Paris tells Brussels: 'You do not speak to us like this'
France's junior minister for EU affairs has said to the European Commission: "This is not how you speak to a major power like France," following stinging comments on Roma expulsions by EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding.
Focusing in on the commissioner's remark on Tuesday that "this is a situation I had thought Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War," the French politician said on Wednesday (15 September) that Ms Reding's "unseemly" remarks in effect compare France to the Nazi regime.
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"A plane ticket to one's country of origin in the European Union is not a death train, and is not the gas chamber," he said, according to Radio France. "This kind of slip ... is not acceptable."
"This is not how you speak to a major power like France, which is the mother of human rights."
A spokesman for the French foreign ministry had earlier said Paris was "astonished" by Ms Reding's statement. "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," spokesman Bernard Valero said.
The head of Mr Sarkozy's UMP party in the National Assembly, Jean-Francois Cope, speaking on Canal Plus also dismissed Ms Reding's comments as "baseless accusations" and suggested the EU commission had "ulterior motives."
French authorities deported over 200 Roma to Romania the same day that Ms Reding spoke out on the commission podium. Some 230 explees, including children, landed in Bucharest on Tuesday in what France is calling "voluntary deportations" in defiance of human rights groups.
Most of the Roma interviewed by journalists upon arrival in Romania said they would return to France, because the economic situation is better, even if they get deported again. Romanian local authorities are speed-tracking procedures for social assistance, but the fresh aid is unlikely to keep them in the country.
Over 440 Roma camps have been dismantled in the past month and more than 1,000 Romanian and Bulgarian citizens sent back to their home countries as part of the massive crackdown on "illegal immigration" ordered by President Nicolas Sarkozy at the end of July.
Ms Reding on Tuesday said she was "appalled" at the French policy. She called the developments a "disgrace" and said the commission will take legal action against Paris at the EU court in Luxembourg.
All the political groups in the European Parliament have welcomed her intervention, except for the centre-right European People's Party, to which, awkwardly, both Mr Sarkozy and Ms Reding are affiliated.
In a notable exception, the President of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek, who is also a member of the EPP, leaned toward the side of the EU executive: "The commission is the guardian of the EU treaties. If it finds that France broke the law, it should proceed accordingly," his spokeswoman told this website.
The head of the Liberal group, Guy Verhofstadt, said in a statement: "Europe is finally proving its worth by not ignoring xenophobic, discriminatory, and nationalist policies perpetrated by member states. We welcome commissioner Reding's action announced today to bring fast-track infringement proceedings against France."
Socialist leader Martin Schulz also welcomed the Reding speech, but said the reaction came "too late for hundreds of Roma people" already deported by the French government.
Human rights groups have rallied behind the commission.
Amnesty International, which has behind the scenes been trying to push the commission to take action, was flabbergasted by the force of the response. "This has never happened before. I mean, there were 10,000 Roma deported [by various member states] last year and the commission didn't say anything," Nele Meyer, the group's Roma expert, told this website.
"We are absolutely surprised and delighted that Reding took such a strong line."
"Ms Reding's forceful statement comes not a moment too soon," Benjamin Ward from Human Rights Watch said in a statement. "The French government needs to heed the calls from Brussels and halt this abusive policy."
The European Network Against Racism urged the commission to take legal action not only against France "but also against all other member states putting in place similar policies infringing minority rights."
The French parliament on Tuesday also pressed ahead with another controversial policy - the total ban of burqas and other full-body robes worn by Muslim women in public, even by visitors who pass through France.
Offenders face a maximum fine of €150 and could be asked to attend courses on what the government calls "republican values." Individuals who encourage others to ignore the ban would face tougher penalties: up to one year in prison and a maximum fine of €30,000.
The vote in the Senate was passed primarily by Mr Sarkozy's party, with most opposition lawmakers abstaining. It forbids people from concealing their faces in public, without mentioning Islam, and includes exceptions for some professions, such as riot police and surgeons
The law should come into force after six months, pending approval from the country's constitutional council, which has rejected several bills in past years.
The story was amended at 11.00 am Brussels time to include the reaction by Mr Lellouche.