BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union threatened France with legal action over its handling of the expulsion of Roma migrants on Tuesday, with the EU’s justice commissioner calling France’s behavior unacceptable and a disgrace.
In unusually strong criticism of an EU government, Viviane Reding said Paris had broken EU law on the free movement of people in deporting around 8,000 Roma to Romania and Bulgaria this year, part of a French government crackdown on crime.
Reding said French officials had also been duplicitous in their dealings with EU authorities, saying one thing in Brussels while the government did another at home, and said she believed proceedings should be brought against Paris within weeks.
“My patience is wearing thin. Enough is enough,” Reding told reporters at a briefing in Brussels, raising her voice and thumping the podium in frustration as she spoke.
“No member state can expect special treatment when fundamental values and European laws are at stake,” she said, adding the Commission, the EU’s executive, would discuss how to proceed against France as soon as possible.
Referring to Nazi Germany’s persecution of gypsies during World War Two, Reding said she was afraid about ethnic targeting and the darkness of Europe’s past returning.
“This is a situation I had thought Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War,” she said.
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 President Nicolas Sarkozy to tighten security.
Human rights groups, the Catholic Church and some ministers in Sarkozy’s government widely condemned the removals, saying they were part of efforts by Sarkozy to boost his flagging popularity at a time of unpopular budget cuts.
The European Commission was at first reluctant to get involved in the issue, seeing it as a member state’s responsibility. But after pressure from the European Parliament and other groups, it appears to have been spurred into action.
The French government defended its actions on Tuesday, saying they were legitimate and necessary in the face of rising crime. Sarkozy’s conservative UMP party remained defiant.
“The reality is French authorities have acted responsibly and with full respect of the law,” Jean-Francois Cope, a senior UMP politician, told reporters in Paris.
Reding said she intended to move as quickly as possible to bring legal proceedings against France, saying steps could be taken within weeks if the Commission was agreed.
If France is found to have broken the law it could face fines and would also sustain “a serious loss of prestige,” Commission officials said.
France’s removals, watched closely by states such as Italy, Germany and Spain that also have large Roma minorities, have prompted the Commission to examine its overall policy on the Roma, Europe’s largest ethnic minority.
It has said it will examine how around 170 million euros of EU money has been spent to combat prejudice against the Roma, who number around 10 million and are spread among a dozen countries in central and east Europe.
Under EU law, Roma are free to move anywhere in the union and stay for up to three months. After that, they must have found work or be paying into a social security system. Many do not and are frequently marginalized in their host EU countries.
Westward migration of Roma from eastern Europe has increased in recent years, since the EU expanded its borders in 2004 and 2007 to include states from the former Soviet bloc. Their biggest community is still in Romania.
Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom and Julien Toyer in Brussels; Editing by Luke Baker and Janet Lawrence