In unusually strong criticism of an EU government, European Commission vice-president Viviane Reding said on Tuesday she was “personally appalled” by France’s behaviour, which she believed it was in breach of European law.
“This is a situation I thought Europe would not have to witness again after the second world war,” said Ms Reding, referring to Nazi Germany’s persecution of gypsies.
Ms Reding’s comments were backed by José Manuel Barroso, the Commission president, who had been criticised in recent weeks for a timid response to France’s action and for showing too much deference to one of the EU’s founding member states.
France said it was “astonished” by the criticism and that such comments would not help the situation. Ms Reding said Paris had broken EU law on the free movement of people in deporting about 8,000 Roma this year to Romania and Bulgaria as part of a crackdown on crime.
“We have learnt of Ms Reding’s criticisms with astonishment,” the French foreign ministry said. “This isn’t the time for this kind of polemic or such statements.”
Ms Reding said that France would be in violation of EU law if it targeted a certain group, or groups, on the basis of race or ethnic origin, and threatened legal action against Paris.
Ms Reding’s ire was triggered by revelations that the French interior ministry had in early August ordered local prefects to prioritise the evacuation of illegal Roma camps as part of a high-profile law and order campaign launched by President Nicolas Sarkozy in July.
Though the president had pledged to resolve “the problem of the Roma and other travelling people” with a crackdown on illegal camps, French ministers had assured Ms Reding on a visit to Brussels at the end of August that their programme had not targeted any ethnic group.
Nonetheless the interior ministry felt obliged on Monday to re-issue its original memo, this time leaving out any mention of prioritising Roma migrants.
Brice Hortefeux, interior minister, on Tuesday said the government was only evacuating camps that had been judged illegal by the courts. “We are not evacuating them because they are Roma but because they are illegal,” he said in response to questions in parliament. Since August 1 some 441 camps had been dismantled,
Human rights groups in France said they would continue to monitor the situation. “It is not just because they have withdrawn the circular that things will change,” said Stéphane Maugendre of the Information and Support for Immigrants group.