A letter signed by the Cabinet Director for Brice Hortefeux, the French Interior Minister, was sent to all police chiefs throughout France on 5 August 2010. Its purpose was to give them instructions as to the “systematic dismantling” of 300 camps within the next three months. Rather than applying this measure to anyone the official documents specifically targeted “the Roma”, Gypsies from Romania and Bulgaria, who would have to be expulsed to their country. This document, which was discovered with a sense of amazement and disbelief by officials in Brussels, was leaked to the media on Monday 13 September.

Over the summer, the policy of dismantlement of Roma camps initiated at the request of the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, was put into force and widely reported in the media. A good number of police officers would intervene early in the morning. The people, including very young children, would be taken by buses to the closest airport. Meanwhile their camp would be destroyed with bulldozers. They would be given money in return for leaving the country and boarded on a plane that would take them back to Romania and Bulgaria.

Deportation of individuals from one country to another is quite frequent and may legally be enforced for different reasons. However, it is implemented in all democratic countries on a case-by-case basis, regardless of national origins, according to a fair process of law, which ensure that the rights of the person are safeguarded. What aroused the concerns and suspicions of European Member states, the European Parliament, the United States of America and the United Nations was that the policy appeared to be primarily directed at the Roma people while being carried out on a group basis.

On 9 September the European Parliament passed a resolution requesting that the French authorities “immediately suspend all expulsion of Roma” that “amounted to discrimination”. This was followed by the statement made by Ms Viviane Reding, European Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, Vice-President of the European Union. On Tuesday 14 she denounced the French policy as being in breach of European treaties and threatened legal action initiated by the Commission against France.

A few days before, Ms Reding had been given assurances in a formal meeting by two French Ministers, the Minister for Immigration and the Minister for European Affairs, that the Roma people were being deported on a case-by-case basis. She was rightly indignant when she discovered that instructions had indeed been given by the Ministry of Interior to all police Chiefs in France in order to target “the Roma” as a priority. Ms Reding highlighted the duplicitous way in which the French authorities had been dealing with Brussels.

The evidence that the policy of the French Government was discriminatory against an ethnic minority was established. This was in breach of a fundamental principle that requires that the law is applied to all equally. Once this was revealed openly, the French authorities speedily removed all references to the Roma people from their instructions to police Chiefs. Meanwhile, Ms Reding has indicated that the matter would be referred to the Commission so that infringement proceedings for violation of the European Treaties may be initiated against France before the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. Before it reaches the court, France will be given the opportunity to comply with EU legislation. It remains to be seen whether the French authorities will leave aside their pride and humbly decide to simply apply the law.