BRUSSELS, Sept. 16 (UPI) -- French ministers have clashed with an official from the European Union who likened France's Roma expulsions to World War II-style deportations, in a row that could overshadow an EU summit in Brussels.
European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding Tuesday blasted the mass expulsions of Roma from France. She threatened Paris with judicial action and in an emotional statement called the practice "a disgrace."
"Enough is enough," Reding said. "Discrimination on the basis of ethnic origin or race has no place in Europe … This is a situation I thought Europe would not have to witness again since the second world war."
She added: "I am personally convinced that the commission will have no choice but to initiate infringement procedures against France. ... My patience is wearing thin."
French politicians immediately hit back at Reding, with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner calling her statements "unacceptable."
The war of words threatens to overshadow this week's EU summit, called to discuss the bloc's strategy in relation to superpowers such as the United States or China. While the Roma issue isn't on the agenda, it could very well become a hot topic.
Reding Wednesday tried to row back and defuse tensions, saying she didn't mean to draw parallels to the situation during World War II, when Germany deported and killed millions of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and political dissidents.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a statement issued by his office that he noted Reding's apology for her "outrageous comments in regard to France.''
Yet the divisions over the French Roma expulsions remain and they highlight once more the difficulties to integrate the new member states in an older, richer bloc.
France has deported around 8,000 Roma to Bulgaria and Romania since Sarkozy launched the forced closure of illegal migrant camps in July. Most of the Roma live below the poverty line and are expected to turn right back to France because of the EU's free travel regulations. However, they are allowed to settle only if they have a work visa or a residence permit.
The expulsions have been criticized by human rights groups and the commission from the start said it closely follows the expulsions to make sure that no EU rules are breached.
Paris has remained unwavering also because the measure is popular back home, with nearly 60 percent of French surveyed saying they are in favor of ousting the Roma.
The opposition claims Sarkozy, with the practice, aims to stop his popularity decline, which has been in a free fall since his government drafted unpopular austerity measures to counter the economic crisis.
The government vows the measures aren't meant to stigmatize any community, regardless of who they are, but to punish illegal behavior.
It has launched talks with Romania to improve the situation of Roma in their home countries so they don't return to France.