Members of the Roma minority in France should "return home" as they are in "confrontation" with the French way of life, the country's interior minister has declared.
The comments from Manuel Valls, France's Socialist, but hard-line, interior minister sparked fierce criticism from Roma defence groups and some members of his own government.
They came as Amnesty International warned that forced evictions of Roma in France had "reached record proportions", with some 10,000 made to leave makeshift camps in the first half of this year.
"The Roma should return to their country and be integrated over there," Mr Valls declared.
"They should return to Romania or Bulgaria and for that the European Union, with the Bulgarian and Romanian authorities must ensure these populations are firstly integrated in their countries."
"It's illusory to think that we can resolve the problem of the Roma population solely via insertion (into French society)," he said. "There is no other solution than dismantling these camps progressively and deporting (the Roma)."
He added that only a "few families" could be allowed to settle while there was "no other solution" than dismantling illegal Roma camps and repatriating individuals, he said.
His comments came a day after police swooped on two Roma camps outside Paris, arresting six people in relation to the theft of metal cables. They came in a week that saw a French judge sparked condemnation for exclaiming during a trial over stolen copper cables: "Don't you think France has had enough of thefts committed by Roma?"
Mr Valls' strong wording was criticised by defence associations as well as several members of his Socialist party.
Deian Koleve, president of the Bulgarian association Amalipé, said the minority was being singled out as "scapegoats" while SOS racism said Mr Valls had "crossed a red line" and "stigmatised an entire population".
Arnaud Montebourg, the industrial recovery minister said: "I think there exists no theory whereby a particular population, or a person of a given origin cannot integrate (into French society).
"They said that of Italians, they said that of Spanish, they said that of the Portugese, they said that of the Arabs."
Viviane Reding, European commissioner for justice and fundamental rights, meanwhile, accused the French government of using the issue as a smokescreen on the day it is unveiling its austerity budget.
"Every time people want to talk about important things like the budget or debts, we find the Roma," she told France Info radio.
She said France has signed up to EU rules and is not making use of "50 billion euros" on the table to deal with the Roma question.
In response to Mr Valls' comments, the European Commission threatened to punish France over its Roma policy if it blocked their "freedom of movement" within the EU.
"Freedom of movement, just like the right to reside in another country are fundamental rights," said EC spokesman Olivier Bailly. "If these principles inscribed in the Treaties are not respected, the Commission will use all the powers at its disposal" to sanction violations, he said.
The Commission, he added, deplored "voluntary or involuntary" confusion over EU rules in France.
"The fact that Bulgaria and Romania are not members of Schengen in no way impedes their citizens from movement within the EU in the name of fundamental freedoms," he said.
The two countries can only join the visa-free Schengen zone if all member states agree but several countries, including France, oppose their entry.
Under right of residence rules, all EU citizens can move in another country for three months, after which they must prove they are not an "unreasonable burden on the social assistance system" of a member state.
Starting next January 1, all restrictions imposed by France and seven other countries on Romanian and Bulgarian workers are due to be lifted.
Despite the uproar caused by his comments, Mr Valls said he would take none of them back.
"To quote Michel Rocard (a former Socialist prime minister), 'France's role is not to welcome all the world's misery'," he said.
But with criminality linked to Roma on the rise, up 524 per cent in Paris between 2008 to 2011, other Left-wingers backed his comments.
Anne Hidalgo, Paris' Socialist mayoral candidate, warned this week that the capital "cannot become a giant Roma camp" while the current mayor Bertrand Delanoë defended the dismantling of 18 camps around the capital this year saying: "I will not accept disorder on the public streets."
The Right-wing opposition wants to block lifting all worker restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians in the EU - slated for January next year – until the Roma problem is resolved. Right-wing UMP leader Jean Francois Copé accused President François Hollande of remaining deliberately "vague" over whether the two countries should be kept out of the Schengen space of free movement for now.
In a report released today, Amnesty International accused the Socialists of bringing forced evictions of Roma to "record proportions".
"When President Francois Hollande came to power last year, he promised a change in tone and policy regarding Roma but there has been little change on the ground," it said in a statement.
"The new government have produced guidance on steps to be taken prior to and during evictions. It also set up an inter-ministerial commission to coordinate policies, but it is a body Amnesty believes lacks 'teeth or political weight'," it said.
There are some 20,000 Roma migrants living in France mostly from Romania, Bulgaria and former Yugoslavia. Many are fleeing the chronic poverty and discrimination they face in their home countries.
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