Sarkozy fury over EU attack on Roma round-up

15th September 2010, Comments 0 comments

President Nicolas Sarkozy's government reacted angrily on Wednesday after the European Commission compared France's expulsion of Roma Gypsies to the tactics of its World War II pro-Nazi regime.

France has been under fire for weeks over Sarkozy's controversial drive to deport Roma living in travelling communities in France back to Romania and Bulgaria, and Paris now faces the threat of European legal action.

An EU founder member and the home of the concept of universal human rights, France was "astonished" and furious on Tuesday when Europe's Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding condemned the clampdown in stark terms.

"This is not about stirring controversy," said an official in Sarkozy's Elysee Palace, speaking under the office's customary condition of anonymity. "Nevertheless, some statements are simply not acceptable.

France tried to play down the row, with the Elysee insisting it is time for "calm dialogue" rather than "sterile controversy" and suggesting that Reding had spoken out of place. But in Brussels, the Commission stood by her.

"Mrs Reding speaks on behalf of the commission," spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen told a news briefing, adding that the investigation of France "is being done in coordination" with commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.

On Tuesday, Reding declared she was "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.

"This is a situation I had thought Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War," she added, sparking fury in France, where talk of the Vichy-era persecution of Jews and Gypsies touches a raw nerve.

Sarkozy is to attend an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday, and in Paris key ministers are scrambling to his defence, insisting that France's immigration rules are in line with its international human rights commitments.

France stepped up its Roma round-up in August, after Sarkozy gave a speech calling for unauthorised Gypsy and Roma camps to be dismantled, and foreign-born Roma to be sent back to their Eastern European homelands.

Stung by criticism that the ensuing campaign -- in which hundreds of Roma have been put on flights -- amounts to mass deportation targeted at a single minority, France claimed each migrants' case was handled individually.

Immigration Minister Eric Besson and Europe Minister Pierre Lellouche said most of those who left had accepted voluntary repatriation, and the rest had been expelled by judges for failing to meet EU-approved residence criteria.

That defence fell apart last week, however, when a document surfaced showing that Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux's office had taken Sarkozy's speech at face value and ordered police to make Roma camps a "priority".

Before Reding, the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay had already lashed France, along with the Romanian government and human rights groups at home and abroad.

"Today, France's credibility on the international scene is in ashes," declared France's two Green parties in a joint statement, attacking "the racist policies of Sarkozy's government."

More than 1,000 Roma have been expelled from France since Sarkozy's speech, with the latest batch of 69 flying out from Marseille on Tuesday.

Those who agree to go voluntarily receive 300 euro (390 dollars) grants to restart their lives, those who do not are brought before a judge who can expel them if they have no proven means of support in France.

© 2010 AFP

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