France on Tuesday had to endure some very severe criticism from European Union's Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding after newspaper reports revealed the French government had indeed specifically targeted the Roma for expulsions.
The daily Le Parisien published a note issued by the French Interior Ministry dated August 5 which ordered prefects to “dismantle 300 illegal camps within three months, predominantly those of Roma”.
European law prohibits any discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity or religion. An embarrassed French government, amid confusion and contradiction among the ranks of the ruling Right-wing coalition, issued a fresh note from which the words “predominantly Roma” had been carefully deleted. Minister for Immigration, Integration and National Identity said he had no knowledge of the August 5 note.
Ms. Reding led the blistering attack saying she had never been informed of the note. Instead, she implied that French Ministers had told her barefaced lies when she met them in Brussels to discuss the expulsions on August 31. French Minister for Immigration Eric Besson and Pierre Lellouche who handles the EU portfolio, had assured her that no ethnic group had been targeted, she said.
“This is a disgrace. It is shocking that a part of the French government comes here and says something and another part of the government does the opposite. My patience is wearing thin: enough is enough!” remarked a visibly outraged Ms. Reding during a meeting with the press in Brussels.
The Commissioner's unusually strong statement came after weeks of muted reaction from the European Commission. Last week, the European Parliament in a Resolution that called on France to immediately cease the expulsions also criticised the Commission for failing in its duty as “Guarantor of the European Treaties.” Ms. Reding had evidently received orders to rectify the Commission's earlier stance.
Obliquely comparing the French action to the widespread racist witch-hunt during World War II in which six million people including Jews, Roma, Communists and other political opponents, and those with mental or physical disabilities considered “unfit” for society were exterminated by the Nazi regime, Ms. Reding said she got the impression that “people are being removed from a member state of the EU just because they belong to a certain ethnic minority. This is a situation I thought Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War”. Her remarks have created a furore in France which has rejected out of hand any such comparisons.
“I am personally convinced that the commission will have no choice but to initiate infringement procedures against France,” said Ms. Reding. She would call for a “fast track” procedure with a decision within two weeks. France could be hauled up before the European Court of Justice and asked to pay heavy fines.
Such a lawsuit could prove to be highly embarrassing for President Nicolas Sarkozy. France has so far expelled over 1,000 Roma, mainly to Romania and Bulgaria. The President launched his security crackdown in order to show he was tough on crime and security issues. But the President's moves have not improved his ratings except with the extreme Right-wing fringe within the country. An opinion poll published on Monday show the President's popularity slipping further with his core voters — pensioners and centrists. The poll also indicates that a socialist candidate would win the next presidential poll scheduled for 2012. So this security crackdown could boomerang, political analysts say.