FRENCH President Nicolas Sarkozy went on the attack over complaints that his policy of expelling Roma gypsies was contrary to EU law, effectively hijacking yesterday’s EU summit.
In what was described by one diplomat as “histrionics” he complained about remarks made by Commission vice-president Viviane Reding, referring to her as “that woman” according to some sources.
France has expelled about 8,000 Roma to Romania and Bulgaria over the past few weeks mostly from illegal camp sites, on the basis they were centres of crime.
The move is seen as an attempt by Sarkozy to win support from the right in the lead up to the next election in 2012 and, so far, according to polls, he is succeeding though at the expense of moderate voters.
A number of French ministers earlier this month assured Commissioner Reding they were not specifically targetting the Roma – something that would be in breach of EU legislation on freedom of movement of EU citizens, and EU discrimination law.
But earlier this week the directive specifically mentioning the Roma was leaked in Paris and Reding, who is also in charge of Justice, let rip in the Brussels press room. Referring to France as a “disgrace”, she said, “This is a situation I had thought Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War”, referring to the fact that 25% of Europe’s Roma population died in Nazi concentration camps.
Reaction from the Elysee was swift with Sarkozy going on the attack – a tactic he continued yesterday over lunch with his EU counterparts. He rounded on the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, shouting and gesticulating according to sources.
“How dare the vice-president make such remarks”, he is reported to have said, adding that the commission had handled the situation badly from the start.
Reding, who apologised for using the World War II analogy, is carrying out an investigation into whether France is in breach of the law and Barroso said this investigation will continue.
He insisted that the substantive case against France has not changed.
The commission is obliged under the EU Treaty to ensure countries do not breach EU law and to take them to court if they are found to be.
However, some felt Barroso did not defend his vice-president vehemently enough and had let the issue fester for weeks before he intervened, pointing out the French were specifically targetting Roma as a group.
Sarkozy did not find himself with very much support at the meeting, according to reports. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had already expressed her disapproval before the meeting, spoke of the need to address the issue of the Roma. She was followed by leaders from about nine other countries.
Italy’s prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, however, also complained about the Roma and appeared to support the French president. Italy began a process of finger-printing Roma some time ago in a move also seen as discriminatory.
Denmark expelled Roma during the summer, as did Sweden; while Finland has taken a tough approach to Roma begging with children, taking the children from them on the basis that they have rights too that are being violated.
There are about ten million Roma, mostly from central and eastern Europe in the EU and as such they have the right to free movement in the Union, and can remain in any one country for up to three months or longer if they are working.
They can be forced to return to their original country if they are criminal or a burden on the state, but each case must be considered individually and they must have a right of appeal.
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