EU threatens France with legal action over Roma 'disgrace'
The European Commission threatened legal action against France on Tuesday over its crackdown on Roma minorities, drawing a parallel between their treatment and World War II-era deportations.
The EU's top justice official, Viviane Reding, angrily rebuked the French government for sending hundreds of Roma migrants back to Romania and Bulgaria since August in a security sweep ordered by President Nicolas Sarkozy.
"I personally have been appalled by a situation which gave the impression that people are being removed from a member state of the European Union just because they belong to a certain ethnic minority," Reding said.
"This is a situation I had thought Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War," she told a news conference.
Reding chided the French government after a leaked memo "openly contradicted" assurances given by two ministers to the commission that specific ethnic groups had not been targeted in France.
The August 5 memo, signed by the interior minister's chief of staff and sent to police chiefs, states that "300 camps or illegal settlements must be cleared within three months, Roma camps are a priority."
"The role of the commission as guardian of (Europe's) treaties is made extremely difficult if we can no longer have confidence in the assurances given by two ministers in a formal meeting," Reding said.
"This is not a minor offence in a situation of this importance," she said. "After 11 years of experience in the commission, I even go further: this is a disgrace."
The French government, which denies targeting Roma minorities specifically and insists its measures comply with EU laws, said it was astonished by Reding's criticism but that it would not be drawn into an argument.
"We don't think that this kind of declaration will help improve the predicament of the Roma, who are at the heart of our concerns," said foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero.
France has deported some 1,000 Roma migrants to Bulgaria and Romania since last month, and more than 8,000 Roma have been deported since the beginning of the year, after 9,875 were expelled in 2009.
The EU parliament urged France to suspend the removal of Gypsies last week, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights warning on Monday that the measures "exacerbate the stigmatisation of Roma."
The European Commission said its legal analysis of the Roma crackdown would be completed in the coming days.
"I am personally convinced that the commission will have no choice but to initiate infringement proceedings against France," Reding said.
The procedure gives EU states the opportunity to conform with the union's laws, but any failure to do so can lead to a case before the EU Court of Justice, which can impose fines.
The commission would take France to task "for a discriminatory application" of the 27-nation European Union's freedom of movement directive, she said.
"I will of course give the French authorities the right to submit comments on the new developments in the course of the next days. But I make it very clear my patience is wearing thin: enough is enough," Reding said.
"No member state can expect special treatment, especially not when fundamental values and European laws are at stake.
"This applies today to France. This applies equally to all other member states, big or small, which would be in a similar situation. You can count on me for that."
French Immigration Minister Eric Besson insisted that his government was complying with EU laws but would continue to dismantle illegal camps.
"France has not undertaken any voluntary or forced departures on an ethnic basis," Besson told AFP on the sidelines of a meeting with EU counterparts in Brussels.
© 2010 AFP