FENCH PRESIDENT NICOLAS SARKOZY has been attracting a lot of hostile attention lately – even some hackneyed comparisons to Adolf Hitler – for his policies concerning the Roma population in France. Since midsummer, the Sarkozy administration has sent hundreds, possibly thousands, of Roma packing under the guise of voluntary repatriation. Now that the European Union is threatening legal action against France, Sarkozy needs to give up the fight unless he is willing to commit to finding a more comprehensive, equitable and effective solution.

In July 22-year-old Luigi Duquenet, a young Roma living in an encampment in central France, was shot and killed by police, after allegedly driving through a roadblock and hitting an officer. The incident precipitated immediate retaliation from the Roma community – the local police station was attacked and general havoc was wreaked around the community. Not long after these events turned into national headlines, Sarkozy vowed to shut down 300 Roma camps in the subsequent three months.

The nomadic Roma people, otherwise known as Gypsies, are a marginalized minority in Europe. While Eastern Europe currently contains the highest concentration of Roma, France and other Western European nations are quickly gaining ground. Roma have historically been discriminated against in nearly every country they have called home, however temporarily; France has been no exception.

In exchange for a plane ticket home and 330 euros, Sarkozy is asking France’s Roma populations, particularly from Bulgaria and Romania, to return to their homelands. The home these people are returning to is not the home sweet home we all like to idealize – they often arrive to find themselves in squalid living conditions and subject to even more discrimination than they faced abroad.

Gypsies have a reputation for causing trouble, which is perhaps best characterized in Cher’s shockingly relevant “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves.” Along with all generalizations, this one holds some truth – somewhere between 10 and 15 thousand Roma (though, really, it is difficult to count) live in illegal, temporary camps throughout France. Many residents of these communities do not hold work permits or visas, which, according to French law, are required for any stay in France greater than three months. These camps are often hotbeds of delinquency and squalor, exacerbated by pervasive unemployment among adults and lack of adequate education among youth.

The problem of Gypsies is a hard one for Americans to understand. The United States has never had to deal with generations of people who are unable, or simply refuse, to assimilate. There are, however, many Roma who do integrate (up to 400,000 in France); surely collective punishment for the actions of a few is simply unacceptable. Not only does France seem to be reneging on its national motto of “liberté, égalité, fraternité,” but it is ignoring EU travel regulations that allow the free circulation of its citizens within the European Union.

As much as everyone seems to like to make the comparison in times of trouble, Sarkozy is no Hitler. Giving people a check and a free flight, even though the lack of legroom can be quite torturous, is not the same as systematically packing people into train cars and sending them to labor or death camps. What the media likes to call “deportations” of Roma seem to have more to do with his waning popularity than any ideological principles. With the re-emergence of France’s xenophobic, far-right National Front, many argue that Sarkozy is exploiting prejudices to win votes.

Regardless of whether your goal is to integrate Roma into a society that might offer them a better life, or if it is simply to kick out an unfamiliar ethnic group from your backyard, involuntary repatriation is not going to work. Sarkozy’s Band-Aid of plane tickets, meager payouts and a not-so-friendly au revoir is not solving the problem – if anything, it seems to be making ethnic tensions worse, not only in France, but throughout Europe. Currently, there are no systems in place to stop those who took Sarkozy up on his generous offer from making a return trip to France immediately after they leave. If that’s the case, Sarkozy’s cause could be costing his country a whole lot of money, only to yield the same numbers of Roma settled throughout la Belle France a couple of months from now.

Courtney Creedon is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service.

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