A leaked French government document implies that Paris ordered a clampdown on Roma immigrants en masse last month despite giving assurances to the contrary.
The circular, sent to senior officials around the country, provoked cries of "shame" from opposition politicians yesterday and signs of a split within the government. To target an entire ethnic group, rather than individuals, is contrary to both European and French law. Socialist politicians said that the leaked circular from the interior ministry was clearly illegal and started a procedure to have it annulled.
The Immigration minister, Eric Besson, evidently embarrassed, told a radio interviewer that he knew nothing about the circular. He insisted that he was acting on the basis of another document which does not target the Roma gypsies en masse.
Since the end of July, almost 100 Roma camps have been dismantled by police or gendarmes and 1,000 Roma immigrants returned to Romania or Bulgaria. This followed a speech by President Nicolas Sarkozy in Grenoble in which he identified the behaviour of "some Roma" as a threat to security.
In recent days, Mr Besson has assured the European Union, the United Nations, the Romanian government and the Vatican that there is no campaign against the Roma "as an ethnic group".
It has now emerged that a circular from an immigration official in early August ordered police and senior national officials to make the closure of Roma encampments "a priority". It was signed by Michel Bart, head of the private office of the Interior minister, Brice Hortefeux. It ordered prefects – government officials in each département (county) – to dismantle "300 camps or illicit settlements within three months, giving priority to those of the Roma".
Throughout the circular, leaked to the press, there are further references to the need to make the removal of "the Roma" a priority, without distinction between those who have provoked complaints and those who have not.
Confronted with the document yesterday, Mr Besson, a man recruited by Mr Sarkozy from the left, was ill at ease. He refused to endorse the circular and said that he had "no idea of its existence".
Centre-right politicians close to Mr Sarkozy dismissed the controversy. How, they asked, could the removal of illegal camps be against the law?
The numbers of Roma removed from France in the last month are in fact little different from the monthly average for the last 18 months.
The Interior minister, Mr Hortefeux, has been portraying the clampdown as something new and dramatic in an attempt to please right-wing voters. Mr Besson has been telling critics in Brussels and the Vatican that nothing new is happening.