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Sarkozy fury over EU attack on Roma round-up

President Nicolas Sarkozy reacted furiously 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 ethnic 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 that boasts of being the homeland of human rights, France was shocked when Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding of Luxembourg Tuesday condemned the clampdown in stark terms.

Sarkozy hit back at a meeting with French lawmakers, mockingly suggesting that Luxembourg host the Roma, and promising to respond to the complaints on Thursday at a summit of European Union leaders in Brussels.

“He said he was only applying European regulations, French laws, and France is irreproachable in the matter but that if the Luxembourgers want to take them he had no problem,” said Senator Bruno Sido of Sarkozy’s UMP party.

“He said that our policy is right and, as he will explain tomorrow, it’s scandalous that Europe expresses itself like this on what France is doing.”

Luxembourg retorted in similarly harsh terms, with Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn branding Sarkozy’s suggestion “malicious” and insisting that Reding had been speaking for Europe and not simply her homeland.

“I know that Nicolas Sarkozy has problems with Luxembourgers, but he’s gone too far,” Asselborn told AFP, in an apparent reference to Sarkozy’s previous sparring with the principality over banking secrecy.

In Brussels, the chairman of the Commission stood by the justice commissioner and said there would be an investigation of France’s policy.

“Prohibition of discrimination based on ethnic origin is one of the EU’s fundamental values and the EU will do whatever is necessary to ensure respect for these principles,” Jose Manuel Barroso told reporters.

The Portuguese official said Reding enjoyed the support both of her commission colleagues and “my personal backing.”

France’s key ally in Europe, Germany, also supported Reding.

“Freedom of movement within the EU applies without conditions, ethnic minorities should not be discriminated against … and basic rights apply,” German government spokesman Steffen Seibert told a regular briefing.

Bulgarian President Georgy Parvanov weighed in with Sofia’s first official protest, saying France was out of step with European values.

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.

Both Barroso and Seibert expressed regret at the tone of Reding’s statement, but stood by her right to make the criticism.

France stepped up its Roma round-up in August, after Sarkozy called 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 migrant’s case was handled individually.

French ministers say 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 the interior ministry had taken Sarkozy’s speech at face value and ordered police to make clearing Roma camps their “priority”.

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.