Czech Foreign Minister’s comments over Roma expulsion rack up tension between Prague and Paris

Roma women gesture before being expelled from France at Roissy airport, photo: CTK

A very undiplomatic spat has blown up between Prague and Paris. The fuse was lit by Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg who said that France’s ongoing expulsion of Roma, or gypsies, from camps across the country smacked of racism.

Roma women gesture before being expelled from France at Roissy airport,  photo: CTK
French Prime Minister François Fillon there exhorting French ambassadors to defend the country in the face of foreign criticism of its policy of expelling Roma from makeshift camps in France back to where they came from, Romania. Mr. Fillon declared the policy just and in line with European law.

A few days later, the Czech Republic’s top diplomat, Karel Schwarzenberg, begged to differ. In a newspaper interview, the Czech Republic’s Foreign Minister said it was impossible not to suspect that a racist perspective played a role in the French expulsions and added that they were contrary to the spirit and rules of the 27-strong European Union.

Michael Kocáb
The Czech Republic’s representative for human rights and minorities, Michael Kocáb, later weighed into the fray. He pointed out that France in September is holding an international conference on the Roma issue without inviting key countries such as Romania, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. He said it harked backed to the Munich agreement of 1938, where the fate of Czechoslovakia was decided by Britain, France, Germany and Italy without Czechoslovak participation.

The Czech Republic is currently heading a 12-nation initiative, the Decade for Roma Inclusion, which groups countries from Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans and Spain– all of which have large Roma populations. As such Prague might have expected an invite to the Paris conference.

Roma are escorted by police officers before being expelled from France at Roissy airport,  photo: CTK
Mr. Kocáb’s counterpart in France, Fançois Zimeray, hit back saying France should not getting lessons on human rights from a country that was in many respects less advanced in the area.

With relations between Prague and Paris ratcheted up, there were some steps to relieve the tension.

First of all, Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg pointed out that he had not directly branded the French actions as racist but has said this was the impression given to outsiders.

Karel Schwarzenberg
Czech Prime Minister Petr Nečas on Sunday also stepped into the debate and put some clear distance between himself and his foreign minister.

“I would be very careful about tough talk about the officials of other states. I personally do not think there is any racism. These Roma are being expelled primarily because they have disturbed the peace and are not abiding by certain rules.”

That may have at least superficially have buried the diplomatic spat for the moment. But Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg is due in France next week for his first official visit since being named to the post this time round. He can expect a frosty reception.