PARIS – PARIS (AP) — French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said Tuesday that the European Union needs a continent-wide plan for illegal Gypsy camps and children beggars that he described as plagues of the 19th century.
At the same time, the EU justice commissioner maintained her concerns about France's expulsions of more than 1,000 Gypsies, or Roma, in recent weeks, and said Tuesday her staff could finish its analysis by Oct. 29 of whether France is violating EU law by unfairly targeting Roma.
The standoff between France and the EU leadership has drawn attention to the Roma, among the continent's poorest and most mistreated minorities. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has provoked criticism from the United Nations and the Vatican over the expulsions, but insists France is targeting illegal immigrants and says the Roma camps seethe with crime.
Fillon warned the European Commission against making "hasty" decisions to take France to court over the expulsions. He defended France's evacuations of "shantytown" Roma camps.
"This forced begging, by very young children, in the streets of our cities — who can tolerate this? Who wants Europe to plunge back into the worst of the 19th century?" he asked in a speech Tuesday.
"We need a European policy for the Roma situation," Fillon said. "This policy should be based on the integration of the most vulnerable populations in their countries of origin, using part of the billions of euros given to these countries by the European budget."
He did not name any countries, but he appeared to be fingering Romania and Bulgaria, the EU's newest members, and where the bulk of the recent Roma arrivals in France have come from.
While Romanians and Bulgarians, as EU citizens, have a right to enter France without a visa, they must prove they won't become a burden on the state for stays longer than three months.
EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding drew fire last week from many European leaders for comments suggesting France's expulsions of Roma were like deportations during World War II. France deported some 76,000 Jews to death camps and interned thousands of French Gypsies in camps in Nazi-occupied France.
On Tuesday, Reding said her comments were "distorted" and used to distract attention from the Roma's problems.
Reding, speaking to reporters at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, said she never named any "ethnic, religious or whatever group." Reding said she meant that the EU had to make sure that "families are not deported because one member of a family has, in the eyes of a ruler, done something wrong."
"I just said that we built this Europe on values, so that certain things never happen again," she said.
"I would really hope that this upheaval in recent days would serve one purpose, that everyone would in the future take seriously the solution to the problem that affects 10 million European citizens," she said.
Casert reported from Brussels.