French President Nicolas Sarkozy upended a European Union summit to defend his own nation's honor, vowing Thursday to keep clearing out illegal immigrant camps despite accusations that France is being racist and unfairly targets Gypsies.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy upended a European Union summit to defend his own nation’s honor, vowing Thursday to keep clearing out illegal immigrant camps despite accusations that France is being racist and unfairly targets Gypsies.
The summit was supposed to be a forum for molding a unifying European foreign policy, but it turned into a drama of discord – with the outspoken Sarkozy usurping the podium to preach his policies and lash out at his critics.
Sarkozy said comments by EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding that linked the expulsions to the mass deportations of World War II were “disgusting.”
“I am head of the French state. I cannot let my nation be insulted,” Sarkozy told reporters.
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The wartime comparison stung many in France and other members of a bloc designed to overcome and prevent the kind of hostilities that divided Europe in the past. France deported some 76,000 Jews from France to Nazi concentration camps, and interned thousands of Gypsies in camps in France during the war.
Sarkozy insisted France’s expulsions of Gypsies, or Roma, are a matter of security and said France doesn’t have to take lessons from anyone, as long as it respects human rights. He called more than 100 Roma camps dismantled in France in recent weeks havens of crime and undignified living conditions.
“We will continue to dismantle the illegal camps, whoever is there,” Sarkozy said. “Europe cannot close its eyes to illegal camps.”
Participants at the summit lunch said emotions flared between Sarkozy and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso over the expulsions. Barroso did not want to comment on his exchange with Sarkozy, brushing off “useless rhetoric or unnecessary controversies.”
“Let’s put this behind us, let’s work now on substance,” he said.
Sarkozy downplayed the exchange. “If there is someone who keeps his calm, and abstains from excessive comments, it is surely me,” said the French leader – who has a reputation for having a volatile temper.
Britain, so often at loggerheads with France over all issues European, backed Sarkozy.
“Members of the Commission have to chose their language carefully as well,” said Cameron, a fellow member of the center-right. He added that “you should, of course have the right to remove people from your country if they are there illegally.”
Reding’s office has said she expressed regret over the wartime comparison, but maintained her threat to take France to court for targeting an ethnic group in the expulsions.
“All heads of state and government said it was profoundly shocking that one would speak in this way, with historical references that were deeply hurtful to the entirety of our compatriots,” Sarkozy said.
“It is an insult, an injury, a humiliation and an outrage,” Sarkozy said, the kind of comment rarely heard about any of the EU’s top officials.
The expulsions of more than 1,000 Roma from France in recent weeks, mainly to Romania, have also highlighted persistent divisions between richer, older EU members and poorer, newer ones.
Romanian President Traian Basescu accused EU leaders of “hypocrisy” over the Roma expulsions to his country, and warned that those expelled from France may quickly return.
“If we are not honestly recognizing this reality, we will not find solutions,” he told reporters in Bucharest.
While Thursday’s tensions centered on the Roma, the EU leaders talked little about them, a group that is among the continent’s poorest, most mistreated minorities.
“What political power do the Roma have in Europe?” Asked Florin Manole of the Center for Roma Studies at Bucharest University. “I doubt things will change, especially as we have an economic crisis.”
Beyond the Roma issue, the government leaders did find unity on some other issues.
They agreed to temporarily waive World Trade Organization tariffs on key Pakistani imports to help boost the flood-devastated country’s economy.
The EU already has committed millions of euros in humanitarian aid to help Pakistan recover from the devastation. It also wanted to craft a long-term strategy to help the country get its economy back on track amid fears Islamic extremists could exploit the crisis to strengthen their hold on northwestern regions close to the border with Afghanistan.
The EU also agreed Thursday to a free trade pact with South Korea that will slash billions of dollars in industrial and agricultural duties, despite some countries’ worries that the auto industry could be hurt by a flood of cheaper cars.
The deal – the first such pact between the EU and an Asian trading partner – will be signed at an EU-South Korea summit on Oct. 6 and come into force on July 1, 2011, said Belgian Foreign Minister Steven Vanackere, whose country holds the union’s rotating presidency.
However, it first has to be approved by the EU and South Korean parliaments and European carmakers are still hoping lawmakers will ensure safeguards for their industry.
Associated Press writers Mike Corder in Brussels and Alison Mutler in Bucharest contributed to this report.