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Sarkozy’s Gypsy policy a boon for Spain’s xenophobes

France’s expulsion of Roma citizens left the Spanish government in an uncomfortable situation but has given free rein to the Popular Party’s most extreme wing.


Spain has a large Gypsy population with a long history, as well as more recent arrivals from Eastern Europe. Photo: Zingaro.

France has done Spain a couple of big favours over recent years. For one, it has kept up police pressure on Basque separatist group ETA, which has for decades used southwest France as a haven for its terrorists. Cooperation between Spanish and French authorities has led to dozens of arrests, leaving the organisation on its knees. Also, President Nicolas Sarkozy boosted his neighbour’s international profile by ensuring Spain had a seat at G20 summits, even though the country was not part of the G8.

With that in mind, perhaps it is not so surprising that Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero backed Sarkozy during the recent controversy over France’s deportation of Romanian and Bulgarian Gypsies. Zapatero did not give an outright endorsement of the deportation drive, which drew controversial mention of the Second World War from European Commissioner for Justice Viviane Reding on September 14. However, he did remind Brussels that his own country has dismantled illegal immigrant settlements, whose construction he described as “a bad practice.”

The Zapatero government has itself clamped down on illegal immigration from Africa, through increased cooperation with Morocco and a reinforced security presence along the Spanish coast. Nonetheless, the Sarkozy affaire was clearly an extremely uncomfortable scenario for a leader whose progressive social policy has been a hallmark of his administration.

His solution was to interpret the French Gypsy deportation as a bureaucratic issue with purely legal, rather than moral, implications. He referred to the European Commission’s investigation into the legality of the French initiative, insisting that Sarkozy had ensured “the relevant information” had been given to authorities when carrying out the deportations. He was more interested in condemning Reding’s comments as “absolutely out of order” than in condemning the deportations themselves.

Spain, of course, has a more complex and historic relationship with Roma Gypsies than most European countries. According to the Fundación Secretariado Gitano, Spain has around 600,000 indigenous Gypsies, although a definite figure is famously difficult to arrive at (other estimates reach up to 750,000). Many of these are well integrated into society, with some Gypsies reaching celebrity status in the world of the arts and sport. Too many others, as the dingy districts on the outskirts of cities such as Madrid or Seville attest, are on the margins, despite a six-century history on the Iberian Peninsula.

And yet, when it comes to Spain’s 40,000 or so Romanian Gypsies, it is those who are not marginalised who have drawn the wrath of the opposition Popular Party (PP). Xavier García Albiol, who leads the PP in the Catalan city of Badalona, said that in his area the situation is “worse” than in France, because the foreign Gypsies are not concentrated in camps but rather “spread around the city”, where, he added, they cause trouble.

The PP leadership in Madrid refused to condemn García Albiol’s comments, instead sticking to the line that it supports Sarkozy’s policy. In fact, a Eurodeputy from Sarkozy’s UMP party was given a guided tour around Badalona’s poor districts by PP politicians the day after the French president’s bust-up with the European Commission. With Catalan elections approaching on November 28, the main opposition party appears to have decided that xenophobia is its best bet in a region where it has lost ground to Socialists and nationalists in recent years.

“The PP has lost the ‘Catalanista’ banner, it’s lost the social justice banner, so now all it’s got is the xenophobic banner,” said Victor Sampedro a professor of Public Opinion at Rey Juan Carlos university in Madrid.  The party’s approach, he adds, is “dangerously electoralist.”

With the Socialists having granted foreigners the right to vote, Sampedro explains, they will expect to win the immigrant vote in coming elections, meaning the PP feels forced to focus on the “Spanish” electorate.

“Not enough room for all of us”

The PP flirted with anti-immigrant policy in Catalonia earlier this year, when it appeared to support an ultimately unsuccessful attempt by the town of Vic to stop registering undocumented immigrants on its census. The PP’s regional leader Alicia Sánchez Camacho even complained that “there’s not enough room for all of us.” In Badalona in April, fliers were distributed –and then disowned– by the party, warning: “We don’t want Romanians.”

At the time, the PP ultimately deemed those kinds of moves too extreme to be acceptable. But with the Socialist government backing France’s anti-Gypsy policy (albeit for diplomatic, rather than ideological reasons), the PP sees the door to hardline immigration policy in Spain now more ajar. The Spanish public was astonished to see PP number two Dolores de Cospedal say that her party was “in agreement with the government” over the French deportation, one of the only issues it has ever publicly backed this administration on.

With national party leader Mariano Rajoy –a more moderate figure than Camacho or Albiol– unable or unwilling to rein in the more extreme elements of the PP, the hardline rhetoric will only increase as the Catalan vote approaches (local elections are scheduled nationwide for next year, with a general election likely in 2012). The PP leadership has in the past identified itself more closely with Sarkozy’s immigration policy than that of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy. But with the two becoming less and less distinguishable and in the light of recent events in France, perhaps it is time for both the Popular Party and the Socialists to make clear exactly what their stance on immigration is.

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Published: Sep 22 2010
Category: Politics
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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