Leaders of Russia's Gypsy community say France's expulsions of Roma (Gypsies) violate European Union law and have vowed to support their compatriots.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy launched a campaign against camps of illegal immigrants in the country. France pays for plane tickets to an individual's country of origin and offers those who leave the country voluntarily cash payments of about $420 per adult and $130 per child.
However, an internal Interior Ministry document that came to light last week showed that gypsies were being targeted. It said 300 illegal camps have to be cleared within three months, "the priority, those of the Roma."
Sarkozy maintains the expulsions are aimed at fighting crime and illegal immigration, but the leaked document has sparked criticism from Roma groups and human rights organizations across Europe and protests in French society.
Officially, more than 180,000 Roma live in Russia, although unofficial figures put their number as high as 1 million. Roma organizations in Russia have expressed their outrage over the situation in France.
"Not only me, but every representative of the Gypsy community considers this to be illegal," said Artur Gorbatov, president of the Gypsy Association of the Russian Southern Federal District.
"This is a violation of human rights of those people, who reside on a territory of the country of France," he continued, adding that gypsies everywhere will defend the interests of their compatriots.
On Tuesday, EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding strongly condemned as a "disgrace" the ongoing French campaign to deport Gypsies. "This is a situation I would have thought Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War," she said.
"I am not surprised that European Commissioner decided on a comparison with the times of the Second World War as this is the comparison that comes to mind," Russian Gypsy's rights activist Stephania Kulayeva said.
"In any such situation we of course have associations with this terrible experience [of World War II], not only with Holocaust tragedy, which concerns the Roma people no less than the Jews," said Kulayeva, a program manager for St. Petersburg Memorial anti-discrimination center.
Reding on Thursday expressed regret for making the comparison with World War II, but stood by her criticism of the policy and threatened to take France to the European Court of Justice.
A leading Roma rights activist in Russia believes they should be recognized as indigenous Europeans.
"I think, it's time to recognize the Roma as a European people," said Nadezhda Demeter, a doctor of historical science and first vice president of the Moscow-based International Romani Union.
"They have lived in Europe for 800 years, and people who do not want to recognize Gypsies as native European residents should remember that if we use such a yardstick, then Hungarians cannot be recognized as Europeans," she said.
Demeter said Roma need an effective system of legal protection and avenues for protest.
"Otherwise, they will become easy prey for any politician like Sarkozy," she said. "I think, if this [deportation of Roma] continues, then, probably, other countries will do the same, as Finland, Italy and Spain are going to do."
Sarkozy was forced to defend his position at the EU summit in Brussels on Thursday.
MOSCOW, September 16 (RIA Novosti, Ekaterina Chernyaeva)