France avoids EU legal hammer over Roma crackdown

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The European Commission on Tuesday dropped a threat of legal action against France over its controversial expulsion of Roma migrants after Paris vowed to change its freedom of movement laws.

The European Union's justice chief, Viviane Reding, said France had met commission demands to modify its national legislation in order to better apply EU law on the free movement of EU citizens.

"I'm glad to say today that France has responded positively, constructively and in time to the commission's request," said Reding, who had sparked a row by comparing the Roma crackdown in France to World War II deportations.

"The European Commission will now, for the time being, not pursue the infringement procedure against France," she said.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had heavily criticised Reding for comparing the expulsions to wartime events, said he was pleased by the decision to abandon legal threats.

"I am very happy that reason has prevailed," Sarkozy told reporters in Deauville, western France, where he was hosting a summit for Russian and German leaders.

"The commission has decided not to launch proceedings against France for discrimination for the simple reason that, as I have always said, there was no discrimination," Sarkozy said.

France drew a chorus of international criticism in recent months for rounding up hundreds of Roma from illegal camps and sending them back to Romania and Bulgaria.

The French government met a deadline last Friday set by the European Commission to give assurances that it would fall in line with EU laws on freedom of movement or face legal action.

Reding, however, will continue to look into whether France was violating anti-discrimination laws in its policy towards Roma, an EU official said on condition of anonymity.

The commission has not brandished the threat of legal action for discriminatory practices.

Reding's vocal criticism of the French government over the Roma issue, and her parallels with World War II, caused unusual tensions between Paris and Brussels.

The controversy boiled over on September 16 when Sarkozy and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso verbally clashed at a summit of EU leaders, but the two sides have since sought to cool matters down.

Barroso wanted to quickly close the Roma row in order to "avoid polluting" another summit of European leaders next week in Brussels, an EU official said.

If France had failed to comply with commission demands, the infringement proceedings would have opened on October 28, the first day of the summit.

Paris insists there was nothing racist in the moves against the Roma, saying they were rounded up simply because they had overstayed the period they were allowed in France without any visible means of financial support.

At the centre of the row between Reding and Paris was a controversial French government memo dated August 5 ordering police chiefs to clear 300 camps or illegal settlements within three months, saying "Roma camps are a priority."

France has since amended the document and Reding has expressed regret for the wartime comparison.

The commission would have likely lost its case if it had decided to pursue France for discrimination all the way up to the European Court of Justice, an EU official said.

A defeat before the highest European court would have damaged the commission's actions in favour of the continent's sizeable Roma minority, officials close to Barroso said.

© 2010 AFP

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