France today deported hundreds more Roma in defiance of growing domestic and international criticism of its crackdown on travelling minorities. Two specially chartered planes carrying Roma men, women and children left Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport and Lyon in east-central France and touched down in Bucharest mid-afternoon. "The police told us we could choose between leaving now, on our own accord, or be expelled by force later," said one young Roma man, who declined to be identified. "So we agreed to leave."
"For three months I could find no job, so I decided to come back to Romania," another man arriving in Bucharest, Ion Stancu, 52, said. "But, my God, what will I do for a living now, with eight grandsons to feed?" he added, tears in his eyes. Amid a country-wide crackdown that began this month after Gypsies attacked a police station, police in the northern French city of Lille also moved in at dawn to dismantle a Roma tent camp set up under an overhead railway line.
The French government said 283 Roma were being sent back on Friday, bringing the total number of Romanian and Bulgarian Roma deported so far this year to 8,313, against 7,875 expelled throughout last year.
President Nicolas Sarkozy, citing concerns about crime, began the crackdown this month on Roma and other itinerant groups known as Gypsies and travellers which has seen police rounding up foreign Roma and tearing down illegal camps. Forty-eight per cent of French people support the government's campaign, an opinion poll showed on Friday. But critics accuse the right-wing president, whose popularity is at its lowest since he came to power in 2007, of trying to regain the political initiative with a populist and racially tinged law and order message. The crackdown has sparked fierce criticism at home and abroad, with French former prime minister Dominique de Villepin saying Sarkozy's policies had left a "stain of shame" on the French flag and were a "national indignity."
A United Nations panel this month warned of mounting racism and xenophobia in France, citing the Roma evictions, and the European Union is reviewing whether the crackdown is legal. The Vatican has also criticised it. Human rights body Amnesty International joined the international condemnation on Friday, saying Sarkozy risked fuelling stigmatisation of the minority group.