France breaking own rules on Roma camps: ombudsman

France breaking own rules on Roma camps: ombudsman

PARIS - Agence France-Presse
France breaking own rules on Roma camps: ombudsman

French security forces prepare to evacuate caravans belonging to the Roma community during the dismantling of a camp in Roubaix, northern France, Friday, Sept. 27, 2013. AP Photo/Michel Spingler

France's official defender of citizens' rights on Friday accused the government of flouting its own rules related to the expulsion of Roma migrants from illegal camps.

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 interministerial 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 authorised 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.

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.

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 insecurity, which polls suggest are among voters' biggest concerns and have been linked to an upward spike in support for the far right Front National.