Sarkozy’s office fires back over Gypsy explusion

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

PARIS — President Nicolas Sarkozy’s office 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.

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.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon is to “defend the position of France” on the expulsions Wednesday evening in Brussels before heads of government, parties and lawmakers of the right-wing Popular European Party, his office said. The announcement turned the planned trip to Brussels ahead of Thursday’s EU summit into a rescue mission.

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.

Steffen Seibert, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman, also weighed in, saying Reding “is perfectly entitled, as she did yesterday, to comment.”

But “such comments certainly are sometimes more useful when they are more moderate in tone,” Seibert said.

Yet another European leader, Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, said the subject of Roma should be added to the summit agenda “to find a common position.”

Reding “should have treated the issue in private before speaking publicly as she did,” Berlusconi said 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 an 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 last week, shocked many people in France, where officials are supposed to be blind to race, religion and ethnicity. Speaking on RTL radio Wednesday, Pierre Lellouche, France’s European affairs minister, acknowledged the letter “shouldn’t have been written like that.”

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.