In an exclusive interview, ahead of the 20 October European 'Roma summit' organised by the Council of Europe, the MEP presents the case for France in the face of criticism generated by its action against Roma communities since July 2010.
Ms Striffler admits that the image of France "is not very good" and that the government has "made errors" but claims that France's Roma policy is no different to that pursued by other Council of Europe member states.
The MEP insists that the government's Roma policy must continue, declares that France has "at last" stirred a real debate in Europe and offers her view on how Roma communities can best improve their prospects.
Interview Transcript [en]
Hello and welcome to this podcast of the Council of Europe.
Michèle Striffler is a French Deputy at the European Parliament. She is the spokesman for the French delegation of the European People's Party (EPP) on the question of Roma people in Europe.
Mrs. Striffler joins me by telephone for this podcast to discuss the situation of Roma people in Europe. Welcome Mrs. Striffler and thank you for having accepted our invitation.
Since July 2010, France has encouraged expulsions of Roma back to Romania and Bulgaria as well as the dismantle of illegal camps. How would characterise the relationship between the French authorities and the Roma people?
The relationship is tense as we are facing a situation that has not been taken into consideration for years. Today a lot of Roma people want to integrate in France and then leave because France is giving them 300 euros per person and it encourages people to come to France. The problem is that we are not ready to welcome everyone, that is the reason why rules have been established for all European countries so France is only respecting those European laws and if a Roma wants to fit in France, of course he is a European citizen, he can be integrated as everyone else with the rules he has to respect.
You say that France is the biggest contributor to [programmes] helping to integrate Roma people in their countries. What are theses projects and how much does France spend on them?
This assistance is part of the funds that France gives to Romania and that France pays through the European Commission. This money that is for example paid to Romania, since it is the country with the greatest number of Roma, is not used for Roma people. So France wants the rules to be respected and that the countries concerned, who get money from these programmes, take care of their own citizens. This is not the case.
This is why France is very active: France gives money to Roma people to help them to return to their countries and up to 7000 euros when a Roma person has a long term project in agriculture or in another area.
So today France is one of the few European countries which gives so much assistance to the Roma people. That is the reason why all the Roma people want to come to France. That is why putting France on trial is a bit too much.
Germany, Italy, Denmark and Sweden have also returned Roma people. What is your explanation for why the French situation provoked such strong reactions?
It is simply a polemic.
According to the former French Premier Minister, Michel Rocard, “France cannot welcome the misery of the whole world but must take its share.” Do you think this illustrates well the current situation?
Yes I agree with that illustration. France has to welcome any European citizen but it is true that France cannot welcome everyone. After a given moment, it is no longer possible.
We suffer from the crisis just like everyone else. If these European do not respect the minimum French rules, then they should not stay in our country. This is as true for the Roma as it is for any person from any country, sedentary or not.
What then motivates France to return Roma? Is it linked to crime?
There is a lot of crime but we cannot say that all the Roma are criminals. The problem is that there are a lot of criminals and that considering the fact that Roma live in very poor conditions all over Europe, automatically they tend to fall into crime.
Also, there are criminals who take advantage of the situation of Roma distress to make them commit crimes. Sometimes they think they do not have a choice.
How can you explain the media frenzy and the way the information has been treated by the press in respect of France?
The press has played a lot the game of polemicising and unfortunately at a given moment we have to tell things as they are. France has been accused of various things such as discrimination, yet it turned out that the European Commission has given up because there wasn't discrimination by France. Before accusing a country or anyone else, you have to wait to have the facts. So I think that the press has played too much the game of polemicising.
Do you think that the French policy is supported by public opinion?
When I am go home, unfortunately I have the impression that people are more and more racist and intolerant. Is it because we are in a period of crisis? Is it because they have information that is not always correct? Do they only have half the information?
I have the impression, while I am listening to people, that they support what is currently done in France as well as in other countries. That is reason why the time has come to focus on the problem. The time has come for the European Commission to do its work, which has not been the case so far.
We would have never reached this point if the Commission had done its work. For years , the European deputies have been asking for progress. It has been years! Today all the money that is paid to countries such as Romania and Bulgaria for the Roma community is not spent on Roma.
The Roma don't want to go to another country. They would rather stay at home. I have spoken to Roma people. They would rather stay at home, but they do not even have access to healthcare in their own country. They come to France where they can be taken care of for free.
Every country has to be responsible. One of the few countries that meets at least some of its humanitarian responsibilities is indeed France. Today in Romania, you do not receive free medical treatment. France cares for everybody.
So putting France on trial is unfair, even if France has made mistakes. Those mistakes are indeed reprehensible but you also have to tell the truth.
Do you think then that France should continue its action and if yes what would be the consequences?
France has to continue its policy to make sure that European laws are respected. If a Roma or any other European person, sedentary or not, comes to France, he must respect the European and the French rules. As long as the person refuses to respect these laws, they shouldn't be in the country, in France, or any where else by the way.
What is the impact of these actions for the image of France?
The image of France is currently not very good because the image people have of France is not the real one. Some things have not been said clearly and correctly.
Some things have been said and done but do not correspond to the truth, in terms of discrimination and also concerning the expulsions which have not taken place with the click of a finger. Systematically, it occurred after the decision of a judge, a decision of the justice so France has been condemned and accused of things it has not done and this is serious.
Some unfair statements have been made and some unfair things have been done against France and that is only to be qualified as a way of polemicising. It is unfortunate the way things have turned out.
Is France going to stand alone on this issue? Can she?
She is not standing alone. She is doing exactly the same as other countries do.
To a greater extent?
Not at all not at all! A lot has been said on France but even Commissioner Redding has said that the controls which will be made in France, will also concern other European countries. She should have done that earlier but from now on all the countries are going to be controlled. France is doing exactly the same as other countries do.
The entry of Romania and Bulgaria into the Schengen area is planned in March 2011. Does France wish to stand against their entry?
I personally do not want to stand against their entry.
If you should advise the Roma community in Europe what would be that advice?
To try to integrate. You cannot live that way without be willing to integrate and to make efforts to mix with others. And most important: the children have to be sent to schools, if there is no education, if children keep on living that way in the streets, the situation will never improve.
So in the mid to long term, do you think that the situation of Roma in Europe will improve or is there a risk of it getting worse?
I think it is going to improve. I am used to seeing the glass as ‘half full,' so I think that what has happened is a good thing, even if France has taken the blows sometimes fair, sometimes unfair.
At last, public opinion might change a bit. At last, we will discuss the important topics. At last, the European Commission will have to react. At last, things will be said and not always hidden away. I do think that this is a good thing and I am sure that the situation will get better.