PARIS—The French government is considering giving Bulgarian and Romanian nationals equal working rights to other Europeans in the country, after the dismantlement of Gypsy camps sparked controversy for President François Hollande and drew comparisons with the policies of his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy.
In the past week, French authorities have raided makeshift camps inhabited by Gypsies, also known as Roma, in Lille, Lyon and Marseille and evicted them. According to Human Rights Watch, the French government flew 240 Romanian Gypsies back to Romania on a flight last week and gave them as much as €300 ($369) each.
The raids “appear to be just the latest manifestation of France’s notorious expulsion policy targeting Eastern European Roma,” said Veronika Szente Goldston, a director at Human Rights Watch.
A French government spokeswoman said the flight was organized to transport Romanian citizens who had accepted a voluntary return to their country and wasn’t linked to the dismantled camps, which she called “illegal settlements.”
Mr. Hollande’s government will review options next week, including offering the Gypsies the same working rights as other European citizens, Interior Minister Manuel Valls said on French radio Thursday.
Mr. Hollande’s government has gone to great lengths to distinguish itself on social policy from Mr. Sarkozy, who served as interior minister before becoming president in 2007 and made law-and-order crackdowns a signature of his governing style. But breaking up Roma camps and offering financial incentives for repatriation appears to be a continuation of the initiatives of Mr. Sarkozy, whose mass expulsion of foreign Gypsies sparked an outcry in France and a row with the European Commission, the European Union’s executive arm.
At the time, European Commissioner for Justice Viviane Reding called Mr. Sarkozy’s policies and a government circular singling out Roma a disgrace and initiated legal proceedings against the country. Ms. Reding has weighed in on the latest evictions, though she has welcomed France’s cooperation and the government’s pledge not to target any particular group.
“The Commission will follow the developments in France very closely,” she wrote in an op-ed published in Thursday’s Libération. “There are 12 million Roma in Europe, who, like us, are at home in Europe. It is our responsibility to help them integrate.”
Mr. Valls has defended the continued breakup of the camps on the grounds of health and welfare concerns. “It’s a left-wing policy—respecting the law at the same time as ensuring integration and justice are a reality with schooling and work training,” he said.
In an editorial this week in Libération, Mr. Valls said passiveness is sparking the reappearance of shantytowns. The French public appears to agree: According to a survey Tuesday from pollster Ifop, 80% of French people are in favor of dismantling illegal Roma camps.
Granting Bulgarian and Romanian citizens full working rights would allow the French government to field criticism by distinguishing itself from other countries. Nine European countries now impose restrictions on Romanian workers, which European law permits them to do until the end of 2013. In France, Bulgarian and Romanian citizens must have a resident’s permit to work and for their first five years in France, their employers must seek permission to hire them.
The European Commission has long been urging countries to lift the restrictions, arguing it would help labor markets be more dynamic and wouldn’t lead to unmanageable population flows, said Commission spokesman Olivier Bailly.
“We think that these restrictions do not make sense in economic terms for the EU countries who still maintain them because we have never seen any massive influx of populations,” he said.
Studies show, for example, that Polish workers migrated to Ireland and helped to satisfy a labor shortage at the height of the country’s economic boom, but returned home when the Irish economy and the job market wilted in the crisis, a European Commission official said.