France expelled nearly 100 Roma to their native Romania on Thursday as part of an effort by conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy to dismantle Roma camps and sweep them out of the country.

France chartered a flight to Bucharest, which left from the southeastern city of Lyon with 79 Roma aboard, Immigration Ministry officials said.

Fourteen others were repatriated to Romania aboard a commercial flight from the Paris region earlier in the day, the officials said, adding that another Romania-bound repatriation flight was expected on Friday.

Additional flights were scheduled for later this month and September, Romania's Foreign Ministry said.

Those repatriated Thursday left "on a voluntary basis" and were given small sums of money to help them get back on their feet in their home country, a standard French practice, officials said.

Expulsions 'pointless'

Roma advocates countered that the repatriations were hardly voluntary, claiming that those who refused the deal would end up in holding centres and eventually be sent home without funds.

Alexandre Le Cleve, a spokesman for Rom Europe, said the expulsions were pointless because nothing prevented those sent back from immediately returning to France, as many have done in the past.

"For those who left this morning, they can certainly take a plane as early as tonight and come back to France. There's nothing to prevent this," Le Cleve told Associated Press Television News in an interview.

"Obviously, these people come back, they are brought to the Romanian border, then come back to France, can leave again and so on."

France is allowed to repatriate Roma from Romania — who as citizens of an EU member state are allowed to circulate freely within the 27-member bloc — if Roma are unable to prove they can support themselves while in France, Le Cleve said.

Sarkozy pledges to evacuate camps

Sarkozy has linked Roma to crime, calling their camps sources of trafficking, exploitation of children and prostitution. On July 28, he pledged that illegal camps would be "systematically evacuated."

Some 50 camps have been evacuated since then, including at least two on Thursday, local officials said.

In the southeastern town of Saint-Martin d'Heres, near Grenoble, about 150 riot police evacuated about 100 Roma adults and 45 children Thursday. That evacuation went smoothly, and no incidents were reported, local officials said.

Another 25 Roma were evacuated from their camp near Lille early Thursday, officials said.

Sarkozy's crackdown on Roma comes on the heels of much-publicized unrest by French Roma, who attacked a police station in the centre of the country after the death of Roma youth there.

The measures are also part of a raft of new hardline security measures by Sarkozy, who was elected in 2007 on a tough-on-crime platform.

The policy is attracting increasing concern, both at home and abroad, from those who fear it discriminates against one of the European Union's most vulnerable and impoverished communities.

Romanian President Traian Basescu said, "We understand the problems created by the Roma camps outside the French cities" but insisted on the "right of every European citizen to move freely in the EU." Romania, one of Europe's poorest countries, joined the EU in 2007.

Basescu, who was speaking Thursday in the eastern city of Iasi, pledged to "co-operate with France to find solutions."

Some critics contend the French crackdown is a cynical ploy to turn attention away from France's economic woes and attract far-right voters in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election. Sarkozy's approval ratings have been weak and a financial scandal has embroiled a top minister.

Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux insisted France is being careful "not to stigmatize any community," but said the government can't just let people occupy land illegally.

Several hundred more Roma are expected to be deported in coming weeks, the BBC reported.