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Updated: September 15, 2010 18:57 IST

Sarkozy's office hits back at criticism on Gypsies

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A Romanian Roma woman carries bags after she and more than 200 others arrived on two special flights from France, in Bucharest, Romania, on Tuesday. Photo: AP.
A Romanian Roma woman carries bags after she and more than 200 others arrived on two special flights from France, in Bucharest, Romania, on Tuesday. Photo: AP.

President Nicolas Sarkozy’s office fired back on Wednesday at the European Commission’s criticism of France’s crackdown on Gypsies, or Roma, saying some of the complaints are unacceptable.

A day earlier, EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding called France’s expulsions of Roma to Eastern Europe “a disgrace”, something she had thought Europe would not have to witness again after World War II.

The exchange heightened tensions between France and the European Union a day before a summit of EU leaders Thursday in Brussels. Mr. Sarkozy’s office said the issue of the Roma was not on the agenda for talks.

French authorities have recently dismantled more than 100 illegal camps and sent home more than 1,000 Roma, mainly back to Romania, in a crackdown that has drawn international condemnation. Mr. Sarkozy has called Roma camps sources of crime such as illegal trafficking and child exploitation.

A senior official at the presidential palace said France doesn’t want an argument with the commission but “some of the comments are simply unacceptable.” He declined to be named, in line with office policy.

After a Cabinet meeting, government spokesman Luc Chatel also objected to Ms. Reding’s remarks, saying, “It is unacceptable to compare the situation today with a tragic period in our history.”

“I fear that such positions ... will only widen the gap between the French people and the European institutions,” he said.

Mr. Chatel said he believed Ms. Reding had been expressing her personal beliefs, but Commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde said Ms. Reding had been speaking for the entire commission.

In an act of solidarity with the Roma, an umbrella group of black associations in France, CRAN, said it would file a complaint against the Interior Ministry for “inciting racial hatred.”

The complaint is based on a government letter sent this summer to regional officials and telling them that Roma camps were the priority in a nationwide sweep to dismantle illegal squatters’ quarters.

The blunt letter, made public last week, shocked many people in France, where officials are supposed to be blind to race, religion and ethnicity. Speaking on RTL radio Wednesday, Pierre Lellouche, France’s European affairs minister, acknowledged the letter “shouldn’t have been written like that.”

Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux’s office said he had issued a new letter on the subject to the regional officials on Monday, one that did not include any reference to Roma.

Roma face discrimination in housing, jobs and education across Europe. As EU citizens, they have a right to travel to France, but must get papers to work or live there in the long term.

As many as 15,000 Roma live in France, according to the advocacy group Romeurope. French authorities have no official estimate.

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