PARIS (AFP) – France defied mounting international criticism of its crackdown on Roma and Gypsy minorities on Friday, sending another planeload back to eastern Europe.
As the French opposition accused President Nicolas Sarkozy's government of "state racism" and Romania expressed concern, a Blue Air flight left Paris with around 130 Roma on board, headed for Timisoara in western Romania.
Police had escorted three busloads of Roma -- men, women and children carrying plastic bags and hessian sacks -- into Charles de Gaulle airport in vehicles registered in the Paris suburbs or southwest France.
Speaking in Washington, French Immigration Minister Eric Besson said these Roma -- who follow 86 who left on Thursday -- were leaving France on "a voluntary basis" in exchange for grants of 300 euros (385 dollars) per person.
But any foreign-born Roma caught up in Sarkozy's crackdown on illegal Gypsy camps who refuses to take a flight will be issued orders to leave France within a month, without the handout.
Romania's President Traian Basescu said Thursday the expulsions showed the need for a European plan to integrate travelling communities while his Foreign Minister Teodor Baconschi has warned against "xenophobic reactions".
Romanian government sources warned Friday that if Paris resorted to mass non-voluntary deportations Bucharest would take the matter up with the European Commission and other "competent bodies."
On Friday, the Vatican joined the chorus of criticism of the crackdown.
"One cannot generalise and take an entire group of people and kick them out," said Agostino Marchetto, secretary of the papacy's Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People.
"The mass expulsions of Roma are against European norms," he told AFP.
Although Romanian and Bulgarian Roma are European Union citizens, France has reserved the right until 2014 to bar immigrants from newer member states from the jobs market and to expel them after three months.
There are few border controls within the Union, however, and many of those expelled are expected to return.
"Of course I'm thinking about returning to France. Life is better than in Romania," 26-year-old Ionut Balasz told reporters as he arrived in Romania among the first group that were expelled.
France expelled around 10,000 Roma to Romania and Bulgaria last year, but the flights this week are the first since Sarkozy announced a tough law and order crackdown that explicitly linked crime and immigration.
Besson said 850 would be expelled in August, describing the drive as speeding up a process that was under way in any case.
"It's just that the dismantling (of camps) that has taken place and is ongoing this August has led to an acceleration of a process that is already structural, recurrent," he explained.
While Besson appeared to be playing down the significance of the operation, the expulsions follow a high-profile bid by Sarkozy to recapture his image with voters as strong on law and order.
Police squads have carried out a series of raids across the country, targeting unauthorised camps of both Roma from Eastern Europe and of French-born Gypsies and travellers.
A special team of tax inspectors has been set up to investigate the incomes of these minority groups, who rarely work in the formal sector and whom many in France associate with criminality and begging.
Sarkozy's minister for families, Nadine Morano, reflected this attitude on Thursday when she accused some Gypsy mothers of drugging their infants to keep them sleepy while families sit begging by the roadside.
"We should not accept this kind of behaviour," she told Europe 1 radio.
Socialist opposition lawmaker Arnaud Montebourg condemned Morano's comment, accusing the state of smearing a minority in the same way as French Jews had been stigmatised in the 1930s before World War II.
"We're coming to a kind of official racism that says: 'These people are the cause of all our woes, please have a go at them and forget our own failure in the fight against crime'," he charged.
While France has received some international support -- notably from Italy's right-wing Northern League party, part of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's coalition -- many have expressed concern.
Earlier this month a United Nations expert panel warned of mounting racism and xenophobia in France, and human rights groups have sounded the alarm.