PARIS (AP) — The government came under fire Monday over an alleged letter ordering regional officials to speed up a crackdown on illegal camps of Gypsies in France, where it is illegal to classify people by ethnicity.

The immigration minister, Eric Besson, distanced himself from the reported Interior Ministry letter urging the officials to dismantle illegal camps of Gypsies, or Roma. He denied any knowledge of the letter.

The episode exposed the strains in France, which insists it is blind to ethnicity, race, religion and color, but says that it is rooting out crime wherever it occurs.

French media has published a copy of the alleged Aug. 5 letter from Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux's chief of staff, Michel Bart, to regional officials calling on them to crack down on Gypsy camps.

"The President set out precise goals on July 28 for the evacuation of illegal camps: 300 illegal camps or settlements should have been evacuated within three months, with those of Roma as a priority," he allegedly wrote in reference to a speech on fighting crime by President Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy has linked Roma to crime, calling their camps sources of prostitution and child exploitation.

The Interior Ministry declined immediate comment on the letter's authenticity.

France's deportations of Gypsies — mainly to Romania — have drawn international condemnation from places like the Vatican, European Parliament and United Nations in recent weeks. Officials have dismantled over 100 illegal camps and expelled more than 1,000 Roma, mostly to Romania and Bulgaria.

Besson, speaking at a previously planned news conference to detail his ministry's work in the last six months, said France "of course" will continue its policy of repatriating foreigners who don't hold proper residency papers.

While he deferred questions on the letter to the Interior Ministry, Besson was clearly on the spot: On Thursday, his office issued a statement saying France "had taken no specific measure regarding the Roma."

Roma face widespread discrimination in housing, jobs and education across Europe. As EU citizens, they have a right to travel to France, but must get papers to work or live there in the long term.