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EU threatens France with legal action over Roma 'disgrace'

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EU threatens France with legal action over Roma 'disgrace'

Viviane Reding - Photo EC

(BRUSSELS) - Europe threatened legal action against France on Tuesday over its crackdown on Roma minorities, drawing a parallel between their treatment and World War II-era deportations.

The European Union's top justice official, Viviane Reding, angrily rebuked the French government for sending hundreds of Roma migrants back to Romania and Bulgaria since August in a security sweep ordered by President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Reding said she was "appalled by a situation which gave the impression that people are being removed from a member state of the European Union just because they belong to a certain ethnic minority.

"This is a situation I had thought Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War," she underlined, warning of looming infringement proceedings by the European Commission.

Reding chided Paris after a leaked memo "openly contradicted" assurances given by two ministers to the commission that specific ethnic groups had not been targeted in France.

The August 5 memo, signed by the interior minister's chief of staff and sent to police chiefs, states that "300 camps or illegal settlements must be cleared within three months, Roma camps are a priority."

"The role of the commission as guardian of (Europe's) treaties is made extremely difficult if we can no longer have confidence in the assurances given by two ministers in a formal meeting," Reding said.

"This is not a minor offence," she said. "After 11 years of experience in the commission, I even go further: this is a disgrace."

The French government, which denies targeting Roma minorities specifically and insists its measures comply with EU laws, said it was astonished by Reding's criticism but that it would not be drawn into an argument.

"We don't think that this kind of declaration will help improve the predicament of the Roma, who are at the heart of our concerns," said foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero.

France has deported more than 1,000 Roma migrants to Bulgaria and Romania since last month, and more than 8,000 Roma have been deported since the beginning of the year, after 9,875 were expelled in 2009.

On the day Brussels threatened legal action, France flew 222 Roma to Bucharest on two charter flights from Paris and the southern city of Marseille, according to figures from Romanian border police.

The EU parliament urged France to suspend the removal of Gypsies last week, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights warned Monday that the measures "exacerbate the stigmatisation of Roma."

The European Commission said its legal analysis of the Roma crackdown would be completed in the coming days.

"I am personally convinced that the commission will have no choice but to initiate infringement proceedings against France," Reding said.

The procedure gives EU states the opportunity to conform with the union's laws, but any failure to do so can lead to a case before the EU Court of Justice, which can impose fines.

The commission would take France to task "for a discriminatory application" of the 27-nation EU's freedom of movement, she said.

"I will of course give the French authorities the right to submit comments on the new developments in the course of the next days. But I make it very clear my patience is wearing thin: enough is enough," Reding said.

"No member state can expect special treatment, especially not when fundamental values and European laws are at stake."

Reding came in for criticism herself with the Socialist bloc of the European Parliament accusing her of initially defending the French government.

"The reaction of commissioner Reding is late, for a lot of people affected by French government actions, too late," said Socialist leader Martin Schulz.

The expulsions were also criticised by Austrian President Heinz Fischer, who accused France of discrimination.

"No ethnic group should be discriminated against. Naturally, the Roma should not be discriminated against," he said in an interview with TV channel ORF.

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