The European Union has issued a rare public rebuke to France after its interior minister, Manuel Valls, called for the deportation of thousands of Roma, saying their lifestyle is "completely different to ours" and that they "should go home".

"We are not here to welcome these people. I think we should state it again clearly and calmly," he said. "We are not trying to stigmatise, but look at the reality, the difficulties we are experiencing in these cities."

The Barcelona-born son of Spanish immigrants has been criticised for his remarks, even by some of his cabinet colleagues. But with local elections looming, some politicians are attempting to turn the Roma and their campsites into an electoral issue.

There are thought to be around 20,000 Roma living in camps in France and the country's Socialist government has continued the policy of dismantling Roma camps begun under the previous right-wing administration. Amnesty International, for its part, has called for a ban on such forced evictions, saying that at least 10,000 Roma have already been forcibly removed from campsites in France.

Roma migrants come to France because they are hoping to find a better future for themselves and their kids. So all they want is ... to live in adequate conditions, send their kids to school and have access to employment.

Marion Cadier, a researcher at Amnesty International France

Originally from Romania, Bulgaria and the Balkans, Roma say they face a pervasive climate of racism and discrimination in France.

In 2010, over 70 percent of illegal Roma camps in France were demolished after forced evictions. And a recent poll revealed that about 80 percent of the French population approved of and supported the dismantling of such camps.

Like all EU citizens, the Roma have the right to move freely throughout the European Union, which has threatened to take action if France does not respect the treaties it has signed.

"If these fundamental rights are not respected, the Commission will take all action at its disposal," Olivier Bailly, a European Commission spokesman, said.

But immigration remains a contentious issue within the EU. It rose to its highest levels in 16 years in Germany last year, while there has recently been a backlash in Britain after the home office deployed vans to spread the message that illegal immigrants ought to leave the country.

But it is not all bad. Sweden recently became the first European country to grant residency to all Syrian asylum seekers who manage to make their way to Swedish shores. It is a country with the world's most generous refugee policies, welcoming tens of thousands of people fleeing wars across the world.

So what is the future of the European Union? And what next for the Roma of France and elsewhere? Why has their plight become political?

To discuss this, Inside Story, with presenter Lauren Taylor, is joined by guests: Marion Cadier, a researcher at Amnesty International France; Franck Guillory, the editor-in-chief of; and Rob Kushen, the board chair of the European Roma Rights Centre. 

"There is a real and terrible phenomenon, no matter ... [if] they are willing or unwilling, or if it's possible or if [it's] not possible to integrate [the] Roma population [in]to the French population. The truth is that we are seeing situations in France which have not been seen for 50 years, which is actually thousands of people living in townships .... If you take the train or if you go by car from Charles De Gaulle ... airport to Central Paris all along the ... way you can see settlements where these people live. In Central Paris at night ... [they] sleep in the street. This is unacceptable. Myself, from a moral point of view, you say 'yes let's try to integrate [them], let's try to make them ordinary French citizens'. But at the same time ... [do] they really ... [have the] capacity to be integrated? .... I am not sure."

-Franck Guillory, the editor-in-chief of

Source: Al Jazeera