Tensions rise over France’s gypsy policy

Prime minister urges Brussels to make Romania act

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Paris has heaped pressure on Romania to improve the lot of its Roma community and curb migrant flows to the rest of Europe while France’s own policy of deporting gypsies has come under fresh scrutiny in Brussels.

In a sign of rising diplomatic tensions over France’s clampdown on Romany migrants, François Fillon, French prime minister, wrote to the European Commission on Tuesday urging it to ensure that EU aid to Romania was used to integrate its 1.7m Roma minority.

“France doesn’t have the judicial means to force the Romanian government to spend these funds in housing and educating its population,” Pierre Lellouche, Europe minister, told Europe 1 radio. “But Europe can, and that is why the prime minister wrote to Mr Barroso [Commission president] today.”

Mr Lellouche suggested that Paris was prepared to block Romania’s application to join the EU’s passport-free travel zone if it did not do more to settle its Roma minority.

But in a sign of growing unease with the French approach, Viviane Reding, the European commissioner for justice and fundamental rights, said her office would launch a legal analysis to determine whether France’s actions complied with EU law.

“On the one hand, I fully acknowledge that it is the sole responsibility of member states to ensure public order and the safety of their citizens on their national territory. On the other hand, I expect that all member states respect the commonly agreed EU rules on free movement, non-discrimination and the common values of the European Union,” Ms Reding said.

“Nobody should face expulsion just for being Roma,” Ms Reding said, expressing concern that rhetoric in some member states had become “openly discriminatory and partly inflammatory”.

As two Romanian ministers arrived in Paris for talks about closer co-operation between Paris and Bucharest on the issue, the French government stepped up its defence of its policy of deportation in the face of a wave of criticism from international human rights organisations, the Catholic church and even members of the governing UMP party.

Nicolas Sarkozy, president of France, told a meeting of the cabinet that the government “would not yield to those systematically looking for controversy”.

Paris revealed that it had repatriated 8,300 Romanian and Bulgarians “with irregular immigration status” since the beginning of the year, 6,700 of them on a voluntary basis.

Brice Hortefeux, interior minister, pointed to a sharp rise in crime by Romanian nationals. In France, it is against the constitution to gather statistics by ethnic group but Mr Hortefeux said the interior ministry did have crime figures by nationality. Police data showed that recorded crimes by Romanians in the Paris area increased 139 per cent last year.

The Roma issue has touched off a blame game between the Commission and various national capitals, with each arguing that the other side should assume greater responsibility for solving the problem.

Commission officials have emphasised a longstanding commitment to improving the plight of the Roma, and the billions of euros in social and regional funds they have made available to support that cause.

Yet, as Ms Reding stressed on Tuesday, such policies largely remain the responsibility of national governments. The commissioner also took issue with France’s decision to invite only a handful of member states to a meeting in Paris next month to discuss migration issues, saying it was a matter for all member states, and that the commission stood ready to act as a broker.

In its legal review, the commission is expected to focus on whether the French measures were proportional, and whether they have breached the prohibition in the Charter of Fundamental Rights on “collective expulsion”.

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