Dozens of Roma left France Thursday, put on planes to Romania in exchange for a goodbye payment of $380 for adults and $125 for children. The expulsion was launched by President Nicolas Sarkozy after he ordered the destruction of 300 illegal Roma camps across the country.
The practice has come under fire from human rights groups and the European Commission said it closely follows the deportations to make sure that no EU rules are breached. The opposition claims Sarkozy with the expulsions aims to stop his popularity decline.
Meanwhile, French government officials Wednesday met with officials from Romania in a bid to develop strategies to improve the situation of the Roma there, who are said to have little chance for a decent life in their home country and often flee poverty and discrimination.
Sarkozy ordered the closure of the camps and the expulsions after last month's violent riots, with camp inhabitants and police clashing after a youth was killed.
Sarkozy's office in a statement denounced the camps as "sources of illegal trafficking, of profoundly shocking living standards, of exploitation of children for begging, of prostitution and crime."
While France has vowed the measures aren't meant to stigmatize any community, regardless of who they are but to punish illegal behavior, immigration groups have accused Paris of pushing through racist policies.
U.S. billionaire George Soros, who hails from Hungary, denounced the expulsions but lauded Paris' demand for better living conditions in the home countries of the Roma.
"The French government was right to call for measures to improve employment and development opportunities for Roma in their countries of origin, in this case Bulgaria and Romania," Soros wrote in an open letter.
The Roma will be able to re-enter France at any time because of the free travel regulations inside the European Union and many of the Roma sent to Romania have promised to turn back immediately. However, they are allowed to settle only if they have a work visa or a residence permit.
The Roma population in France is several hundred thousand strong, and many of them have been living in France for decades. Other Roma traveled to the country in recent years, mostly from new EU members Romania or Bulgaria.
The largest Roma population in Europe, around 700,000, has settled in Spain, where the government has launched a $130 million program to improve the education, health and living conditions of Roma.