BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Commission threatened France with imminent legal action over its expulsion of Roma migrants on Wednesday, saying Paris had two weeks to comply with European Union law or face sanctions.
But rather than focusing on whether France may have broken EU laws against discrimination with the expulsion of 8,000 Roma, the Commission’s statement on Wednesday dealt with France’s failure to incorporate EU law into national statutes, a substantial softening of its previous position.
It means France now has more time to provide evidence that the expulsions have been lawful and to ensure that EU laws are being fully transposed into French law.
The case has strained relations between France and the European Commission, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy vigorously defending the expulsions against widespread criticism from human rights groups and the Catholic Church.
“The Commission decided today that it will issue a letter of formal notice to France,” the Commission said in a statement, referring to a procedural step marking the beginning of disciplinary action.
It added that it would act unless “draft transposition measures and a detailed transposition schedule are provided by 15 October 2010,” effectively giving France two weeks to be compliant.
The EU’s justice chief, Viviane Reding, said earlier that France had assured the EU executive that its policies were not discriminatory. But she said Paris would have to provide further evidence that was the case.
“France is not enforcing the European law on free movement as it should, so we have decided to launch an infringement procedure against France,” she told reporters.
But she said the EU needed to “give France a chance” to explain itself before taking legal action.
In an emotional speech to reporters in early September, Reding had called France’s handling of the issue “disgraceful” and urged the bloc to force France to stop the expulsions, which she linked to the treatment of the gypsies by the Nazis.
France has sent around 8,000 Roma back to Romania and Bulgaria this year, bulldozing illegal camps where they were living on the outskirts of French cities as part of what Sarkozy has called a crackdown on crime.
Any EU government can expel citizens of another EU state from its territory if they pose a risk to public security or are a burden on social assistance. Measures have to be proportional to the risks and cannot target a particular ethnic group.
French authorities said they would move quickly to correct any legislative problems. “France, as other (EU) member states, will bring all the necessary elements to complete this evaluation,” the French foreign ministry said in a statement.
In addition to investigating France’s handling of EU laws on the free movement of people, the European Commission will also look into how national legislation in other EU states reflects the bloc’s rules. It could, the executive said, launch disciplinary proceedings in those cases, as well.
France could escape disciplinary action entirely if it convinces the Commission that it will quickly meet the EU requirement that all member states incorporate EU rules, in this case the bloc’s regulations on the free movement of people.
Having to face legal proceedings over Roma policies would be an embarrassment for Sarkozy at a time when he is trying hard to boost his popularity in the face of unpopular budget cuts, and before elections in 2012.