President Nicolas Sarkozy faced legal assaults on two fronts yesterday after a European Commissioner threatened action over what she called France's "shameful" campaign against Roma gypsies.
On a difficult day for the President, the French newspaper Le Monde also published fresh evidence to back up its claim that the Elysée Palace had illegally used the country's counter-espionage service to plug media leaks.
In an unusually forthright attack on a member state, the EU Justice Commissioner, Viviane Reding, compared France's crackdown on Roma immigrants from eastern Europe this summer to the Nazi persecution of gypsies during the Second World War. She said that she "personally" expected the Commission to start a legal action "within weeks" against Paris for breaching the letter and the spirit of European law on the free movement of EU citizens.
She also accused French ministers and officials of being duplicitous by telling Brussels there was no crackdown on an entire ethnic group while officially targeting the Roma.
"My patience is wearing thin. Enough is enough," Ms Reding told a press conference in Brussels, punching her podium in anger. "No member state can expect special treatment when fundamental values and European laws are at stake. This is a situation I had thought Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War."
The French government later expressed its "astonishment" at the Luxembourgish commissioner's outburst. The foreign ministry spokesman, Bernard Valero, said: "It is not with this kind of statement that we are going to improve the lot of the Roma, who are at the centre of our concerns and our actions."
Since July, at President Sarkozy's express request, French authorities have conducted a high-profile campaign to dismantle illegal Roma encampments and to remove eastern European gypsies from the country.
More than 1,000 have been expelled or given a €300 (£250) subsidy to leave the country. After expressions of concern from Brussels, the UN and the Catholic Church, France insisted that there was no attempt to target Roma as a group. Singling out an ethnic minority is against both French law and the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights.
At the weekend, however, it emerged that a circular from a senior official in the French immigration ministry in early August had ordered police and senior national officials to make the closure of Roma encampments "a priority".
The document was signed by Michel Bart, the head of the private office of the interior minister, Brice Hortefeux. It ordered prefects – senior national government officials – to dismantle "300 camps or illicit settlements within three months, giving priority to those of the Roma". After an outcry by opposition politicians and the intervention of the immigration minister, Eric Besson, the circular has now been amended.
President Sarkozy also faces allegations his office encouraged illegal action in seeking out the source of embarrassing leaks to Le Monde about a political financing scandal .
The allegation that the Elysée Palace used the country's security service to identify the newspaper's source has drawn comparisons with the Watergate affair. The French police and security services said they alone were responsible for the investigation. But Le Monde yesterday quoted the head of France's independent security watchdog as rejecting this version of events.