Viviane Reding, vice-president of the European Commission responsible for justice and fundamental rights, announced today (14 September) that she will launch a legal procedure against France for discriminating against the Roma. The way Paris has managed the issue is "a disgrace," said Reding in a rare loss of temper.
Reding's announcement, made during the Commission's regular midday press briefing, was prompted by a 'circular letter' from the French administration instructing local authorities to single out the Roma community in the government's drive to expel residents staying in France illegally.
The letter, dated 5 August and published by the French media, is signed by the director of cabinet for the interior minister.
The document repeatedly mentions that "the evacuation of illegal campsites" should be targeted at the Roma "as a priority".
Reding's address also represents a response to statements made yesterday (13 September) by French European Affairs Minister Pierre Lellouche, who appeared to reject the role of the Commission as the guardian of the EU treaties.
Answering a question from EURACTIV, Lellouche said: "For me, who has been elected in my country, the guardian of the Treaties is the French citizens that have ratified it, through their representatives, after having rejected the European Constitution" (EURACTIV 14/09/10).
In response, Commission Vice-President Reding lashed out at Lellouche for having questioned the role of the Commission as guardian of the Treaty. "The European Commission's role as guardian of the Treaty is one of the foundations of the European Union," the commissioner stressed. "A Union that has gathered together not by force, but by the respect of the rule of law, agreed upon by all member states, including by France," she hastened to add.
'This is a disgrace'
Reding explained that she had held a formal meeting with Lellouche and Immigration Minister Eric Besson on 31 August, during which both had assured her that specific ethnic groups had not been targeted in France (EURACTIV 01/09/10). Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström was also present at the meeting, Reding said.
"I can only express my deepest regrets that the political assurances of two French ministers, officially mandated to discuss this matter with the European Commission, are now openly contradicted by an administrative circular, issued by the same government," Reding said.
"This is not a minor offence in a situation of this importance. After eleven years of experience with the Commission, I go even further: this is a disgrace," Reding stressed.
"Discrimination on the base of ethnic origin or race has no place in Europe. It is incompatible with the values on which the European Union is founded."
'Enough is enough'
Reding, who was reading her speech, said she will have to open an infringement procedure in order to bring France in line with EU law. If used, this would be a novelty in the field of violation of fundamental rights.
"I am personally convinced that the Commission will have no choice but to initiate infringement procedures against France on two grounds. First for a discriminatory application of the Free Movement Directive, and second […] for lack of transposition of the procedural and substantive guarantees under the Free Movement Directive."
The commissioner said she will give the French authorities the right to submit comments "in the course of the next days".
"But I make it very clear my patience is wearing thin: enough is enough," she stated.
Asked if the French authorities had submitted the 'Circular Letter' to the Commission for consultation, she said: "A very clear answer to this question: No, we have never received officially the Circular of 5 August."
Asked about the timing of the decision to start an infringement procedure, Reding answered: "I intend to recommend to [Commission] President [José Manuel] Barroso a fast-track infringement procedure, so that we lose no time. And I expect the College of Commissioners to be able to take a decision within the next two weeks."