Katrin Bennhold and Stephen Castle, 15/09/ 2010
PARIS — In blunt language, the European Commission on Tuesday called France’s deportation of Roma a »disgrace » and threatened legal action against the French government, claiming that it had misled European officials and that it was breaking European law.
President Nicolas Sarkozy, who faces record low approval ratings at home, has called Roma camps a source of crime and prostitution. Over the summer, his government expelled about 1,000 Roma, also known as Gypsies, in a move criticized by human rights groups and the Socialist opposition.
Over the weekend, a French directive was leaked that singles out the Roma as an ethnic group in the crackdown, contradicting repeated assurances by the government to the contrary.
The European Union justice commissioner, Viviane Reding, said that it was »shocking » that assurances given by French ministers in Brussels were being directly contradicted by actions in Paris. »My patience is wearing thin. Enough is enough, » a visibly angry Ms. Reding said at a news conference in Brussels. »No member state can expect special treatment when fundamental values and European laws are at stake. »
Ms. Reding likened the focus on Roma communities to ethnic cleansing. This was, she said, »a situation that I had thought that Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War. »
The comments were embarrassing for the French government and were likely to put France’s relations with the European Commission under strain. While any legal proceedings could be lengthy, the prospect of a public shaming seemed to have forced Paris to soften its stance already.
On Monday, Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux signed a replacement directive that left out the reference to »Roma. » Discriminating on ethnic grounds contravenes not only European Union laws and charters, but also the French Constitution.
One prominent French organization supporting immigrant rights, Gisti, said it also was contemplating a lawsuit against the government. »Can you imagine a directive explicitly naming Jews or Arabs? » asked St?ane Maugendre, the president of Gisti, on France Info radio.
But if French officials were backpedaling behind the scenes, publicly they expressed little remorse.
»The reality is French authorities have acted responsibly and with full respect of the law, » said Jean-Fran?s Cop?the parliamentary leader of Mr. Sarkozy’s center-right U.M.P. party.
The spokesman for France’s Foreign Ministry, Bernard Valero, expressed his »astonishment » at the commission’s announcement.
»We don’t think that with this type of statement we can improve the situation of the Roma, who are at the heart of our concerns and our action, » Mr. Valero told reporters.
Ms. Reding said she would recommend to the full European Commission that it force France into line with European Union law. Because France has already changed the directive, such legal action is unlikely to have a significant impact on policy.
The European Commission, the guardian of the European Union’s governing treaty, is usually at pains to deal diplomatically with national governments and has spent weeks discussing the situation with the French authorities.
Not only has Ms. Reding held meetings with French officials but the European Commission president, Jos?anuel Barroso, has also met with both the French president and the French prime minister, Fran?s Fillon.
Last week, the French immigration minister, ?ic Besson, promised the European Parliament that »France has taken no specific measure regarding the Roma. »
After the police directive was leaked, Mr. Besson said he had not been aware of it.