Row with Merkel leaves Sarkozy more isolated than ever

John Lichfield
Saturday 18 September 2010 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

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The German Chancellor Angela Merkel has rubbished a claim by President Nicolas Sarkozy that she planned to follow France's example and bulldoze Roma camps in Germany.

The humiliating disavowal by France's closest ally left President Sarkozy more isolated than ever in his battle with the European Union over his campaign against Roma migrants from eastern Europe.

Mr Sarkozy told journalists after an EU summit on Thursday that Ms Merkel had "indicated to me her desire to proceed in the coming weeks with the evacuation of camps". However, Chancellor Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said yesterday that she had made no such remark and that she had never discussed the issue with Mr Sarkozy.

"The issue of the Roma in Germany played no role in the talks between the Chancellor and the French President," Mr Seibert said. There was no talk of "supposed Roma camps in Germany, not to mention their being cleared".

President Sarkozy's performance at the Brussels summit, where he had angry exchanges with the European Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso, had already been widely condemned in both the French and the European press. In a speech in Berlin yesterday, the European Justice Commissioner, Viviane Reding, repeated that Brussels was "considering" legal action against France for "picking on an ethnic minority".

Ms Reding apologised on Thursday for suggesting that France's actions could be compared with Nazi persecutions in the Second World War. But she made it clear yesterday that her "suspicions" that Paris was systematically breaking EU laws on free movement of European citizens had not changed.

After the Brussels summit, President Sarkozy made an emotional and theatrical attack on Ms Reding's "shameful" remarks which, he said, had "wounded" and "humiliated" France. He also claimed that Ms Merkel and other EU leaders had given their full support to France's anti-Roma policy.

The German Chancellor's spokesman begged to differ yesterday. He said that Ms Merkel had supported Mr Sarkozy's objections to the "form and tone" of Ms Reding's reference to the Nazis. This implied that Germany supported the substance of Ms Reding's objections to the anti-Roma campaign, but Mr Seibert declined to comment further. Since early August, the French government has bulldozed more than 80 illegal encampments of Roma people from Romania and Bulgaria.

Both President Nicolas Sarkozy himself and his Interior Minister, Brice Hortefeux have made speeches associating the Roma with insecurity and crime.

At his summit press conference on Thursday, Mr Sarkozy 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 Ms Reding's accusation that France was targeting the Roma not as individuals but as an entire ethnic group. A French government circular leaked last weekend called repeatedly on police to give "priority" to dismantling Roma camps. This circular had been a "mistake", Mr Sarkozy said, and had been withdrawn.

Under EU law, the Roma can stay in France without work for up to three months. They can be deported if they are found to be a threat to "public order" but only if they are individually found to be guilty. To target an ethnic group en masse is contrary to EU laws on both free movement and human rights.

Newspapers across France, and across the European Union, yesterday lambasted President Sarkozy for his performance. French newspapers pointed out that, despite his sweeping claims, President Sarkozy's only ally on the Roma issue was the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi.

"Sarkozy and Berlusconi against the rest of the world!" said the Dauphiné Libéré. Even the conservative Dernières Nouvelles d'Alsace said that President Sarkozy had no right to pose as a defender of French laws and values. The leaking of the anti-Roma circular had "isolated France", the newspaper said. The country's "credibility" was being seriously wounded because of Mr Sarkozy's "hasty electoral calculation" that attacking the Roma would help to restore his popularity.

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