The French national police force – la Gendarmerie – yesterday stood accused of operating a secret and illegal database of Roma and other travelling minorities.
The existence of this database was reported in great detail in yesterday's Le Monde. It came to light by chance, when a 48-page powerpoint presentation, prepared by a Commandant in the Central Bureau for prevention of Traveller Crime (OCLDI), and presented to a meeting of Transport Businesses in November 2004, turned up on the internet.
If confirmed, this database represents the logical conclusion to an ever-more-intrusive surveillance of travellers and ethnic minorities by the police – and is likely to prove doubly embarrassing to French President Nikolas Sarkozy. Firstly, because the very first article of the French Constitution asserts that the Republic "guarantees the equality before the law of all citizens, irrespective of racial origin or religion". Secondly, because M. Sarkozy was the focus for serious international criticism this summer when he stepped up the deportations of Roma from France to their native Romania and Bulgaria. EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding compared France's actions to persecutions in Nazi-occupied France, an accusation met with fury by M Sarkozy, who said that the comparison was "unacceptable".
The Gendarmerie, clearly embarrassed, have denied allegations that they are tracking the Roma population with a dataset. They claim that while there may have been mention in the Powerpoint presentation of Roma and MENS (an acronym for a system understood to stand for "ethnic minorities without permanent abode"), this was before the formation of the OCLDI.
Sadly, this will not wash, as the OCLDI was created in June 2004, some five months before the date of the presentation.
According to the Gendarmerie: "The only database used by the OCLDI is an administrative database, logging the regional distribution of individuals without permanent abode – with no reference at all to race or ethnic origin". They are adamant: MENS does not exist.
There are problems also with this version of events. A further presentation to gendarmes, this time of Forbidden Zone, the house magazine of the OCLDI in May 2008 led one commenter to remark: "Uh oh! There are going to be questions asked about MENS – and there are going to be all sorts of recriminations and "jeremiads" from the representatives of these "poor victims" going on about 'police persecution'."
Human Rights lawyers William Bourdon and Francoise Cotta, acting on behalf of a coalition that includes La Voix des Rroms (Roma Voice) , the French Union of Gipsy Associations (UFAT), the National Federation for support of Gipsies and Travellers la fédération (Fnasat), and the Catholic Travellers Association (ANGVC) are up in arms.
According to M. Bourdon: "These files can only put various communities, in France and abroad, in mind of some very bad memories indeed. They appear to be symptomatic of a pathological security mindset that has carried on continuously for the last two and a half years".
Mme Cotta added: "This is not 1940. We are looking for a swift public response confirming an end to this very rapidly. It is at the heart of government that the most serious threat to social order is to be found".
In a separate development today, Liberal Democrat European justice and human rights spokeswoman and London MEP Sarah Ludford intervened, speaking out against allegations that the French authorities have also been taking DNA samples from Roma people without proper authorisation.
The Baroness is a long time campaigner on Roma rights, and in 2008, she led a campaign to stop the Italian government fingerprinting Roma people. She told El Reg: "What further evidence does the European Commission need to start questioning France on whether its anti-Roma policy breaks EU rules against race discrimination? Fundamental rights European Commissioner Viviane Reding must now demand proof of compliance, and threaten infringement proceedings, on race discrimination as well as free movement."
She added: "I urge the Commission to also consider this targeted fingerprinting and DNA sample collection when investigating the case against France. This is discriminatory and must be stopped." ®