EU Warns France About Roma Expulsions The EU's top justice official says she is likely to take legal action against France over its deportation of the minority commonly known as Gypsies. The French government has repeatedly said it was not targeting the Roma, but evidence has emerged that has enraged EU officials.
NPR logo EU Threatens Action Over France's Roma Expulsions

EU Threatens Action Over France's Roma Expulsions

EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding criticized France's claims that it was not discriminating against the Roma during a news conference Tuesday at EU headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. Virginia Mayo/AP hide caption

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Virginia Mayo/AP

The European Union's top justice official said Tuesday that she is likely to initiate legal action against France for its expulsion of Roma, calling deportations of the minority commonly known as Gypsies "a disgrace."

EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said she was appalled by the expulsions, "which gave that impression that the people are being removed from a member state of the European Union just because they belong to an ethnic minority." She said she was convinced that infringement proceedings will be necessary and that they should begin as soon as possible.

"[This] is a situation that I had thought that Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War," she said at a news conference.

The government of French President Nicolas Sarkozy has repeatedly said it was not targeting the Roma, but evidence to the contrary has emerged that has enraged EU officials.

In recent weeks, French authorities have dismantled over 100 illegal camps and deported more than 1,000 Roma, mainly back to Romania, in a crackdown that has drawn international condemnation. The crackdown continued Tuesday, as dozens of Roma arrived at Marseille airport in southern France prior to being expelled.

France could ultimately be slapped with a fine by the European Court of Justice if its expulsions are found to have breached EU law.

Reding harshly criticized French authorities for telling the EU commission that it was not discriminating against the Roma — a claim contradicted by a secret document from France's top law enforcement authority showing that the government specifically targeted Roma populations for deportation.

The Aug. 5 letter called for the destruction of 300 camps of "illegal immigrants" and called on police departments across France to place a "priority" on Roma camps. It was issued by the Interior Department, headed by Brice Hortefeux, who earlier this year was judged guilty of making racist remarks against Arabs.

On Monday, France's immigration minister, Eric Besson, and its European affairs minister, Pierre Lellouche, denied any knowledge of the Interior Ministry letter.

"It is my deepest regret that political assurances given by two French ministers is now openly contradicted," Reding said. She planned to give Paris a chance to explain the document but stressed that "my patience is wearing thin: Enough is enough."

Reding at times appeared angry as she read out her statement at the European Commission's Brussels headquarters, once pounding the desk in front of her.

"After 11 years of experience on the commission, I even go further: This is a disgrace," she said. "Discrimination on the basis or ethnic origin or race has no place in Europe."

In Paris, French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero expressed "astonishment — that's the least you can say" at the announcement by the European Commission.

"We don't think that with this type of statement, that we can improve the situation of the Roma, who are at the heart of our concerns and our action," Valero told reporters. "It's not time for polemic. ... It's time for work in favor of the Roma population."

Human-rights investigators at the European Union are stepping up their requests for further information on the Sarkozy government's actions against the Roma. So far more than 8,000 Roma have been deported from France, mostly to Romania and Bulgaria.

With contributions from NPR's Teri Schultz in Brussels and Frank Browning, who reported for NPR from Paris