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Europe hesitates to slap down France on Roma

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(BRUSSELS) - France is likely to be placed in the dock for breaching EU freedom of movement rules Wednesday over its controversial Roma crackdown, but is less likely to face charges of discrimination.

After an open spat with Paris and weeks of bickering, the European Commission on Wednesday meets behind closed doors to consider whether to open two separate proceedings against France, a decision that may or may not be made public the same day.

"There is a general feeling that we should to stick to the facts and calm the matter down," said an EU official.

"If the commission starts a row with France for discrimination and it loses at the European Court of Justice, it will kill its future capacity to act," said another un-named source.

Under review will be a report presented by justice chief Viviane Reding, who 10 days ago said she was "appalled" by France's removal of Roma Gypsies and called for legal action against President Nicolas Sarkozy's government.

France triggered a wave of criticism after Sarkozy ordered a clampdown against illegal traveller camps in July and deported more than 1,700 Roma.

Speaking ahead of Wednesday's meeting of the 27 commissioners, official sources told AFP on condition of anonymity that Reding would need a legally water-tight case to persuade colleagues to formally accuse France of discrinination.

That would be a violation of the European charter on fundamental rights, and charges of infringing that document would be a first in the 27-nation bloc.

But commissioners are divided on a question which has become a hot political potato.

A separate charge of snagging EU rules on free movement is more likely, with France expected to be among a number of countries accused of failing to write in EU rules on movement into national law.

The European Commission's decision will be based on an analysis by its legal experts of whether French actions were discriminatory or not.

France last week sent EU officials a note on a controversial government memo dated August 5 that triggered its row with Brussels.

In the document seen by AFP, France states that "the aim and effect of the August 5 memo was not to create any discrimination whatsoever, contrary to the fear you have expressed."

It says that this is because most of the camps dismantled by police were inhabited by French national travellers, not Romanian nor Bulgarian Roma Gypsies.

The note in question, signed by Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux's chief of staff Michel Bart, was sent to police chiefs to outline "specific objectives".

"Three hundred camps or illegal settlements must be cleared within three months, Roma camps are a priority," it said.

It was after the memo was leaked to the media that Reding threatened France with legal action.

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