Tuesday, August 31, 2010

French Leave and Romas

A hostile country wanting to attack France needs only to chose the month of August. It was probably not yet the case during the times of Asterix, but since the end of WWII, each and every office in France is on vocation during this month. Most of the descendants of the Gauls are on the beaches of the Riviera or Brittany, with the fittest in the mountains and the most daring abroad
And then early September comes, there is ‘la rentrée’, literally ‘the return’. It means that the country returns to all the issues which were blissfully forgotten while tanning.
The government has to go through the same perpetual dreaded cycle with a ‘la rentrée sera chaude’ (the return will be hot) announced by the trade unions.
Before leaving for his vacation at one of his wife’s properties on the Cote d’Azur, President Sarkozy triggered a debate which kept busy the poor journalists stuck in their office during the sacred month and the public for once reading the papers. The hot subject of this summer was: should France tighten its ‘security’ and who should be made the scapegoats for the deteriorating situation in the suburbs of the big cities.
The President had an idea which he offered to the media in a speech in Grenoble at the end of July. He proposed that anti-social elements who had recently acquired French nationality be stripped of their citizenship, if they committed crimes against police personnel.
Though nobody in the government was there to answer, it generated a heated debate. From the sites of their respective vacations, all ‘senior’ politicians issued a communiqué to clarify his/her positions.
How can a nation which invented the mantra of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” and was the first of speak of the equality of all citizens in front of the law, speak of a double-tier law (one for ‘true’ French, one for new ones).
More than two centuries ago, during the French Revolution, a first Constitution was passed by the Constituent Assembly; it guaranteed natural and civil rights for all citizens: “All similar offences shall be punished with similar penalties, without any distinction of persons.” It meant that the law and the Constitution conferred to all French citizens, true equality.
The legal question is: can someone who has acquired French citizenship be treated differently from a person who is French by birth? Having realized the blunder, the Sarkozy government is now backtracking a bit. They say it should be applicable only in two exceptional situations (bigamy or an attack on police personnel). The fact is that such law existed before 1998, but it was implemented only in extremely rare cases: anybody having acquired the French nationality less than 10 years earlier, could get stripped of his/her nationality if they committed a ‘grave crime’ which includes terrorism, sedition, spying for a foreign power or high military treason. Practically it has never been implemented. One of the reasons is that France is a signatory of an international convention which forbids the creation of stateless persons. This indeed complicates the situation further (for the French government at least), as it means that the person can be stripped of his/her citizenship only if he/she has another, which is often not the case. In other words it could be applied to only very few persons. So one could ask: why all this noise?
Like in India or any other democracy, France has vote banks. Sarkozy is not doing well in the surveys, more than 65% of the French are unhappy with his policies. The best way to rise again in the minds of the voters, calculated his communications advisors, was to look tough and bang on the table. To grasp the story of the summer, one has to understand the concept of ‘effet d’annonce’ (“announcement effect”). It has been devised by the communication gurus of the President. The principle is simple, you make a big ‘announcement’ which is splashed out by all the media and then you wait.
It is not unknown in India; many politicians know the trick without having attended IMM or Harvard. They promise free TVs sets (or anything similar) to an entire section of the population (read voters) and for a few months they can reap the effect of the announcement without doing anything. If their survey barometer improves, it is good, if not, they can always blame it on the opposition or the ‘political atmosphere’ which stopped them from implementing their vision.
Nicolas Sarkozy made another announcement which made even more noise than the nationality stripping: all the Romas living illegally on French territory would be rounded up and sent back to their country of origin Romania.
Since the decision was made public, several hundred Romas have already journeyed back to Romania in charters paid by Paris. Since the integration of Romania in the European Union (EU) in 2007, any citizens of this country can normally freely circulate within the EU. It is estimated that there are 15,000 Romas living today in France; in most cases they live in slums (according to Brice Hortefeux, the French Home Minister, the percentage of crime in the Roma community increased by 138% in one year). In French law, if after three months stay, any citizen of Europe has no revenue and no fixed residence, he is subject to deportation.
The main argument of the ‘securitarian’ lobby in the Government is that most of the Romas are in illegal situation, while opponents speak of human rights as citizens of the EU are being deprived of their rights to circulate.
It appears that the French government was not well prepared for the onslaught of protest, not only from the socialist opposition, but also from the international media who almost unanimously condemned the French move. But worse came from the Pope who joined the bandwagon. From his vacation palace in Castel Gandolfo, the Pontiff gave a speech in French about European citizens not being able to move wherever they wanted. It was not much appreciated in Paris which continued with the expulsions.
The archbishop of Paris also jumped in the fray and defended his boss. Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, who is also the President of the Conference of Bishops of France regretted the ‘unhealthy climate’ created by the decision. Though he clarified that he did not object to the law per se, he pointed out that the implementation of the law was not always ‘moral’, adding that ‘legality should be accompanied by a deep-thinking on the sense of humanity’. It did not really help to solve the problem, which Hortefeux considers as genuine.
Survey companies got a lucrative job for the holidays. According to one investigation conducted by the usually-reliable firm CSA for the daily Le Parisien, 48% of the French are in favour of the expulsions while 42% are opposed. 10% refused to answer. Le Figaro conducted another survey to find that 65% were in favour of the eviction of Romanians, if their papers were not in order.
And now September’s return comes!
With persisting criticism and probably fearing negative political collaterals, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon (who is far more popular than the President) announced his decision to Europeanise the issue.
He told the annual Conference of French Ambassadors that he had spoken with the European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and that he planned to hold a ‘working meeting’ between some of his ministers and the concerned European commissioners.
As voices in Sarkozy’s camp began to be heard against the drastic measures (not so drastic in fact, because most evacuees will return to France after a short time), Mr Fillon affirmed that the French policy did not breach any EU directives from Brussels: “The deportations of Roma to their countries of origin made by our country have been made in full compliance with European law.” He added: “France considers that the only long term solution for these fully-fledged European citizens is better economic and social integration, first of all in their country of origin."
Fillon explained further: “Our priority is also with the plight of the Roma children. Many of them are exploited by criminal networks. This is a situation that is unacceptable in the EU."
In the meanwhile, the French government received Valentin Mocanu, the Romanian Minister of State, responsible for the Romas and his colleague in charge of public security Dan Valentin Fatuloiu.
The encounter was friendly according to Eric Besson, the French Minister for integration. “We will collaborate better on the question of reintegration, he declared after the meeting. Mr. Fatuloiu spoke of “the will of both governments to better manage bilateral migratory flux”. Nice terminology for a thorny issue.
According to the website Europolitics: “The EU executive is struggling to shed light on the Romas' right to free movement and the prohibition of the discrimination of which they are victims across Europe. The 10 to 12 million Roma make up Europe's largest minority.” For the European Commission they have "the same rights under European law as other Europeans."
Apart from the emotions generated during vacation time, one realizes that the construction of Europe is not an easy path and it will take a few decades to have a true integration. But one can still dream when looking at the situation in the sub-continent where Indians are not even allowed to go to a flooded Pakistan to help their South Asian brethren (please note that the Chinese are welcome: 11,000 PLA jawans are said to have reached occupied Gilgit-Baltsistan). We are living in a complicated world.

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