally,” he said. What has changed, he said, is the aggressiveness and frequency of the camp clearings.
As citizens of states that recently joined the European Union, Romanians and Bulgarians are treated differently by law for a transitional period, and it is difficult for them to get work permits, Mr. Kushen said. Those legal restrictions should disappear by 2014.
France’s struggles reflect the difficulties all European countries have with their nomadic populations, Dr. Bernard said.
Italy has had prominent expulsions of Roma as “security threats” for the last two years; Sweden expelled some 50 of them last spring; Denmark is expelling them; and Germany is trying to repatriate Roma refugees to Kosovo. The latter were driven out by the Kosovar Albanians, who accused them of collaborating with the Serbs in the civil war in 1999.
Here in La Courneuve, some of the Roma have escaped expulsion. There was a rumor that the police were coming, and a population of 200 quickly dwindled to about 70. Since Monday, some of the Roma here, near the regional railway tracks, living in jerry-built shacks, have been leaving at 3 a.m. to wander the streets of La Courneuve and escape any raids.
Mr. Lingurar’s brother, Ioan Lingurar, 39, escaped the expulsion. While he has been in France for almost eight years, he could show the police a bus ticket from Romania dated less than three months ago.
Ioan Lingurar’s son-in-law, Alin Grumeza, 20, has been here for more than 10 years. Work is on the black market, when there is any. “We live by collecting what other people throw away,” Mr. Grumeza said. The Roma take abandoned refrigerators and stoves to sell as scrap metal, and repair junked televisions and computers, which they sell to Africans here, who then export them to Africa. The Roma pool money to buy gasoline for generators and use municipal bathhouses.
Ioan Lingurar has built many of the shacks here, as well as a chapel for the Salem Foundation Faith Church, where 70 Roma babies have been baptized in the last three months. “God will protect us, even from Sarkozy,” he said.