EU official at centre of Roma storm shrugs off criticism

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European Union justice chief Viviane Reding on Tuesday shrugged off the flak she encountered after linking France's treatment of Roma migrants and World War II.

"What critics?" Reding told a news conference that was held to discuss gender issues but instead was dominated by questions on the barrage of criticism she faced during the Roma row last week.

"If a man in politics puts a fist on the table, that's male," she said in her first public remarks since the uproar erupted. "If a woman puts a fist on the table she's (an) hysteric."

The commissioner insisted she has emerged stronger from the criticism and said she hoped the controversy would shine a light on a difficult issue in Europe.

"I think it has reinforced me," said the Luxembourg politician, who has threatened France with legal action over its deportation of hundreds of Roma migrants back to Romania and Bulgaria since July.

"I very much hope that this upheaval in the last days would serve one purpose: that next time everybody will take seriously the problems that affect 10 million European citizens," she said.

Reding reiterated that she regretted how her remarks regarding World War II were interpreted, but she fell short of issuing an outright apology.

The comparison angered French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who clashed fiercely on the issue with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso at an EU summit in Brussels last Thursday, overshadowing the event.

Many EU leaders criticised the implications in Reding's comparison of the Roma round-ups and wartime events.

Reding said she was still determined to verify whether the expulsions of Roma migrants from France was in line with European laws.

"We are now 500 million Europeans who share the same values and to uphold those values is the responsibility of the commission," she said. "And I will speak out if these values are not respected."

Reding shocked France on September 14 when she said she was "appalled" by its treatment of Roma minorities, saying it was "a situation I had thought Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War."

The commission is expected to decide on September 29 whether to launch infringement proceedings against France, a process that can lead to a case before the EU's highest court if a nation fails to comply with European laws.

Brussels is examining whether France violated its freedom of movement regulations amid allegations that the French authorities targetted Roma minorities specifically.

Reding indicated that France could face a separate procedure on whether there was a violation of the European charter on fundamental rights, which would be a first in the 27-nation bloc.

The top justice official said the charter states that "you cannot have mass deportation, and no discrimination based upon race or ethnicity, so it's very clear."

© 2010 AFP

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