PARIS – PARIS (AP) — The archbishop of Paris joined the tide of criticism over France's crackdown on Gypsies, calling it a "circus," while the EU's justice commissioner on Thursday denounced French officials' discriminatory tone about the vulnerable minority.
France brushed off the criticism and put nearly 300 Gypsies, or Roma, on two flights to their home country of Romania on Thursday. A poll showed the French are divided about the tactic, though slightly more favor it than oppose it.
President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative government has linked the Roma minority to crime, from prostitution to child exploitation, and is dismantling their illegal squatters' camps and sending many back to Eastern Europe.
The policy has attracted widespread criticism from those who say it amounts to racism toward one of the European Union's most impoverished minorities, and that Sarkozy is playing to the far right before the 2012 presidential election to boost his poor approval ratings.
Amnesty International said it is concerned French comments linking Roma to crime may "lead to even further discrimination" against them. It added: "No one should be returned or expelled simply because they are Roma."
Paris Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois told Europe-1 radio that he planned to meet with the interior minister to tell him what Roman Catholics think, "and to remind him that there are certain lines that must not be crossed." On Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI urged people to accept "legitimate human diversity" in remarks widely interpreted as a message about the Roma.
The cardinal — asked about a recent sermon that alluded to a circus — responded: "I spoke of a circus, which was the manner in which this affair was handled during the summer."
EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding, who had until now avoided confrontation with Paris, said "some of the rhetoric that has been used ... has been openly discriminatory and partly inflammatory."
A day earlier, Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux dismissed criticism as "political blather" and insisted racial prejudice was not behind the operation. He said 117 camps have been dismantled so far and hundreds sent home.
At Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport, dozens of Roma, including children and babies, were escorted by police onto a flight to Romania. The country's Mediafax news agency said a total of 284 Roma arrived from France on Thursday.
France says most of the Roma who leave have done so voluntarily and are given euro300 per adult and euro100 per child to help resettle.
Human rights groups say the policy is absurd because many Roma simply return to France. Romania and Bulgaria are members of the European Union, and their citizens can enter France without a visa, but they must get work permits to work in France or residency permits to settle long-term.
One 36-year-old Roma woman who was recently turned out of an illegal camp in the Paris suburbs said she has already been expelled to Romania once before but immediately returned to France.
"I could not stay more than four days because I had no house," the woman, Rodica, told Associated Press Television News, declining to give her last name amid the crackdown. "I could not stay there. So I had to ask my family, which stayed in France, to send me some money and then I bought a bus ticket to come back."
A support group called Romeurope estimates that as many as 15,000 Roma live in France. French authorities have no official estimate.
A poll Tuesday and Wednesday of 1,000 people by the CSA agency for Le Parisien newspaper showed that 48 percent of those surveyed favored the expulsions, while 42 percent are opposed. No margin of error was given.
Meanwhile, French Minister for European Affairs Pierre Lellouche met with Romanian officials in charge of security and Gypsy issues.
Many Roma say they face less discrimination and better prospects in France than in Romania. Lellouche said he pressed Romania to make progress on "integrating minorities who are in great difficulty. We are experiencing the consequences in France."
Associated Press writer Robert Wielaard in Brussels, Alison Mutler in Bucharest and APTN producer Catherine Gaschka in Paris contributed to this report.