GENEVA — The UN anti-racism panel on Friday called on France to avoid the collective expulsion of Roma Gypsies, but Paris dismissed its concerns and insisted its policy of repatriation was legal.
In a series of hard-hitting recommendations after a hearing on the issue, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination also issued a rare alert to the EU warning of a problem across the bloc.
"The issue of the day is the question of the Roma," said Pierre-Richard Prosper, the head of the 18-expert panel's review of France's application of international standards.
The panel urged France to "avoid in particular the collective repatriation" and instead to "strive for lasting solutions." It said it was also concerned about "discriminatory" political speeches.
"Our concern is that the removal or return of the Roma has been done on a collective basis rather than examining their individual circumstances so it gives the appearance that a group has been identified rather than individuals."
France rejected the committee's concerns, denying that President Nicolas Sarkozy has stigmatised the Roma minority.
"We do not accept caricatures," Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said in his closing speech to an annual conference of French ambassadors, referring to the UN panel's report.
"Never will we accept that a minority be penalised for being what it is."
In the latest expulsions, France said it sent back 283 Roma on Thursday, bringing the total number of Romanian and Bulgarian Roma deported so far this year to 8,313, up from 7,875 expelled throughout last year.
This month, Sarkozy announced that French authorities are to dismantle some 300 unauthorised encampments used by both French Gypsies and members of the Roma minority born in Eastern Europe.
Those foreign-born Gypsies found to be living on French soil without means to support themselves are to be expelled back to Romania and Bulgaria. Those who go voluntarily receive small cash grants.
The French foreign ministry insisted the deportations respected all human rights norms. "These elements are judged on a specific basis for each individual case," it said in a statement.
Immigration Minister Eric Besson said the French authorities don't consider a foreign citizen's ethnicity, only their nationality.
"Romas are not considered as such but only as citizens of the countries of which they are nationals," said Besson.
The UN panel also said it was also alerting the EU and Council of Europe to the plight of Roma Gypsies in Europe, in what a diplomatic source described as an exceptional step.
It triggered its "early warning action" procedure on the issue, a panel member said.
"It's not only a French problem it's a European problem, what is needed is a European solution," said Prosper.
"The purpose is to alert various European institutions regarding the problem of Roma and to remind them of their obligation to ensure whatever measure they take it is not discriminatory," said Prosper, a US legal expert.
France launched the country-wide crackdown on Roma earlier this month after a group of Gypsies allegedly attacked a police station.
The UN panel described the Roma as victims of "violence with a racist characteristic".
France's crackdown has sparked international criticism in recent weeks. The European Union is reviewing if the move is legal and the Vatican has also spoken out against it.
Malik Salemkour from NGO the League of Human Rights described the UN panel's recommendations as a "real slap for the current French policy".
Meanwhile, Prosper said the panel had also raised broader concerns about a rise in racism and xenophobia in France, asking French authorities "to take measures to curb this rise and actually begin to promote understanding and tolerance".
That trend, the panel cautioned, was fanned by politicians.
"The other concern that we raised is the question of the political discourse that has been taking place over the past few years and we felt that many statements that have been made were discriminatory in nature and targeted specific groups negatively," Prosper told journalists.
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