In the ongoing debate about the predicament of the Roma, France is wrong on many counts. It all started this summer with a buzz running through the top tiers of the government that seemed to conflate immigration with crime. The general impression was that the French state was blaming a whole community, the Roma or “travellers”, for the misdeeds of a few bad eggs. Whether this is a case of ethnic profiling or opportunistic scapegoating, the end result is equally unacceptable and reprehensible. Moreover, one can probably question the legality, under European law, of a decision taken in the space of only a few weeks to expel several hundreds of Romani residents from France – a decision that has tarnished France’s image the world over.

And the way the issue has been handled, indeed exploited for electioneering ends, weighs heavy on Nicolas Sarkozy’s European standing as the new political season gets under way in Brussels and Strasbourg. In a soundly reasoned, though non-binding,resolution, the European Parliament on 9 September openly censured theFrench government’s stance on the Roma issue. Eric Besson, Minister of Immigration, Integration and National Identity, felt duty-bound to retort by denouncing the Eurodeputies’ “diktat”. But heaping scorn on one of the institutional pillars of the European Union is rather unlikely to improve France’s blighted reputation. Indeed, those remarks are all the more ill-timed in view of the French president’s current exertions – replete with some good, sensible ideas – to re-unite the Old Continent before France takes over the G20 presidency in October.

France is not the only country kicking Roma out

But the indictment ends there. After all, France isn’t the only nation to wrong the Roma – far from it, in fact. Nor is it the only country kicking them out. Others are doing the same: Germany, Sweden, Italy, for example. Why? Because the Union is up against a problem that there is no point in disregarding in the hopes that it will simply go away.

In admitting Romania and Bulgaria into the fold in 2007, the Union could not hide from the attendant truth: it was inheriting a home-made problem in those two countries, whose several million Roma are treated as pariahs, second-class citizens, and are victims of racism and violence of all sorts. Now that they are European citizens, many Roma have fled to the wealthiest countries in the Union in search of a better life. We have seen their shantytowns reappear on the outskirts of big cities in Italy and France, where families lured by the unlikely prospect of eventual integration live clustered together in makeshift camps.

Denying this reality would be tantamount to an untenable radical-chic obliviousness – and would in no wise improve the fate of the Roma. As Pierre Lellouche, French Secretary of State for European Affairs, suggests, the EU needs to implement an “emergency plan” for the Roma. One that seeks first and foremost to help them in situ. And to make Bucharest and Sofia face up to their responsibilities.

Translated by Eric Rosencrantz