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PARIS (Reuters) - France hit back on Wednesday at "unacceptable" criticism from a European Commissioner of its repatriation of Roma, prompting her to say she regretted her comments were interpreted as comparing France with Nazi Germany.
France's European Affairs Minister Pierre Lellouche said European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding had overstepped the mark on Tuesday during an unusually strong attack in which she accused France of breaking EU law on free movement of people by sending Roma migrants back to Romania and Bulgaria.
Referring to Nazi Germany's persecution of gypsies during World War Two, Reding said she was afraid about a return to ethnic targeting and the darkness of Europe's past.
"This kind of outburst is not appropriate," said Lellouche, adding in an echo of Reding's own criticism: "There's a limit to my patience."
"A plane ticket back to the European Union country of origin is not the same thing as death trains and the gas chambers."
President Nicolas Sarkozy's office described Reding's remarks as "simply unacceptable."
In an effort to calm tensions ahead of a European Union leaders' meeting in Brussels on Thursday, Reding told reporters she had not intended any comparison between the Nazi regime and the current French government.
"I regret that my comments were interpreted in a way that diverted attention from the problems we have to solve," she told reporters, in comments made available by her office.
She said the Commission would deliver its conclusions on the subject in two weeks and would take appropriate measures -- softening her tone after Tuesday's threat to take legal action.
Amid concerns high employment could foster growth in anti-immigrant politics in Europe, the row revealed fault lines among the region's political leadership as it gathered for Thursday's summit.
France received firm backing from Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berslusconi, whose conservative coalition has had its own differences with Brussels over a crackdown on massive illegal immigration from North Africa.
"Mrs Reding would have done better to discuss this subject in private with French officials," Berlusconi told Le Figaro newspaper. "This problem of the Roma is not specific to France. It concerns the whole of Europe."
But European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso stood by Reding, saying she had run her comments by him before making them but may have spoken too emotionally on some issues.
"One or the other expression used in the heat of the moment may have given rise to misunderstandings," he told reporters.
France stepped up the expulsion of Roma migrants during the summer, rounding up families in illegal camps and offering them a financial incentive to leave the country as part of an initiative by Sarkozy to tighten security.
More than 8,000 expulsions have taken place this year.
Human rights groups, the Catholic Church and some ministers in Sarkozy's own government have condemned the removals, saying they were part of efforts by Sarkozy to boost his flagging popularity in the face of budget cuts ahead of 2012 elections.
Additional reporting by Daniel Flynn, Vicky Buffery and Yann Le Guernigou in Paris and Justyna Pawlak in Brussels; Editing by Alison Williams