French authorities have dismantled two makeshift Roma camps housing 200 people, provoking claims the Socialist government is pursuing the disputed policies of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy.
"What will become of these families? Everything is being taken away - it's a breach of fundamental human rights"
- Father Arthur, Priest
Thursday's clearance of the two camps near the northern city of Lille came on the same day that around 240 Roma gypsies were flown from Lyon to Romania in the biggest repatriation of its kind since Francois Hollande succeeded Sarkozy as president in May.
The 240 Roma who left Lyon on a 2:30pm local time (12:30 GMT) charter flight did so on a voluntary basis after receiving payments of $370 for an adult and $184 for a child, according to authorities.
France drew criticism in 2010 for rounding up hundreds of Roma gypsies from illegal camps and sending them back to Romania and Bulgaria in a crackdown ordered by Sarkozy.
Roma rights groups had hoped for a change of policy under Hollande's Socialists but Manuel Valls, France's new interior minister, has promised to take a "firm" line on the issue, insisting that "unsanitary" camps will continue to be dismantled.
Two Roma encampments on state land near the northern city of Lille were cleared on Thursday, with around 150 people expelled from one camp and about 50 from another following complaints from residents.
"The tensions with [local residents] had become untenable," said Maryvonne Girard, deputy mayor of the town of Villeneuve d'Ascq, near where one of the camps had been located.
Girard said residents had endured "two-and-a-half years of nuisance," but rights groups criticised the move.
"What's inconceivable for us is that people are thrown out without being told where they can go. We expected better after President Hollande's words," said Roseline Tiset of the Human Rights League.
She said that during the presidential campaign earlier this year, Hollande wrote to Roma rights groups saying that under his government "when an unsanitary camp is dismantled, alternatives will be offered".
'Breach of human rights'
Father Arthur, a priest who defends Roma rights and had planned to baptise six Roma children on Thursday afternoon, said he felt "deceived".
"What will become of these families? Everything is being taken away - it's a breach of fundamental human rights."
But charity workers said most of those who were flown out of the country on Thursday had little option but to leave following the dismantling of their camps.
|Dozens of police officers in riot gear descended on the camp
near the city of Lille, in northern France [AFP]
The Socialists' stance on the camps was welcomed by the opposition UMP.
Eric Ciotti, the party's national security spokesperson, described the latest moves as "just and legitimate" but also "too late".
Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front said they did not go far enough.
"Year after year the French are realising that these kinds of operations... lead nowhere: the Roma are more and more numerous, the camps are still there, they are even multiplying," she said.
About 15,000 Roma are believed to live in improvised housing encampments on the edges of major cities in France, including up to 4,000 in the Paris area.
Viviane Reding, the European Union's justice commissioner, angered Sarkozy when he launched his wave of expulsions by comparing the rounding up to World War II-era deportations.
Paris insisted there was nothing racist in the moves against the Roma, saying they were rounded up simply because they had overstayed the period they were allowed in France without any visible means of financial support.
An estimated 15-20,000 Roma live in France. There are some 12 million Roma living in eastern Europe, particularly in Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Hungary.