The deportation of Roma minorities by France was condemned as a "disgrace" today in an unprecedented attack on a member state by a European Commissioner.
Europe's Justice Commissioner, Viviane Reding, launched an angry tirade after weeks of tension over the French policy of Roma expulsions.
"Over the past weeks, the European Commission has been following very closely the developments in France regarding the Roma," she said in a statement in Brussels.
"I personally have been appalled by a situation which gave the impression that people are being removed from a member state of the EU just because they belong to a certain ethnic minority. This is a situation I had thought Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War."
Her outburst continued: "This is not a minor offence in a situation of this importance - after 11 years of experience in the Commission, I would even go further: this is a disgrace.
"Let me be very clear: discrimination on the basis of ethnic origin or race has no place in Europe. It is incompatible with the values on which the European Union is founded.
"National authorities who discriminate ethnic groups in the application of EU law are also violating the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which all member states, including France, have signed up to."
Ms Reding went on: "I therefore find it deeply disturbing that a member state calls so gravely into question, by the actions of its administration, the common values and the law of our European Union."
Ms Reding accused France of double-dealing, claiming political assurances by French ministers that specific ethnic groups had not been targeted in France were contradicted by an "administrative circular" by the French government.
"The role of the Commission as guardian of the Treaties is made extremely difficult if we can no longer have confidence in the assurances given by two ministers in a formal meeting with two Commissioners and with around 15 senior officials on the table from both sides," she said.
"I am personally convinced that the Commission will have no choice but to initiate infringement action against France.
"I will, of course, give the French authorities the right to submit comments on the new developments in the course of the next days. But I make it very clear my patience is wearing thin: enough is enough.
"No member state can expect special treatment, especially not when fundamental values and European laws are at stake.
"This applies today to France. This applies equally to all other member states, big or small, which would be in a similar situation. You can count on me for that."
Last week Euro-MPs condemned France, attacking the "inflammatory and openly discriminatory rhetoric" of the French government about the mass deportation programme.
The European Parliament resolution also criticised a "late and limited" response by the European Commission - something Ms Reding more than remedied today, after a morning of talks at Commission headquarters about how far the Commission could go in its assault on a founding member state of the EU.
She had the backing of Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso before she spoke, according to officials.
Labour MEP Claude Moraes, Labour's European spokesman on civil liberties, also approved: "We said the Commission should do its job. Finally it has done so.
"The French government is not above the rule of law and now the Commission is making that fact clear to President (Nicolas) Sarkozy."
He added: "The beginning of action against a large founder member of the EU sends a huge warning signal to Italy, Sweden, Denmark and any other member states who feel they can expel EU citizens based on their ethnicity.
"This announcement goes to show that the European Parliament was right in putting pressure on the Commission to act."
According to the European Commission, the Roma are the EU's largest ethnic minority, and trace their origins to medieval India. There are many Roma subgroups living in Europe, including an estimated 15,000 in France.
The issue is now bound to be raised at a summit of EU leaders taking place in Brussels on Thursday.Reuse content