In the summer of 2010, the then French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, delivered a speech in Grenoble about crime and security. It was a turning point of his mandate, a sharp twist towards the traditional rightwing arguments which he would ultimately stiffen during the last presidential campaign to try and win over Le Pen voters. In Grenoble, he had specifically, and shockingly, pointed his finger at one ethnic minority: the Roma, les gens du voyage, those nomadic groups camping in one place and another up and down the country.
Two years on, the Socialist prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, had to convene his first government meeting since the summer recess to discuss an issue a bit too close for political comfort and party orthodoxy: what to do with the Roma and their tradition of illegally settling for a period of time wherever they find a suitable space.
Every summer, local inhabitants protest, city and village mayors complain to state authorities, and the home secretary feels compelled to take a symbolic action. This is precisely what Manuel Valls did two weeks ago as he ordered the police to dismantle illegal camps near Lille and Lyon. Various associations defending the Roma immediately protested. They were joined by Martine Aubry, the Socialist party boss and mayor of Lille (who had not been warned), and Cécile Duflot, the former leader of the Green party now housing minister. Not a good omen for François Hollande, who is celebrating his first 100 days as president amid criticisms of overplaying his “normality” to the expense of decisiveness and action.