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EU forced to apologise as Sarkozy goes on the attack over Nazi 'insult'

French President denies blazing row with Barroso but threat of legal action over Roma crackdown remains

After a blazing row with the European Commission President, José Manuel Barroso, President Nicolas Sarkozy yesterday insisted that France's crackdown on Roma gypsies from eastern Europe was a "duty" and would continue.

At an EU summit in Brussels, the French president demanded, and received, an apology from the European justice commissioner, Viviane Reding, who earlier this week had compared France's anti-Roma campaign to Nazi persecutions during the Second World War. Still apparently shaking with rage at a press conference, Mr Sarkozy said that all leaders at a one-day EU summit in Brussels had agreed that her comments were "an insult, a humiliation, an outrage".

The European Commission promised to bring forward new ideas on how to solve the problem of the estimated 12 million desperately poor Roma gypsies in eastern Europe. But Brussels refused to abandon its threat of possible legal action against France for allegedly targeting Roma migrants en masse.

President Sarkozy denied that there had been what was described by the Bulgarian prime minister as a "very violent" verbal exchange with Mr Barroso. Mr Sarkosy said: "If anyone kept their calm and avoided excessive remarks, it was me." Other summit sources confirmed that there had been a blazing row between the two men at the leaders' lunch after Mr Sarkozy accused the Commission of "wounding" France.

At his post-summit press conference, Mr Sarkozy spoke with exaggerated calm, jabbing his finger and appearing to choke back his emotions. He said that France not only had a "right, but also a duty" to defend its "laws and Republican values" by dismantling "shanty-towns on the edge of our cities" where "thousands of people, including children, live in unspeakable conditions of squalor". He denied that there was any French policy to target the Roma as an ethnic group, despite calling in a speech in July for a renewed drive to dismantle their camps.

The Roma dispute has been calamitous for France's reputation abroad. The crackdown has been criticised by Brussels, the Vatican, the United States, the United Nations and much of the French and foreign press.

The policy remains popular, however, with a majority of French voters. President Sarkozy seems to have decided that to back down would be calamitous. A confrontation with Brussels might, on the other hand, be a useful domestic diversion from his many other problems.

Summit sources confirmed that there was a general agreement that the justice commissioner, Ms Reding, had gone over the top in implicitly comparing the anti-Roma campaign with the Holocaust. By doing so, they said, she had allowed President Sarkozy to appear as the wounded party and claim the moral high ground.

But they said that Mr Sarkozy had invited the Commission's wrath by making attacks on the Roma a piece of domestic political theatre to please right-wing voters.

The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, appeared to give less than wholehearted backing to the French position. "You should, of course, have the right to remove people from your country if they are there illegally," he said after the summit. "But it should never be done on the basis of an ethnic group."

The rights and wrongs of the dispute are confused – deliberately so, it seems, in the case of the French government. But the European Commission, and EU member states, share the blame for failing to clarify the status of Roma migrants to western Europe, or enforce the spending of over €9m in aid for impoverished gypsy communities given to the Romanian government.

The French drive to expel the Roma – or pay them subsidies to go home – did not begin with President Sarkozy's speech in July. Over 1,000 Roma have been removed from France, one way or another, in the last month. But this is roughly in line with the average number of monthly Roma repatriations from France since the middle of last year.

The European Commission took little interest in these removals (or those carried out by Italy or Germany) until Mr Sarkozy's speech in Grenoble on 30 July. The French president then announced a new campaign on crime and insecurity and went out of his way to link foreigners and immigrants with criminal activity.

Officials in the Elysée Palace – including President Sarkozy in private conversations – have suggested that this is part of a political strategy to please right-wing voters and block a possible resurgence of the far-right National Front when its elderly president, Jean-Marie Le Pen, gives way to his daughter, Marine, next year.

For the last six weeks, French ministers have been beaming out contradictory messages. The interior minister, Brice Hortefeux, has been the gleeful, domestic cheerleader for the anti-Roma crackdown. The immigration and Europe ministers have been assuring Brussels and others that nothing new was happening and that the Roma were not being targeted as a group.

Under EU rules on free movement of European citizens, and the transitional terms for Romanian and Bulgarian membership, the Roma have a right to stay in France without a job for three months. They can only be expelled if they exceed that limit or if they are proved to be a threat to public order.

Last weekend, a leak to the French press proved what had long been evident in any case. A confidential circular sent from the interior ministry to police chiefs and senior officials on 4 August ordered police to target Roma camps as a "priority".

France has changed the wording of the circular to remove the word "Roma". But the damage was done. Ms Reding, furious that she had been misled, said on Tuesday that the policy was "shameful" and that Brussels would probably start a legal action within weeks.

President Sarkozy, in a private conversation with French senators, suggested on Wednesday that if Ms Reding was so keen on Roma, her home country, Luxembourg, (population: 500,000) "might like to welcome one or two of them". This quip brought an angry rebuke yesterday from the Luxembourg government, which is just as sensitive to jokes about size as President Sarkozy himself.