EU vice president sees red and attacks France on Roma

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It is not often that the midday briefing at the European Commission makes for compelling listening, but this was one of those days.

Dressed in a fiery red jacket, the immaculately coiffed Viviane Reding banged her fist on the lectern as she directed an unprecedented attack on France.

The EU's justice commissioner says her patience is wearing thin

European commissioners tend to refrain from publicly using words like "disgrace" and "shocking" about EU member states, especially about a big founder member state. But the lady from Luxembourg did just that.

A former journalist, Viviane Reding has served in the European Commission for 11 years. She is now justice commissioner, vice-president of the EU executive and a force to be reckoned with.

Her attack comes after weeks of tension and condemnations by the UN, the European Parliament, human rights groups and even the Vatican.

It appears to have been triggered not just by the French handling of the Roma (gypsies), but by the French handling of Brussels.

Leaked memo

On Monday, a leaked memo from the interior ministry showed that the French authorities had been instructed to target Roma camps, rather than deal with migrants on a case-by-case basis, as the French migration minister and the minister for Europe had assured the European Commission.

"So did the ministers lie?" I asked Mrs Reding.

"I think a part of the French government was saying something else than another part of the French government was doing," she said. "When I see there has been cheating, I say no. Let's be clear - there can be no dismantling of the fundamental values on which our societies are built."

The justice commissioner said she wanted infringement procedures brought against France within weeks, but she was less clear what that could amount to.

"It's not for me to decide," she said. "I just see that things are going wrong and I hand down the dossier" to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

Her statement was welcomed by most parliamentary groups in the European Parliament, with the notable exception of the centre-right European People's Party, to which the French President Nicolas Sarkozy belongs.

Speaking to the BBC, Claude Moraes, Labour's European spokesman on civil liberties, described Mrs Reding's criticism as an "extraordinary political and moral statement".

Taking France to court, he said, would be deeply embarrassing and may lead to huge fines.

War of words

But what does it mean for the Roma? Does it draw a line in the sand, as Mr Moraes hopes, for Italy and other EU countries that are following similar expulsion policies, albeit less publicly?

Pierre Lellouche French minister for Europe Pierre Lellouche responded angrily to Mrs Reding's comments

Unlike the European Parliament, Mrs Reding has stopped short of calling on France and others to halt the expulsions.

France, she told me, was "responsible for security on its own territory". She called on Paris to do more to integrate the Roma of French nationality. "Why not concentrate on this and why, for purely populistic reasons and party political reasons maybe, stigmatise a whole group of citizens just because it is popular to do that?"

Speaking in Brussels on Monday, French minister for Europe Pierre Lellouche had his own angry outburst about the European Commission. He rejected its traditional role as "guardian of the EU treaties".

The French people are the guardians of the treaties, he said.

"France is a big sovereign country, we're not at school."

Mr Lellouche then accused the Commission of hypocrisy and inactivity over the Roma. And he rejected suggestions that France, which does not recognise the notion of ethnic minority, should do more for their integration.

"There is no budget line for Roma, Arabs, Buddhists or Jews," he said.

This extraordinary war of words looks set to continue.

The European Commission plans to complete its legal analysis by the end of the month. By then, as the leaked memo shows, France also plans to complete the dismantling of all 300 Roma camps on its territory.

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