Years ago, a friend took me shopping in the bazaars of the Barbès neighborhood of Paris, one of the city's most diverse, where thousands of people -- Algerians, Moroccans, Vietnamese, West Indians, West Africans and tourists -- jostle to snare bargains in countless outdoor stalls, secondhand shops, and discount stores.
While browsing a rack of vintage leather jackets, I happened to look down at my purse, which had been zippered shut, and was shocked to find in it an arm, buried to the elbow. Looking up, I locked eyes with a young dark-haired girl, certainly no older than 14. She smiled sheepishly as if the say, "You got me," but before I could even react she and the little girl who had been standing next to her were gone.
"Gypsies," my friend warned. "You must always watch for them. They are beggars, thieves, and pickpockets -- they teach their children to steal as soon as they are old enough to walk."
The French disdain and open hostility toward the gypsies, also known as Roma, is nothing new, and belies France's reputation as a stalwart of human rights with a history that goes all the way back to the French Revolution and the 1789 "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen."
In recent months, President Nicolas Sarkozy, in an attempt to gain the political support of the extreme right, has deported thousands of Roma, with the government paying 300 euros per adult, 100 euros per child to those who will leave voluntarily. Whether the Gypsies take the offer or not, the police demolish the Gypsies' camps, their orders specifically instructing officers to target Roma. (Just imagine if the LAPD were to issue orders saying, "rout the Mexican squatters.")
European Union Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding rightly drew the obvious parallel to policies of France's wartime Vichy government when she threatened to bring action against France in the European Court of Justice, calling the French state's current targeting of Roma for deportation a "disgrace." The Vichy regime deported Jews and Gypsies to Nazi concentration camps.
Sarkozy took umbrage at the very suggestion that his government engages in ethnic based deportation policies, but the parallels to Vichy cannot be denied.
There can be no justification for treating the Roma any differently from other EU citizens. Specifically targeting them for mass expulsion clearly contravenes EU law allowing freedom of movement of EU citizens and violates the most basic premises of the rule of law. Here, there is a bright line and it has been crossed.
That this policy is being perpetrated by Nicholas Sarkozy, himself the son of an immigrant, married to Carla Bruni, also an immigrant, adds a rueful irony to this human rights tragedy. That he is essentially playing politics is even more shameful.
Nearly one million striking workers gathered in cities throughout France last Thursday for the second day to voice their opposition to President Sarkozy's plan to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 and the full retirement benefits age from 65 to 67.
With 2012 elections looming large and his popularity waning, Sarkozy finds an easy target in the Roma. Cloaking his opportunism in tough-on-crime rhetoric, he willingly trades France's international standing by pandering to the extreme right for a few measly votes. Because, let's face it, the real punishment of any potential action in the European Court of Justice is not a fine, but the loss of standing for France, the self-described "mother of human rights" and country that will head the G20 in just a few short months.
The Roma community has long-standing problems with crime, child labor and child-prostitution. Disdain for people who do not educate their children and send them to the streets to beg and thieve is understandable. But these are matters for the coordinated efforts of police and courts and social workers - the approach taken for other communities -- as opposed to broad-brush ethnic discrimination.
This is France, where the victims of Jim Crow could find haven. This is France, whose gift, the Statue of Liberty, has welcomed the "tired, poor... huddled masses yearning to breathe free."
But, now, with its controversial burqa ban and anti-Roma policies, France looks increasingly heavy-handed and intolerant. It no longer resembles the progressive society that proclaimed 221 years ago that, "Men are born and remain free and equal in rights."