It is being described as a crisis without precedent between the European Commission and a large member state.
The EU Justice Commissioner in Brussels is recommending legal action against France over its deportation of Roma people, slamming the policy as a disgrace.
The leak of a government circular seems to have been the last straw for the commission. The memo clearly shows that police chiefs were ordered to target illegal Roma camps as a priority, as requested by President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The circular was not shown to European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding when she met two French ministers to get reassurances that Paris’ expulsions were not in breach of the law.
The ministers insisted that no ethnic group was being specifically targeted, even though President Sarkozy had previously referred to the Roma people in a speech ahead of the security crackdown.
The leak of the circular put the French government under increasing pressure.
“I didn’t know about the existence of the memo,” said Immigration Minister Eric Besson. “It’s not a way for me to clear my name. It wasn’t sent to me. I don’t know anything about it. I was alerted to this by you, the press, this weekend.”
But that explanation was not enough for the European Commission. It accused France of saying one thing in Brussels, and doing something else entirely in Paris.
Commissioner Viviane Reding said: “I personally have been appalled by a situation which gave the impression that people are being removed from a member state of the European Union just because they belong to an ethnic minority. This is a situation I had thought Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War.”
The European Commission’s criticism is a blow to France, which has already come under attack from the European Parliament. In a vote, MEPs called on Paris to halt its Roma crackdown immediately. The UN and human rights organisations have also slammed France.