Paris (AFP) – A damaging rift in the French government over the treatment of Roma migrants deepened on Wednesday as attempts to end the row degenerated into fresh squabbling.
The opposition said government resembles a "drunken boat" as a new war of words erupted over whether Interior Minister Manuel Valls had backtracked on his call for most Roma to be kicked out of France.
Government sources anonymously briefed journalists that Valls had acknowledged using "a clumsy turn of phrase" when speaking out over the issue and claimed he had apologised for the subsequent controversy.
But that version of events was immediately disputed by the Valls camp, which denied there had been any apology over the substance of his remarks and claimed the minister had only expressed regret over the tone of the debate and the attacks he had suffered.
The re-eruption of hostilities within the cabinet will inevitably lead to fresh questions over the leadership of President Francois Hollande, who has been flayed by the media and the opposition for failing to assert his authority over the cabinet.
In a series of media interviews over the last week, Valls has claimed that the vast majority of an estimated 20,000 Roma migrants from Bulgaria and Romania had no interest in assimilating into French society, and that they should be "delivered back to the border."
The comments won the backing of three in four voters, polls suggested, helping to consolidate Valls's status as the most popular minister in the cabinet.
But they sparked outrage among rights groups and public criticism from three cabinet colleagues, most notably from Cecile Duflot, the housing minister who is the most senior Green member of the Socialist dominated coalition. Duflot accused Valls of breaching France's fundamental principles and urged Hollande to rein him in.
The cabinet in-fighting and the impression it creates of Hollande being unable to control his ministers has delighted the opposition.
"When you look at this government, you have the impression of watching a drunken boat, you have no idea where it is headed," Christian Jacob, the leader of the centre-right UMP's parliamentary group, said Wednesday.