LILLE, France (Reuters) - French police raided a makeshift Roma camp on Thursday, evicting 200 people as the Socialist government quietly follows the former conservative administration's policy of repatriating illegal immigrants.
Dozens of police officers in riot gear descended on the camp near the city of Lille, in northern France, shortly after dawn to oversee the evacuation of some 200 Roma living in mobile homes near a highway.
The evacuation follows a series of police raids this week in Paris and Lyon during where hundreds of undocumented Roma immigrants from eastern Europe were forced from their homes.
Interior Minister Manuel Valls, who has cultivated a 'tough on crime' image, defended the raids as legal and necessary due to the health risks of hundreds of people living in makeshift accommodation.
"Unsanitary camps are unacceptable," he said in a statement on Wednesday. "Often located in the midst of working class neighborhoods, they are also a challenge to community life."
The raids recall a wave of expulsions under former President Nicolas Sarkozy which drew criticism from the European Union, the Catholic Church and rights groups in the summer of 2010.
While Roma make up a tiny percentage of France's immigrant population, their nomadic lifestyle and the fact some resort to pick-pocketing and aggressive begging have made them the subject of controversy that helped increase support for the far right ahead of the May presidential election.
Sarkozy's government repatriated thousands of Roma to Romania but many took advantage of porous European Union borders to return to France, having pocketed aid for departure from the French state of 300 euros ($370) each.
Valls said the government would re-examine conditions for granting the aid to illegal immigrants. It would also review restrictions on working in France for citizens of Romania - an EU country which is the home country of many of Roma migrants.
Rights groups said no arrangements for temporary housing had been made for the group of Roma near Lille, which includes some 60 children.
"What will become of these families?" said Father Arthur, a priest who advocates on behalf of Roma. "Everything is being taken away - it's a breach of fundamental human rights."
An estimated 15-20,000 Roma live in France. There are some 12 million Roma living in eastern Europe, particularly in Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Hungary. ($1 = 0.8093 euros)
(Reporting By Fanny Bertrand, Additional reporting and writing by Nicholas Vinocur; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)