BRUSSELS-- The European Union decided Wednesday to launch legal action against France over its expulsions of Gypsies, or Roma, to poorer EU nations.

The EU decision was only a partial one, however, and gives France more time to defend its expulsions of more than 1,000 illegal Roma immigrants and its demolition of hundreds of Roma camps in recent weeks.

The European Commission, after meeting Wednesday to discuss whether the expulsions are legal, decided that France has not adhered to an EU directive allowing EU citizens free movement across the 27-nation bloc, according to a statement. The commission is sending France a formal notification saying it should apply the directive, a step that could eventually lead to a court case against France.

The commission stopped short of saying that France was discriminating against a specific ethnic group. France has come under wide criticism for the expulsions, from the EU as well as the United Nations and the Vatican.

The commission decided to "send a formal notification letter with a number of detailed questions ... with a view to make sure there is legal certainty" about what France is doing, Commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde said.

Some 10 million to 12 million Roma live in Europe according to EU estimates, and they face wide discrimination in housing, jobs and education across the continent. As EU citizens, they have a right to travel to France, but must get papers to work or live there in the long term.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has defended the expulsions, saying they are part of an overall crackdown on illegal immigrants and crime. The government also says most of the Roma are leaving voluntarily, with a small stipend from France. Most are being sent to Romania.

Critics say France is unfairly targeting an ethnic minority and lumping together entire communities instead of handling the expulsions on a case-by-case basis.

As many as 15,000 Roma live in France, according to the advocacy group Romeurope. French authorities have no official estimate.