France fires back at EU criticism on its expulsions of Gypsies

PARIS (AP) — President Nicolas Sarkozy's government fired back Wednesday at European Commission criticism of France's crackdown on Gypsies, or Roma, saying some of the complaints are unacceptable.

A day earlier, EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding had called France's expulsions of Roma to Eastern Europe "a disgrace" — as well as something she "thought that Europe would not have to witness again after the second World War."

The exchange heightened tensions between France and the European Union a day before a summit of EU leaders Thursday in Brussels and forced the European Commission president to go into damage control, saying Reding had not meant to compare World War II and today.

French authorities have recently dismantled more than 100 illegal camps and sent home more than 1,000 Roma, mainly back to Romania, in a crackdown that has drawn international condemnation. Sarkozy has called Roma camps sources of crime such as illegal trafficking and child exploitation.

France could ultimately be slapped with a fine by the European Court of Justice if its expulsions are found to have breached EU law.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon called Reding's comments "scandalous."

A senior official at the presidential palace said France doesn't want an argument with the commission, but "some of the comments are simply unacceptable." He declined to be named, in line with office policy.

After a Cabinet meeting, government spokesman Luc Chatel also objected to Reding's remarks, saying, "It is unacceptable to compare the situation today with a tragic period in our history."

The French government has objected to any comparisons between its plane flights of Gypsies — many of whom return home voluntarily with a small stipend — and World War II, when Europe's Gypsy populations were decimated in the Holocaust.

Sarkozy spoke with Reding on Wednesday night, while his prime minister defended the French position on the Roma before heads of government and lawmakers of the conservative Popular European Party in Brussels.

"France has generous social welfare and is a defender of liberty, but we cannot accept that flow of people without any means to support themselves and their scandalous trafficking coming into our country," Fillon said after the meeting.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said he had offered Reding his full support. But he added that "expressions used in the heat of the moment may have given rise to misunderstandings."

Reding "did not want to establish any parallels between what happened in World War II and the present," he said.

The leaders of Germany and Italy said the issue should be on the summit agenda.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in Brussels on Wednesday evening that while the European Commission has the right to monitor member states, "I found the tone and especially the historical comparisons unsuitable, and I hope we can find a better way."

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi said Reding "should have treated the issue in private before speaking publicly as she did," in an interview in Thursday's French daily Le Figaro. "This problem of the Roma is not specifically French," he said. "It concerns all European nations."

Meanwhile, in an act of solidarity with the Roma, an umbrella group of black associations in France, CRAN, said it would file a complaint against the Interior Ministry for "inciting racial hatred."

The complaint is based on a French Interior Ministry letter sent this summer to regional officials and telling them that Roma camps were the priority in a nationwide sweep to dismantle illegal squatters' quarters.

The blunt letter, made public in recent days, shocked many people in France, where officials are supposed to be blind to race, religion and ethnicity.

Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux's office said he had issued a new letter on the subject to the regional officials Monday — one that did not include any reference to Roma.

Roma face 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.

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


Associated Press writers Raf Casert in Brussels and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.