The European Commission today threatened legal action over the French government's crackdown on its Roma population, branding Nicolas Sarkozy's policy disgraceful and comparing it to second world war era deportations.
In her first direct criticism of France after being widely reviled for prevaricating, Viviane Reding, the European commissioner for justice and fundamental rights, attacked the Sarkozy government over the mass expulsions of Roma and accused it of duplicity in its dealings with Brussels.
She likened the deportation of almost 1,000 Gypsies to Romania and Bulgaria in recent weeks to Vichy France's treatment of Jews during the second world war and said Brussels had no option but to launch infringement proceedings against Paris, meaning that it could be hauled before the European court of justice.
The ultimatum from Reding represented a policy U-turn only a few days after she declared that Paris was sending "very positive" signals on its Roma policy and her boss, José Manuel Barroso, president of the European commission, called a truce on the issue with Sarkozy.
The volte-face was triggered by the leak of a French government document demonstrating that Gypsies from Romania and Bulgaria were the explicit targets of a Sarkozy policy to shut down 300 immigrant encampments, an apparent breach of a European ban on ethnic discrimination.
The Milan government plans to shut several of the city’s 12 authorized camps. The settlement where Mr. Deragna lives is set to become a transitory encampment for evicted Roma, with a maximum stay of three years.
Mr. Deragna says that he and the other families who have lived there for nearly two decades were not given many viable alternatives after being told they would have to leave. “These homes are the fruit of years of work here, and now the city wants to send us away without offering a solution,” Mr. Deragna said. “We have nothing. Where will we go?”
The treatment of the Roma, also known as Gypsies, became a major issue this summer in France, where the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy has expelled hundreds of people. But the conflict has prompted a similar, if more subdued, debate in Italy. Some critics even say Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s government has led the way on this issue in the European Union.
“Sarkozy is merely following the Berlusconi model,” said Pietro Massarotto, the president of Naga, a Milanese organization that provides assistance to immigrants and Roma. “The Italian government invented expulsions of E.U. citizens, in the case they can’t demonstrate they are making a living.”