WASHINGTON—With Europe’s socioeconomic model in a state of decrepitude and the continent gripped by a crisis of confidence in the face of its shrinking role in a world increasingly slanted to the East, French President Nicolas Sarkozy thinks his country’s overriding 21st-century challenge is . . . a few thousand Roma, popularly known as Gypsies.

Sarkozy has spent the last few weeks dismantling Roma campsites and expelling their residents to Bulgaria and Romania, playing into the stereotypes that have made Gypsies the most despised minority in Europe. And he has rebuked criticism from the European Commission with the chutzpah one has come to expect from Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez or, indeed, France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen.

More than 8,000 Roma have been kicked out this year; an even greater number were deported, with less grandstanding, in 2009. Now Sarkozy has made this his overriding cause in the run-up to France’s assumption of the presidency of the Group of 20 largest economies. More importantly, he is trying to stir nationalist sentiment in preparation for the 2012 presidential election. He fears defeat at the hand of the Socialists—and being outflanked by the far-right National Front.

Sarkozy’s government lied when it told Viviane Reding, the EU’s justice commissioner, that the dismantling of the illegal campsites, which the president has denounced as breeding grounds for crime, and the mass expulsions were not specifically targeting Roma. We now know that on Aug. 5 a Ministry of the Interior circular expressly ordered the police to go after the Gypsies. Reding compared France’s policy to Nazi persecution of minorities. The passing reference served as a pretext for Sarkozy to turn a recent European summit into a shouting match in which, true to character, he outshouted everyone else, including the head of the European Commission and the president of the European Council. The French president and other members of his government have mocked Luxembourg, Reding’s home country.

Sarkozy has violated the Lisbon Treaty, which forbids the discrimination of groups based on culture or nationality and guarantees the free circulation of citizens across Europe. He has also placed a patina of legitimacy on something that resembles ethnic cleansing. Directing the police to go after a distinct minority, even on a small scale, is the kind of thing that the European Union was created to prevent after the nationalist horrors of the 1940s.

Are some Gypsies engaged in criminal activity? Certainly. Do some Roma cultural traits hamper their ability to assimilate? Most probably. Do they tend to cluster around camps where bad habits develop? Sometimes. But the United States, where there are no Gypsy ghettos, and Spain, where the Roma have assimilated reasonably well, indicate these are not insurmountable challenges.

The expelled Gypsies are European citizens. Both Bulgarian and Romanian citizens belong to the European Union, and the few labor restrictions that some member states still place on these nationals will be lifted in 2013. Absurdly, Romanians and Bulgarians can freely enter France but are not allowed to work unless they obtain an impossible permit. How exactly are these European citizens whom Sarkozy accuses of scrounging off France’s welfare and who are theoretical members of an integrated Europe supposed to earn a living legally?

With far-right groups polling well in the Netherlands, Austria and Italy, making inroads in Sweden and trying to exploit Sarkozy’s unpopularity in France, the French government has chosen the easiest, most vulnerable target to channel people’s fears and frustrations.

There is nothing new here. Gypsies left India 1,000 years ago, settled in the Near East and fanned across Europe in the 15th century. They have been the object of persecution and discrimination ever since. In the mid-18th century, Spain’s Ferdinand VI gave an order to “extinguish” their generation. In parts of Central Europe, they were enslaved until the 19th century. Under the Nazis, hundreds of thousands were indeed murdered. Even today, in the Central European countries where they constitute between 6 percent and 10 percent of the population, they are second-class citizens. A minority of them have migrated to the Western part of the European Union only to find that France and others offer few opportunities for social mobility and integration.

What Sarkozy is doing to a tiny minority of people who are the least of his problems is an act of populist barbarism.