France's controversial crackdown on the Roma, Europe's single largest minority, spotlights a continent-wide concern and a collective failure to honour the imperatives of the European Union's eastward enlargement. Ironically, the countries that imposed stringent conditions — in relation to crime, trafficking, and the observance of human rights — ahead of the EU accession bids of Romania and Bulgaria are themselves now found wanting on some of those criteria. While most of the countries of the former Soviet Union were admitted to the EU in 2004, Bucharest and Sofia were kept in waiting until 2007. France is in the midst of a mass repatriation operation of hundreds of Roma migrants in response to recent incidents of violence in the suburbs of Paris. Even some of the partners of the ruling coalition have criticised the action as stoking anti-immigration fears in the backdrop of sluggish economic recovery and the upcoming general election. Enlightened public opinion is building up in Bucharest and elsewhere against the deportation of EU citizens of one ethnic group. More recently, the Roma populations of Italy and Hungary have been targets of accusations of abetting crime, lending substance to suspicions that their governments were playing on familiar prejudices and stereotypes against ethnic minorities to woo their right-wing constituency. The European Commission has blamed the plight of the continent's gypsies on the reluctance of member-states to utilise available funds for their effective integration. The U.N. Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has dubbed the current French deportations as racially motivated.
Freedom of movement across national borders is one of the founding principles of the EU. Therefore many EU states, including France, have sought refuge in a transitional measure to restrict (until 2014) Romanians and Bulgarians from working in their territories. President Nicolas Sarkozy, eyeing a second term, should ease the curbs on migrant workers that have proved a costly gambit morally and diplomatically and reinforce his country's traditionally liberal credentials. The region's Roma, estimated at around 10 million, have an average life expectancy that is only half of that in Europe, while their rates of illiteracy and infant mortality are far higher. These are embarrassingly dismal figures for a continent that has relatively small national populations and boasts some of the best human development indicators. The forces of violent xenophobia must be suppressed resolutely and humane and democratic values protected.