WATCH: More than 70 members of the Romany community have been brought to a city sports hall in Choisy le Roi, a small town on the outskirts of Paris
France has begun to return hundreds of Roma rounded up as part of a clampdown on members of the community living illegally in the country.
Seventy-nine Romanian Roma, who agreed to return home voluntarily -- in exchange for 300 euros ($385) for adults and 100 euros for minors -- were repatriated today on flights to Bucharest, Romania's capital, chartered by the French government.
The flights are the first since French President Nicolas Sarkozy launched a controversial crackdown on Romany and traveler communities earlier this summer.
Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux on August 17 announced that around 700 Roma would be flown back to both Romania and Bulgaria "before the end of the month."
The minister also said police had dismantled 51 illegal camps of Roma, Gypsy, and traveler minorities over the past three weeks. "In our country, one cannot in an illicit manner an area, a space, an apartment, or a building. These operations are continuing every day," Hortefeux said.
In the wake of clashes between Roma and police in the city of Grenoble late last month, Sarkozy ordered the dismantling of 300 illegal camps as part of a broader campaign against crime. The government has given itself three months to remove these camps.
Sarkozy said the camps were sources of trafficking, child exploitation, and prostitution.
But critics accuse Sarkozy of using the crime crackdown to shift attention away from his flagging ratings, which have slid to record lows amid high unemployment, unpopular pension-reform plans, and scandals that have touched members of his government.
Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, a Lyon deputy mayor and the Socialist Party's national secretary in charge of social issues, denounced what she called a "masquerade."
"Mr. Sarkozy and his government tried to build a smoke screen to make the French people forget about [these issues]. This smoke screen is, as usual, immigration, insecurity, delinquency -- the three magic words of this government,” Vallaud-Belkacem told RFE/RL.
Vallaud-Belkacem said the government's announcements amounted to stigmatization, by singling out one segment of the population as scapegoats for rising insecurity in France.
Malik Salemkour, vice president of the nongovernmental organization Human Rights League, told RFE/RL that the policy was "ethnic, stigmatizing, [and] shameful."
"It specifically targets Roma -- Romanian and Bulgarian nationals for the majority -- of which there are only about 15,000 on [French] territory. It's a sinister staging because we are expelling European nationals who can come back [to France] after a few days -- and that is actually the case. These people are willing to live here in France," Salemkour said.
Certainly, some Roma interviewed by Reuters said they would return to France if expelled.
Rodica Novakovich, who is one of some 70 Roma now living in a sports hall near Paris since they were evicted from their camp, said that "the minute I find money, I will return to France. I want to come back here for the children. Here, I can feed the children, I can take care of them here. There are many French people who take care of the kids.
"It's not like Romania. In Romania, if you ask for a glass of water, it's impossible. In France there are some shops that even give you free food," Novakovich said.
Romania and Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007. Under transitional arrangements, their nationals can enter France without particular formalities and stay there for three months without justifying any activity.
Sarkozy's security crackdown is causing concern even within his own right-wing majority, with UMP lawmaker Jean-Pierre Grand comparing French police tactics to those used in Nazi-occupied France.
The government's campaign has also drawn concern abroad.
On August 18, Romanian Foreign Minister Teodor Baconschi warned against expelling the Roma "collectively" based on ethnic criteria. In an interview with the Romanian service of Radio France International, the minister also expressed worry about the risk of "xenophobic reactions" amid the economic crisis.
Meanwhile, the European Commission ensured it would monitor the situation in France "very attentively" to make sure EU rules on freedom of movement and freedom of establishment are being respected.
But Immigration Minister Eric Besson this week insisted that the Roma were leaving "on a voluntary basis."
He also said the flights were part of regular procedures of returning foreigners who are not in France legally to their country of origin, adding that today's would be the 25th of this year to Romania and Bulgaria.
According to his ministry, 44 such flights were organized in 2009, and 10,000 Romanians and Bulgarians were sent back to the two countries.
Living predominantly on the margins of society, the Romany community suffers discrimination throughout Europe. Rights groups say its members are often denied their rights to housing, employment, health care, and education, and are victims of racist attacks, and police ill-treatment.
Ciprian Necula works for Romano Butiq, a Romanian NGO working with traditional Romany manufacturers. He told RFE/RL's Moldova Service that the Romany community in Romania is still awaiting the benefits from the country's entry in the EU:
"EU money for Roma started coming to Romania in 2001. I have a friend, a sociologist, Gelu Dominic who made a calculation: how much money was spent in Romania on cows per capita compared to how much was spent on Roma per capita. They spent 10 times more on cows then on Roma," Necula said.
Lucian Stefanescu, a correspondent for RFE/RL's Moldova Service in Bucharest, contributed to this report