French President Nicolas Sarkozy may have got more than he bargained for when he decided to crack down on illegal Roma settlements in France.
The wave of deportations of Roma to countries such as Romania and Bulgaria seemed intended as a political ploy to boost Sarkozy's sagging poll numbers and distract attentions from other domestic problems. But now the internal issue has ballooned into a Europe-wide scandal, after European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding strongly criticized France's policy earlier this week, indirectly comparing the deportations to the Nazi-era persecution of the Roma and Sinti. Sarkozy responded by launching his own counteroffensive and suggested that Reding let the Roma settle in her home country of Luxembourg if she didn't approve of the French policy.
Sarkozy is unlikely to have done himself any favors with his appearance at the EU summit in Brussels on Thursday, where instead of seeking to deescalate the conflict, he engaged in an open war-of-words with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso. He also managed to alienate his usual ally German Chancellor Angela Merkel by announcing that Germany was also planning to clear illegal Roma settlements -- a claim that Berlin swiftly denied.
On Friday, commentators in Germany's main newspapers take a look at the mess Sarkozy has gotten himself into. The general consensus is that Sarkozy's disregard for diplomatic niceties has done the EU a favor by forcing it to take a long hard look at the Roma issue.
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"The integration of the Roma is a European problem. Many counties clear illegal camps just like France does and try to force the Roma, where possible, to return to their home countries such as Romania. But many Roma seem to suffer so much there that they are prepared to quickly return to bleak shantytowns on the edge of Western European cities."
"Sarkozy's government is correct when it calls on countries such as Romania to do more for their Roma . It is also hard to condemn Sarkozy for acting against illegal settlements in France. Nevertheless, the president, who is weak politically within France, is totally on the wrong track. For populist reasons, Sarkozy and his government are trying to portray the presence of 15,000 foreign Roma as one of France's biggest problems -- an absurd idea. They deliberately staged the camp clearances and the deportations as a media event in a bid to impress right-wing voters. Their rhetoric and actions gave rise to suspicions that they were targeting an entire ethnic group rather than individual offenders."
"The European Commission needs to confront the French government if it is abusing the Roma as scapegoats. It should not, however, demonize Sarkozy -- that would only make him feel more powerful. Europe must not allow itself to be sidetracked by hateful strife and national sensitivities."
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"Sarkozy is not the first French president who has gotten himself into a showdown with the European Commission. Nevertheless, the current spat seems to have been unintended. That is demonstrated by the fact that Sarkozy is searching for allies late in the game -- and that he has found one in the shape of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, of all people."
"The president had not planned in advance to make his deportation offensive into the subject of a heated European debate. The forced evictions of illegal Roma camps were intended to rehabilitate Sarkozy in his role as the passionate defender of law and order, for the benefit of his domestic political audience. Ever since his party experienced a bitter defeat in regional elections in March, Sarkozy has once again been trying to court right-wing voters."
The conservative Die Welt writes:
"Sarkozy has the chutzpah to have evictions carried out in the glare of the cameras. But in other EU countries, it has likewise become commonplace to expel Roma if they break the law. These cases involve isolated incidents and not whole groups, something that always bears a whiff of racism. Those being deported often say that they will return. It is not intended as a threat, but it sounds like one."
"The EU is trying to promote the integration of the Roma. Its efforts are succeeding, except not as quickly, smoothly or politically correctly as the politicians would like. After all, if members of a culture like the Roma's accept or even internalize Western cultural values, they are hardly able to keep their unique identity. The Roma are therefore their own worse enemy, in a sense. They also represent a microcosm of the problems that Europe has with all those immigrants who came, or will come, in the mistaken belief that they do not need to change themselves."
The Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"With his outbursts at the EU summit, Sarkozy actually did everyone a favor. If he had behaved more diplomatically, the issue of Roma in the EU would probably have disappeared amid polite smiles on all sides and would not have tarnished the mood among the leaders. His attacks have now made it impossible to brush the issue under the carpet. Europe's leadership must therefore now decide how it wants to deal with two problems. How should the EU deal with a populist who disregards European law? And what will happen to the Roma?"
"The conflict between the Commission and France thus goes beyond the mood at summits. It's really about making sure that commonly agreed values and rights are actually applied in all countries and for the benefit of all citizens. After all, Roma are also being deported in Denmark, Italy and Sweden. The EU therefore has a right to intervene on the issue, and the duty to insist on respect for human rights and EU treaties. The other European leaders should support the Commission in its efforts."
The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:
"The dispute between Commissioner Reding and the French president has a good side: It meant that the EU summit was forced to deal with the issue. Although it is not very probable, there is a tiny flame of hope that the European Union could manage to find a common line. If that were to happen, it would mean that Roma would no longer be the political football of European leaders eager to impress voters."
"Contrary to popular belief, the Roma are not 'traveling people.' It is estimated that 95 percent of Roma in the world are sedentary. It is ridiculous that, in an increasingly interconnected Europe, it is national governments that decide for themselves who is and who isn't a good European. Border controls have been abolished across large swaths of Europe. There is free movement of capital and labor. There must therefore also be free movement of people, even if they are unemployed."
-- David Gordon Smith
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