France will dismantle 'all illegal' camps: Sarkozy
President Nicolas Sarkozy said Thursday France was "profoundly hurt" by World War II parallels with its expulsion of Roma Gypsies, and vowed to continue clearing "illegal camps."
"These words were profoundly hurtful," Sarkozy said, referring to a statement this week by European Commission justice chief Viviane Reding.
"My duty as head of state was to defend France."
Reding's implication that France's return of Roma Gypsies to Romania and Bulgaria smacked of World War II deportations was "a historical shortcut that profoundly hurt the French."
"All (EU) heads of sate and government were shocked by the outrageous comments," he told a press conference at the close of a one-day summit of the 27-nation European Union.
Though France has come in for a mass of criticism for its tough line on travellers, Reding's attack infuriated Sarkozy to snapping point.
Reding also threatened to drag Paris before the European Court of Justice for its harsh line on Roma Gypsies.
European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso, who is Reding's boss, said at the end of the summit that discrimination against ethnic minorities was "unacceptable."
But despite all, Sarkozy said French authorities would continue to dismantle "all illegal camps," whoever they belonged to.
Originally scheduled to look at trade, foreign policy and economic issues, the summit boiled over into a blistering dispute at the lunch table between Sarkozy and Reding's chief, Jose Manuel Barroso, who heads the EU executive arm.
Sarkozy denied he had rowed with Barroso.
But several sources confirmed the dispute and Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov said "there was a fierce exchange."
Barroso himself refused all comment, saying it was time to move on.
But another source said that Barroso "vigorously defended" the role of the commission, which polices the application of EU-wide laws governing freedom of movement for all citizens.
In other business, leaders sealed a ground-breaking free-trade deal with South Korea while mulling ways of preventing a new economic crisis.
Foreign ministers also called on Israel to extend a freeze on new settlement building in East Jerusalem and agreed in principle to help flood-hit Pakistan.
But the row between France and the European Commission overshadowed events.
"A cash handout, a plane ticket to the EU country of origin are not the same as the death camps, the gas chambers," France's European Affairs Minister Pierre Lellouche retorted.
Sarkozy was also quoted as telling party allies that Luxembourg, from where Reding hails, could take France's Roma deportees, which the tiny state denounced Thursday as "inappropriate."
"What we've seen in the past few days of course is a little bit unusual for Europe," said Finland's Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb.
Reding, in a bid to ease tensions, expressed "regret," insisting that she "in no way wanted to draw a parallel between World War II and the actions of the French government today."
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, for his part, argued that "the problem of the Roma concerned every country in Europe."
Italy had its own brush with the commission in 2008 when it started to register Roma living in camps, taking fingerprints and documenting their ethnicity and religion.
"It's a very deep and serious problem for the European Union as a whole," said European parliament chief Jerzy Buzek. "This is a moment to treat social exclusion and poverty.
"It's not only a problem for France."
© 2010 AFP