PARIS — People of Roma origin have a lifestyle that is in "confrontation" with that of the French, the interior minister said Tuesday, insisting that they should return to Romania or Bulgaria.
Manuel Valls also defended the French government's policy of dismantling the camps of the Roma, who are also known as Gypsies, and expelling them. Critics say the policy is racist against the more than 20,000 Roma in France – most of whom trace their origins to Bulgaria and Romania.
"I approved the dismantling of these veritable slums that represent a danger both for the people of Roma origin, but also of course the people who live in working-class neighborhoods" nearby where they are often found, Valls said on France Inter radio. Few, he said, could integrate into French society.
"These populations have lifestyles that are very different from ours, and are clearly in confrontation ..." he said.
There is widespread political debate about France's treatment of the Roma, who face discrimination across Europe. Politicians in Sweden this week criticized police in the Nordic country for compiling a secret, possibly illegal registry of more than 4,000 Roma, including children.
France has been pushing to keep Romania and Bulgaria from gaining full access to Europe's Schengen zone, which allows passport-free travel. The two eastern European countries are set to accede to the 26-nation zone on Jan. 1. French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault has called for a two-step admission process – first by air travel, then by overland or sea travel borders – though he did not specify a date.
The hard tack by the Socialist government comes amid pressure from the political right.
"It's out of question for Bulgaria and Romania to enter the Schengen area as long as that problem is not solved at the European level," Jean-Francois Cope, who heads the main opposition UMP party, said on France-Info radio.
Delia Romanesc, a director at the Roma Circus of Paris who has helped lead demonstrations against crackdowns on Roma in the past, said she felt "especially sad about all these attacks on Roma," and insisted that Roma culture has inspired artists across Europe for centuries.
Many Roma "are ripped apart by misery, and are being pursued," she said. "They have no way of defending themselves."
Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten contributed from Paris.