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The Roma: France fights back

Gavin Hewitt | 14:39 UK time, Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Roma in Bucharest, Romania, after being expelled from France, 14 Sep 10

After stinging criticism from the European Union of its policy towards the Roma, France today hit back. The Elysee Palace said that the comments from Europe's top justice official were "unacceptable".

Yesterday the EU's Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said that France's policy of expelling the Roma was a "disgrace" and compared it to what had happened under the Nazis. "This is a situation," she said, "I had thought Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War".

Even though the Elysee Palace is obviously angry it is not wanting to escalate the row. Instead it says it wants "calm dialogue" and to avoid getting drawn into what it calls a "sterile controversy".

Viviane Reding seems to have been irritated by criticism from MEPs that she had not been tough enough initially. She also felt she had been misled by French ministers.

She was clearly furious about the existence of an internal French interior ministry memo which specifically mentioned that in dismantling illegal camps the Roma were the priority. She felt the memo undermined earlier French assurances and she interpreted the wording as targeting an ethnic minority.

That memo has now been replaced by a later document, signed by the interior minister himself, that makes no mention of the Roma.

President Sarkozy is most unlikely to back down. To do otherwise would be a personal humiliation. It might also be good domestic politics to stand up to a European official.

France will insist it has broken no European laws and has the right to remove Roma on the grounds of security. It will also challenge the EU as to why funds earmarked to help the Roma integrate in Romania have not been fully used.

Michel Barnier, who is a European commisioner and French, tried today to calm down the dispute. He pointed out that the Commission was the guardian of European treaties. He said the commissioners would take a decision together as to whether France had infringed the treaties and should be subject to legal action. No decision had yet been taken, he said.

Michel Barnier said that "the treaty enshrines certain values which are extremely important for all of us, and certain countries who were at the root of European construction inspired these values - not just France - and we're proud of these and we need to, we have to, respect them".

But he also said that "many governments, not only the French government, are having to deal with very complex situations involving integration - requiring integration.

"And I don't think we can oversimplify the situation and just characterise this in a few words - these governments have to deal with integration in the context of their national legislation and in compliance with the treaties which they have underwritten and subscribed to."

If this dispute were to end up before the European Court of Justice it would turn on the interpretation of European treaties. The French would argue that while they have signed up to the free movement of peoples within the EU, they have the right to restrict movement on the grounds of security.

The line that is likely to be adopted by the French government was summed up Xavier Bertrand from the UMP, Sarkozy's party.

"France respects European law," he said, "but France lives by the law of the Republic and the decisions regarding the dismantling of illegal camps were taken judicially and French law takes priority in France".


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