French authorities have evicted tens of thousands of Roma from makeshift and often squalid camps across the country over the last two years in line with a policy that has drawn criticism from the European Commission, rights groups and some government ministers.
Interior Minister Manuel Valls, who has championed the tough approach, last year issued local authorities with a set of guidelines on the dismantling of settlements currently housing more than 20,000 people, including a high proportion of children.
In theory, the rules mean camps can only be cleared three months after a judge has ruled that they are illegal and on condition that a plan to provide alternative housing has been put in place.
In practice, these principles are rarely respected, according to Dominique Baudis, the Defender of Rights – France's public ombudsman.
“The inter-ministerial circular of August 2012 is not being applied in every case, far from it,” Baudis said Friday.
“Too often, the expulsions are carried out without a judge having authorized them. Too often the three-month delay from a judgement being made to a camp being dismantled is not respected.”
Baudis said he had transmitted his concerns to Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault in July. “Alas, so far I've had no response,” he said.
Despite the criticisms, France pushed ahead with its policy of dismantling Roma camps on Friday morning, when police evicted around 250 members of the Roma community from a settlement in the northern French town of Roubaix.
The criticism from an official watchdog came at the end of a week in which Valls triggered a row by claiming most Roma would never integrate into French society and should go back to their countries of origin, Bulgaria and Romania.
Two of Valls's cabinet colleagues condemned the remarks as unacceptable, rights groups described them as racist and the European Commission accused the minister of picking on a persecuted minority for electoral gain.
Veronique Labbe, president of the Roma rights group Amaro Drom, told The Local on Friday Valls's comments about integration were particularly insidious due to the restrictions placed on the Roma community.
“As citizens of EU member states Roma can move around Europe freely, but the problem is they're not authorized to work, and their children cannot finish their schooling,” she said.
“People like Manuel Valls talk about their failure to 'live together' with the French people, but how can you 'live together', if you're not allowed the proper means to simply live?”
The European Commission this week threatened France with sanctions over continuing evictions and the destruction of Roma camps.
“Free movement as freedom to reside in another country are fundamental rights. If these principles enshrined in the treaties are not met, then the commission will use all means at its disposal,” to sanction such violations, warned spokesman Olivier Bailly.
“The Roma, like all EU citizens, enjoy the right to freedom of movement in all EU member states and to reside in a country other than their country of origin,” Bailly added.Municipal elections in March 2014 will be the first electoral test for the Socialist government which came to power last year.
The administration is under pressure on issues of crime and security, which polls suggest are among voters' biggest concerns and have been linked to an upward spike in support for the far right Front National.