A year ago Nicolas Sarkozy launched a crackdown on Roma gypsies moving to France from Eastern Europe. Now the French President finds himself under fire from all sides for moving towards the authoritarian right while achieving very little. Immigrant support groups estimate there are now 15,000 Roma in France, the same as a year ago, even though three-quarters of their illegal settlements have been bulldozed by police, pushing the Roma onto the streets or into more makeshift encampments. Many of the 9,000 who were paid €300 to go home or were expelled by authorities last year have returned. Several other draconian announcements that Mr Sarkozy made in a speech in Grenoble a year ago in which he explicitly linked immigration and crime have been quietly dropped or deemed unconstitutional. He has recently adopted a kinder, gentler persona in an attempt to recapture the centre ground before next spring's presidential elections. The Elysée has therefore made little of the anniversary of the Grenoble speech. Not so his opponents on the centre left and far right.
François Hollande, front-runner to win the Socialist party presidential nomination in October, spoke of a "striking disparity between [Sarkozy's] verbal provocation" last summer and the "lack of concrete action". National Front leader Marine Le Pen called on the President "make a formal apology to the French people" for making a tough-sounding speech but "not keeping a single promise". This is not strictly true. President Sarkozy promised in Grenoble to "end illegal Roma encampments". Police and gendarmes cleared more than 70 per cent of such camps in the next six months. He also vowed to act against Roma who broke EU rules limiting their emigration to France and other western European countries. In doing so, the President drew criticism from the Vatican and European Commission. He was accused of breaking EU laws by singling out an ethnic group for repression. However, recent official figures confirm the crackdown was more rhetorical than real.
A little more than 9,000 Roma were expelled or paid to leave France in 2010. Almost exactly the same number were forced or paid to leave in 2009 but with far less fanfare. As some politicians and social workers said at the time, there was little to stop the Roma returning. Ginel, 42, a Roma living in a camp in Aubervilliers just north of Paris, was one of those who accepted the €300 bounty to go back to Romania."I went to visit my family and then got the bus back," he told the French news agency Agence France-Presse. "We still hope to find a better life here in France." Police figures suggest the crackdown has also been counter-productive, with the Roma becoming more marginalised than ever. The number of Paris crimes – from pick-pocketing to illegal begging – attributed to "Romanian citizens" rose 72 per cent in the first half of this year. However, 12 months and much controversy later, there remain almost exactly the same number.