Sarkozy Lashes Out as Roma Row Escalates

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Philippe Wojazer / Reuters

French President Nicolas Sarkozy speaks at a news conference after an E.U. leaders' summit in Brussels on Sept. 16, 2010

At the European Union's regular summits, leaders know that no one can put on a display of haughty indignation like Nicolas Sarkozy. And this week the French President was in vintage form, despite sharp criticism leveled against him by the European Commission, rights groups, the Vatican and even some members of his own party over his controversial policy of deporting the Roma — or Gypsies — from France.

On Thursday, Sept. 16, at a summit in Brussels, Sarkozy was splendidly defiant. Days earlier, E.U. Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding had denounced France's deportation policy as "disgraceful," saying it probably breached E.U. law. "This is a situation I had thought Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War," she said. That veiled reference to the Nazi era, Sarkozy said, was an "outrageous" affront to his nation's pride. "It is an insult. It is a wound. It is a humiliation," Sarkozy sputtered after the meeting. "I am the French President, and I cannot allow my country to be insulted."

Reding did not attend the summit, so Sarkozy lambasted her boss instead: officials said he unleashed a tirade against European Commission President José Manuel Barroso. Defending his position, Barroso argued that the commission must ensure that in its treatment of the Roma, France respects E.U. law on the free movement of its citizens. "It was a testosterone-heavy exchange," said Luxembourgian Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker.

Somewhat implausibly, Sarkozy later insisted that "if there was one person in the room that remained calm, it was me." He also suggested that he had "unanimous support" from all E.U. leaders at the summit. But officials disputed this version of events. "Many people questioned Reding's choice of words, but not a single person except Sarkozy questioned the substance," said a Barroso spokesman.

Indeed, Sarkozy's bluster fit a pattern for the French government of seeking to ignore Reding's central charge and castigating her for the infelicitous wartime comparison. French Prime Minister François Fillon called it "implausible, unimaginable, scandalous." And officials belittled Reding over her origins as a Luxembourger. A spokeswoman for Sarkozy's UMP party said France "would not take lessons in morality from a commissioner who represents 350,000 people," while Sarkozy himself suggested that Luxembourg could take in the Roma.

The viciousness of those assaults suggests that Reding's charges have stung. She spoke out only after the French press published a leaked French official memo to police chiefs that prioritized Roma in the dismantling of illegal campsites. That, Reding said, contradicted assurances given her by two key French Ministers that immigrants were being treated on an individual basis. "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 a certain ethnic minority," Reding said.

The Elysée Palace also appears rattled by Reding's plans to haul France before the E.U. courts over the measures — and for good reason. Catherine Barnard, a professor of European law at Cambridge University, believes Reding would likely win the challenge. "The French actions seem incompatible with the E.U.'s citizen's-rights directive. Any measures would have to be taken on a case-by-case basis, but these seem to be mass deportations," Barnard says.

France is not alone: Italy, Belgium, Austria, Denmark, Sweden and Italy have also been expelling Roma immigrants. Germany has just signed an agreement with Kosovo to repatriate 14,000 refugees, 10,000 of whom are Roma. "Roma policies in Europe are horrific," says Nicolas Beger, director of Amnesty International's E.U. office in Brussels. "Reding is right to call it a disgrace. The Roma are marginalized: most live in dumps, with no access to education and health care. But although the E.U. describes itself as a value-based community, there are very few mechanisms to hold a member state to account on human rights."

Bernard Rorke, director of Roma initiatives at the Open Society Institute in Budapest, says Reding's response could finally awaken Europe to the realities of the Romas' plight. "This shows a long-overdue willingness to confront a major member state on a question of human rights," he says.

Nonetheless, Sarkozy has vowed to continue. The government insists that most of the expulsions of the Roma are "voluntary": France pays them about €330 ($423) per adult and €100 ($129) per child to help them resettle in their native countries. Officials have deported more than 1,000 people to Romania and Bulgaria since July, when Sarkozy linked illegal Roma camps to prostitution, begging, child-trafficking, pickpocketing and violence.

And so far, the French seem to have embraced the expulsions. Although Sarkozy's personal-approval ratings are flagging, 56% of French back him against the commission on this issue, according to a poll published Friday. But that suggests the summit tantrum was a distraction, says British Labour Party MEP Claude Moraes, who drafted the European Parliament's recent resolution condemning the expulsions. "Reding caught the French lying, and Sarkozy did mock outrage designed to isolate her," Moraes says. "He is a past master at this sort of manipulation. It is Napoleonic arrogance at its worst, coupled with a dash of misogyny." French officials would undoubtedly dispute that. But they would surely agree that his outburst was a dazzling political spectacle.