Friday, 17 September 2010

Is Sarkozy losing it?

Toward the end of today there was a flurry of speculation among the journalists at the summit of EU leaders in Brussels, when word got around that the Bulgarian prime minister was telling people a violent altercation between French president Nicolas Sarkozy and European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso had occurred during lunch. The fight, from the sounds of it, was pretty incredible - apparently Sarkozy was screaming so loudly at Barroso it could be heard all the way down the hall.

The altercation came after Tuesday's shockingly strong condemnation of France's deportation of Roma (gypsies) by Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding. Reding had not only accused France of violating EU anti-discrimination law by targeting an ethnic minority for deportation, but also of violating free movement law by deporting "en masse" gypsies who are Romanian and Bulgarian nationals and therefor EU citizens. But what really seemed to make Sarkozy and his cabinet explode in anger this past week was Reding's comparison of France's recent actions to the country's history of rounding up and disposing of gypsies during World War II. One by one this week French ministers expressed their shock and fury at Reding's words, with the country's Europe minister even declaring "This is not how you treat a great nation like France!" But even after Reding apologized for making the World War II analogy, their anger didn't seem to diminish. And apparently, when Barroso told Sarkozy today that he is backing Reding's condemnation and the commission is united on challenging the legality of what France is doing, that's when Sarko lost it.

Speaking to the press at the end of the day, Sarkozy gave what was essentially a non-denial denial of the clash with Barroso. He insisted he and Barroso hadn't had any "problem," but then went on to say that he is the president of France and "I can't allow my country to be insulted". Other EU leaders such as David Cameron confirmed that there had been a 'spirited altercation'. When asked whether Sarko had screamed at him, Barroso did not deny that the altercation took place but said he would not discuss it because he wanted to avoid "useless rhetoric."

Aside from the alleged altercation today, what was most notable was that not a single leader other than Italy's Silvio Berlusconi was willing to publicly defend France's deportations. Several leaders including Germany's Angela Merkel criticised Reding's comparison to World War II, but none would go the extra step in defending the French actions that are the actual source of the controversy. It really gave the impression that Sarkozy is out on his own on this one, even among his fellow conservatives.

All in all this is likely not where the Sarkozy government wanted to be when it started these high-profile deportations in August. Some of the defensive statements coming out of Paris this week were so over-the-top it made the government look downright foolish. Sarkozy reportedly even snapped that if Reding, who is from Luxembourg, liked gypsies so much then they would be happy to send all the gypsies to Luxembourg. The Luxembourg and German papers reacted to that with ridicule. And when other ministers said the commission is acting "above its remit" by criticising a "great state" like France, it just looked silly. It is the commission's job to guarantee that EU law is followed and they issue such condemnations for other member states (particularly Italy and the new Eastern European entrants) quite frequently. In fact, improving the situation and ending the persecution of roma was one of the main requirements the commission put on new EU entrants in order for them to join in 2004 and 2007. It would have appeared hypocritical for them to ignore it when France appeared to be doing the same thing in a very highly publisized way.

Some of the comments coming from Sakozy and his administration this week have been downright childish, and the European media has reacted to it with derision.  The focusing on the fact that Reding is from Luxembourg (when in fact the country a commissioner is from is supposed to be irrelevant, every commissioner is equal no matter what country they come from) has seemed especially strange. "We will not take moral lessons from a commissioner who, I think, represents a small country of 350,000 inhabitants" declared UMP deputy Chantal Brunel. Apparently people born in small countries don't have the moral authority to criticize anything.

During his briefing today Sarkozy even casually reminded the press how he had supported Barroso for his second term as commission president, as if this was somehow supposed to buy him guaranteed support from Barroso at all times. The result of this defensive tantrum is that France now looks not only incredibly arrogant (what's new) but also quite out-of-touch. And that impression has not gone unnoticed by the French media, and it is being highlighted by Sarkozy's Socialist opposition.

It is unclear where this will go from here. Sarkozy has vowed to continue the deportations, and Reding has said the commission will prosecute France in the European Court of Justice if they don't stop. So now it may become a game of chicken, who will back down first?

While all of this was going on I observed a rather poignant moment. At the Schuman metro stop which is just outside the European Council building where this summit was taking place, there is a gypsy woman every day begging with her baby. I pass her every morning on my way to work. As I was coming out of the station in the morning, I noticed a few journalists trying to ask her about how she felt about the controversy. She looked a bit bemused, with an expression that said, 'I really don't care, just give me some money'. Meanwhile a group of elderly white people were discussing what is to be done with her inside the building next door. It really summed up the heart of this problem, one that Europe has let fester for far too long and was likely to come to some kind of explosion like this inevitably.

Roma are the EU's largest minority, with a population of an estimated 12 million just within the EU's borders (there are many more in neighboring Turkey and Serbia). Though they are a large group they are very disparate, with different branches throughout Europe often not even being able to communicate with each other. They are politically disorganised and have no strong lobby for their own rights. Because of this, they are a rather defenseless easy target. In fact the only large Roma human rights group, which is based in Budapest, doesn't have very many actual Roma working on the staff. Because they are an itinerant community they are often not very interested in participating in mainstream society, and this includes organising to defend their own rights. So the conversation about Roma rights continues to be had between white Europeans, which makes this all a rather awkward exchange.

France is not alone in its deportations - Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Austria and Italy have all also been quietly deporting roma camps for some time as well. But France was the first one to do it loudly, publicizing their actions in what some believe was a bid to get votes from the country's far right. They were also the first to explicitly target the Roma by their ethnicity and to deport Roma who are EU citizens in a mass sweep. In the end, it was Sarkozy's efforts to publisize what they were doing that got them into trouble, because the commission felt it was compelled to act in order to maintain the dignity of the EU treaties. Now each side feels it can't back down on principle.

Either way, this is an enormous black eye not just for France, but the EU as a whole. Ironically this may finally spur the European Commission to invest some money into figuring out a solution to the so-called "Roma problem". How do you integrate a community that doesn't want to be integrated? In a property-based society, is it possible for traveling communities to exist side-by-side with settled society? And can they exist in that way without inevitably breaking the law? These are all questions the commission will have to grapple with as gypsies from Eastern Europe continue to want to move westward.


Anonymous said...

The other EU leaders are afraid to say that they agree with what Sarkozy is doing because they are afraid of the commission. But I'm sure most of them agree, gypsies are a problem everywhere and Sarkozy is the only one who has the courage to do something about it.

Kallisti said...

You are correct that Sweden has deported Roma. However it has not gone unchallenged within Sweden. The minister for migration said that begging is not an acceptable way of supporting yourself financially, although begging in it self is legal in Sweden. This claim was in support of the Stockholm Police Authorities decisions to deport individual Roma people. The National Police Board has said that they do not agree with the interpretation of the law and that new guidelines will be developed and distributed to the local police authorities.

The individual deportations are being considered for appeal by the NGO "Discrimination Bureau" to the Migration Agency of Sweden. The opposition and other notable people have also pounded on the claims by the minister and the Stockholm police.

@Anonymous "they are afraid of the commission" That would be the day! Finally :) It hasn't crossed your mind that perhaps they are not agreeing with Sarkozy because he's wrong...