Germany insists Merkel did not tell France's Sarkozy that Germany would clear out Roma camps

BERLIN (AP) — Germany sought Friday to downplay a diplomatic incident involving French President Nicolas Sarkozy as the debate over his campaign to clear out illegal migrant camps reverberated across the European Union.

Sarkozy's attempts to defend his nation's policy against international complaints that France is being racist and unfairly targeting Gypsies threw a European Union summit into an uproar on Thursday.

Sarkozy then asserted to reporters that Chancellor Angela Merkel had told him that Germany was on the verge of similar action.

Merkel's office was quick to deny that she told Sarkozy anything of the kind, but refused to be drawn on what the chancellor thought of the situation or what might have been behind Sarkozy's comments.

In recent weeks, French authorities have cleared out some 100 illegal immigrant camps, most inhabited by Gypsies — also known as Roma, a nomadic ethnic group believed to have roots in the Indian subcontinent.

Many have been deported to Romania, which joined the EU three years ago and has a sizable Roma population. Roma, like other EU citizens, are allowed to travel freely within the EU's open borders but all EU citizens must get work or residency papers to reside in a separate country.

Speaking to reporters after Thursday's summit, Sarkozy said "Madame Merkel indicated to me her will to proceed in the coming weeks with the evacuation of camps."

Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, flatly denied the chancellor had made any such remark, adding that the situation in Germany cannot be compared to that in France.

"We do not have camps like that," Seibert said at a regularly scheduled news conference. "It was not a topic."

Since the EU expanded its borders to the east, hundreds of thousands of Roma in the bloc's poorer nations have taken advantage of the continent's open borders to seek better lives in the west, despite facing equally desperate circumstances there.

There are up to 12 million Roma in the EU, most living in dire circumstances, victims of poverty, discrimination, violence, unemployment and bad housing.

Earlier this week, EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding sharply criticized France's deportations of Roma and linked them to France's mass deportations of Jews during World War II. She later expressed regret over the wartime comparison, but maintained her threat to take France to court for targeting an ethnic group in the expulsions.

Germany criticized the tone of Reding's comments but has avoided comment on the expulsions themselves.

The wartime comparison stung many in France. The country deported some 76,000 Jews from France to Nazi concentration camps and interned thousands of Gypsies in camps in France during the war.

Also Friday, a group of angry French Roma tussled with police in Draguignan, in southern France, after a gendarme was acquitted in the 2008 slaying of 27-year-old Joseph Guerdner, who fled police custody.

Guerdner was from a community of itinerant Roma with roots in France reaching back centuries.

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Associated Press Writer Angela Charlton contributed to this report from Paris