MARSEILLE, France — French police on Tuesday rounded up more than 160 members of the Roma minority from a camp in Marseille, sparking the ire of rights groups some six months ahead of presidential elections.
President Nicolas Sarkozy is expected to make security a central theme of his re-election campaign next year, and last year provoked international outrage by targeting foreign-born Roma for expulsion.
Around 150 police took part in the latest round-up of a group that included children and babies, clearing an illegal encampment that local authorities regarded as unsightly and unhygenic.
The purpose of the round-up was not to expel the Roma, but some of 161 detained could be sent back to Romania or Bulgaria if they cannot show how they can support themselves, while others will be offered alternative housing.
There was no violence, but the local head of the Human Rights League, Bernard Eynaud, criticised the raid as "aggressive".
"There are two Roma camps left in Marseille. This one, which is old, houses children at school. Once more, they will be split up and the children will not be able to go to school today," Eynaud said.
He accused the town hall of reneging on an August offer for a negotiated solution, declaring: "Today the only answer they have is the police."
The families were living in caravans and corrugated iron and wooden huts next to a railway line.
"An emergency housing solution has been offered to all those living in the camp," a police official said, asking not to be named.
Sarkozy's UMP party has been accused of trying to outdo the far right, anti-immigrant National Front ahead of next year's presidential election.
France drew a chorus of criticism last year for rounding up hundreds of Roma from illegal camps and sending them back to Romania and Bulgaria.
The European Union's justice chief, Viviane Reding, angered Sarkozy at the time by comparing the rounding up to World War II-era deportations.
Paris insisted there was nothing racist in the moves against the Roma, saying they were rounded up simply because they had overstayed the period they were allowed in France without any visible means of financial support.
On September 12, Sarkozy's hardline Interior Minister Claude Gueant launched an offensive against what he called "Roma delinquency", saying that 10 percent of people brought before Parisian justice were Roma.
"We have to accelerate the return (of alleged Roma delinquents) to their country of origin," Gueant said.