Last week in Lille a Catholic priest announced that he was praying that French president Nicolas Sarkozy would have a heart attack. The priest, Arthur Hervet, who has since retracted his words, is passionate about fair treatment for immigrant gypsies (or Roma, known in France as Roms). They are currently in the French president’s line of fire. In the Loire in mid-July a group of French gypsies (known in France as “travelling people”) attacked a police station with axes. Two weeks later, in Grenoble, Mr Sarkozy launched an “offensive sécuritaire”. He would break up 600 illegal encampments and squats, many of them occupied by immigrants from Romania, and repatriate the inhabitants. The result has been outrage from the church, from the Socialist opposition and from the Romanian government. Disquiet has also arisen inside Mr Sarkozy’s party, the UMP. Former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin attacked the policy as part of a “rightward drift”. The controversy concerns, at its heart, whether France is responding to legitimate security concerns – be it over public disorder or immigration – or acting out of racial prejudice. The stakes are high either way. One does not want to stoke prejudice against a people who were victims of a Nazi genocide. But there are dangers in being complacent about Roma newcomers, too. There are about 10m Roma in Europe. Although the vast majority are not itinerants, any country that shows itself inclined to accommodate their informal living arrangements will doubtless receive an influx, and Roma communities have high crime rates.