Whatever you may think of him, you can't say that Nicolas Sarkozy backs away from the difficult arguments. First he ignited a debate about Islam in Europe with his controversial ban on veils, now he's opened another can of worms with his expulsions of Roma immigrants from France. The EU's justice commissioner Viviene Reding was moved to compare the France of 2010 to the France of Vichy, prompting some heated comments from Sarkozy, and later some back-pedalling from EC president José Manuel Barosso. The recently talkative Fidel Castro also weighed in to the debate last week, calling the expulsions "another kind of racial Holocaust". Only Silvio Berlusconi has stood up for Sarkozy – probably a mixed blessing, to say the least.
It's worth looking at why the Roma in particular present such a political flashpoint. The majority of the Roma being expelled from France are Romanian citizens. As Romania is a recent entrant to the EU, its citizens are subject to an interim agreement under which they have a right to remain in France for only three months unless they have work. Therefore, the majority of the Roma being expelled were in France illegally. France expelled 11,000 (non-Roma) Romanian citizens in 2009 under the same pretext, prompting no comment from Brussels. That was considered business as usual.
So why is this latest round of expulsions any different? Because the Roma are a long-persecuted "people without a land", the victims of countless pogroms throughout Europe, and of the Holocaust. The underlying fear is that policies such as Sarkozy's may awaken some of Europe's baser instincts, which are – the theory goes – always simmering just under the surface. That isn't so far-fetched. Far-right politicians in countries such as Hungary and Slovakia frequently take a stand on anti-Roma platforms, and a Euro-stalwart such as France appearing to follow suit may serve to legitimise their views, and help further their agenda domestically.
The problem arises when we consider that as individuals, the vast majority of Roma are not in fact "without a land". They have citizenship in their country of origin, in this instance (mostly) Romania, and also Bulgaria. The leaked memo telling French police to target Roma encampments specifically, plus some of Sarkozy's rhetoric on the subject, has ratcheted up the tensions unnecessarily. However, the ethnic dimension is secondary to the fact that levels of education and training among the Roma are well below the European average, therefore levels of criminality in Roma communities are higher. I suspect this is why the memo asked French officers to target Roma encampments, not some deepseated ethnic hatred.
Sarkozy is to an extent right to point out that some of the fault for the problems surrounding France's Roma communities lies with the governments in Romania, Bulgaria and the other countries where the Roma are coming from. If more policies to bring the Roma into the mainstream had been enacted in these places over the past few decades, then Roma in 2010 may have been less inclined to migrate, and when they did, they may have had more to offer to the societies they migrate to. But can that failure to successfully integrate be blamed entirely on the "host" countries? I'm not sure.
75% of Europe's Roma are estimated to live below the poverty line. Discrimination – both institutional and societal – will play a meaningful part in that figure, but it's also too easy to construct a narrative where the Roma are seen solely as passive victims, and much of the recent coverage of the expulsions (and some of the EU rhetoric) has tended towards that. It may be worth asking how Roma communities can contribute to their own progress.
There's no doubt that deep-seated prejudices towards Roma need to be tackled, and at least Sarkozy's actions have pushed the issue further up the EU agenda. But Europe's Roma also need to take some of the responsibility for their own integration into the mainstream, and this may mean letting go of some historical and cultural practices.
Rightwing voices will always be able to point to the criminality and social problems that Roma communities bring – because they do. The underlying causes may be complex, but the manifestations are not, and it's these manifestations that resonate most with voters. If the European Commission misses this trick, it will continue to be seen as ineffectual and overly soft, and politicians like Sarkozy will continue to reap political dividends by openly defying them. There needs to be honesty at the European level about the problems that Roma communities not only suffer from, but also cause. If this issue is sidelined for the sake of correctness, then it'll erupt in the form of xenophobia. Education, for both Roma and non-Roma Europeans, is the key.