The European Commission cast a harsh light on France’s expulsion policy towards Roma migrants on Wednesday, on the heels of controversial comments from Interior Minister Manual Valls, notably that the Roma “had a duty to return to their homeland.” According to rights group Amnesty International, France has already expulsed over 10,000 Roma to Eastern Europe this year, in violation of E.U. regulations on free movement for its citizens.
The controversy finds Valls in a familiar position — i.e., taking the heat for President François Hollande and calming tensions on the home front. Earlier this summer Valls defended the French ban on public full-face veils amid rioting outside of Paris; on September 19, France’s top cop defended the unpopular arrest of a so-called vigilante jeweler.
Now, if Valls is facing an especially heated wave of criticisms coming from outside of France — the E.U. is threatening sanctions — the beleaguered minister can blame his president. In an attempt to salvage his sinking approval ratings — currently at an all-time low of 23% — Hollande has resorted to mirroring Sarkozy-era policies, i.e., mass Roma expulsions and a hard line on headscarves. The Interior Minister has defended his Roma stance, stating, “We don’t have the obligation to welcome these populations, we need to say it clearly and calmly.” A strong contrast with the Left’s symbolic push to combat racism this May by erasing the word “race” from the French constitution.
But with local elections approaching in six months, France’s Socialists are not the only ones to seize on tensions over immigrant populations. The center-right UMP party has capitalized on anti-Roma sentiment; far-right party the Front National (FN) has adopted a multi-pronged strategy, eschewing its historic anti-Semitism for a stance that targets Roma and Muslim immigrants instead.
The result? Le Pen’s party made significant inroads in polling this year, and looks to head into municipal elections with a head start — Socialists and conservatives’ numbers are both down in comparison. Little wonder then that Hollande, like his predecessor, is banking on an anti-Roma gambit to curb the FN’s encroachment.
This hasn’t gone unnoticed. The E.U.’s justice chief, Viviane Reding, accused the Socialist government of distracting voters from its political shortcomings with the explosive Roma issue, in an attempt to recoup support before the elections. Valls has denied any such link.
Lest he be mistaken for Hollande’s fall guy, it’s worth noting that Valls is likely furthering his own political agenda as well. The 51-year-old minister is one of the most popular politicians in France, and reportedly has his eye on a prime minister role. As of August, his approval ratings had hit 61%, edging towards tripling Hollande’s. Valls attributes the popularity to — what else? — speaking his mind.