|Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull speaks to deported Roma who are eyeing a return to France|
Thousands of people have attended demonstrations in Paris and other French cities to protest against tough new security measures introduced by the government which they say are being used to target the country’s Roma community.
France began clearing large numbers of illegal Roma camps in July, after Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, announced a series of measures to fight crime.
Police said about 12,000 people had demonstrated in the French capital but organisers put the total nearer to 50,000.
Human rights, labour unions and leftist political parties accuse Sarkozy of stigmatising minorities and seeking political gain with the security crackdown.
They also say he is violating French traditions of welcoming the oppressed, in a country that is one of the world’s leading providers of political asylum.
Organisers said demonstrations were taking place in 135 cities and towns across France, and others were planned outside French embassies in capitals such as London, Brussels and Bucharest.
About 1,000 Roma returned to Romania and Bulgaria from France last month.
Officials said they were leaving “on a voluntary basis,” after each adult was paid $390 and an additional $130 for each child to leave.
Sarkozy has spoken of camps being “systematically evacuated” and also said that naturalised citizens who threaten the lives of police officers should lose their citizenship.
Laurence Lee, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Paris, said people were “extremely angry” at the measures.
“A lot of them are saying the immigration policies being pursued by the Sarkozy government, particularly against the Roma people, are basically an echo of the Second World War when France expelled Jews and Gypsies,” he said.
“It’s that serious an allegation, a sort of ethnic cleansing is the way they are seeing it.
“There has been all sort of criticism of this block expulsion policy of the Roma people from members of his own government, from the United Nations, the European Commission and elsewhere.
“One of the key allegations being that people aren’t being deported based on their individual cases, they are simply being put on planes en masse, and shipped back to Romania.
“Some people say that it’s unconstitutional, some say it’s illegal, [but] the French government say they [are] quite within their rights to do it, but the row about the treatment of the Roma in France is deepening at the moment.”
Sarkozy began the crackdown after violence in July between police and youth in a suburban Grenoble housing project, and other clashes in a travelling community in the Loire Valley.
For years, the French president has used his image as a tough, law-and-order politician to win political support.
He has linked Roma to crime, calling their camps sources of prostitution and child exploitation.
Polls have shown the French are split about the policy, though slightly more favour it than oppose it.
“If you go two streets up the road, Paris is carrying on as normal, and I think, in the end, what we are seeing here, is the biggest example of the general feeling against Sarkozy and other policies as well,” said Lee.
“By and large, more French people are much more concerned about domestic issues like pensions and the economy, but certainly in the end, there are very serious allegations against the French policy on the Roma at the moment.”
Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, said he briefly considered resigning amid the uproar over Sarkozy’s latest measures.