EU Parliament calls on Paris to suspend expulsions of Roma, criticizes France's policy

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Parliament demanded Thursday that France immediately suspend its expulsion of Gypsies but France's immigration minister dismissed the resolution as "a political measure" and insisted the practice would continue.

The EU Parliament resolution — a rare criticism of an EU nation — was backed by 337 lawmakers meeting in Strasbourg, France, with 245 opposed and 51 abstentions.

"This is an extraordinary condemnation of President (Nicolas) Sarkozy and his government," said British Labour Party legislator Claude Moraes. The vote put the Socialists, Greens and liberals in a grand coalition against the European People's Party, which includes Sarkozy's UMP party.

France has stepped up its long-standing policy of rounding up Eastern European Gypsies, or Roma, and sending them home. Officials have dismantled more than 100 illegal camps and expelled over 1,000 Roma, mostly to Romania and Bulgaria.

Sarkozy has linked Roma to crime, calling their camps sources of prostitution and child exploitation and has pledged that the illegal settlements would be "systematically evacuated."

The policy has drawn criticism from the U.N. and the Roman Catholic Church. Many at the EU parliament accused Paris of targeting Roma as a group and ignoring essential European human rights guarantees.

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.

The EU Parliament resolution "expresses its deep concern at the measures taken by the French authorities and by other member states' authorities targeting Roma" and urges them "immediately to suspend all expulsions of Roma."

The legislators also said they were "deeply concerned, in particular, at the inflammatory and openly discriminatory rhetoric that has characterized political discourse."

"It is highly unusual for the European Parliament to criticize an individual member state in this way, let alone a large founding member of the EU," Moraes said.

French Immigration Minister Eric Besson, in Bucharest for talks with Romanian officials on the topic, insisted Thursday there was no "specific targeting" of Roma and no "collective expulsions" by France, except for putting them all together on planes going home.

"France will continue to repatriate illegal foreigners to their country or origin, those that don't have residency papers," he said. "It is sending them to Romania, a democracy in the European Union, even if (Romania) has economic problems."

Romanian Foreign Minister Teodor Baconschi said his country would send police and magistrates to France to help resolve the issue.

On Wednesday, the EU Executive Commission insisted that French authorities give it more information on several Roma cases and seek help from the EU to make sure their actions are legal. French officials have said previously that the Roma were being treated as citizens of EU members Romania and Bulgaria — not as an ethnic group.

The EU Parliament said the EU Commission had acted far too late and let the issue get out of hand.