The government of French President Nicolas Sarkozy is being condemned by the Catholic Church and the European Union for forcibly expelling thousands of gypsies, an act one top EU commissioner suggested smacked of the Nazis in World War II.
The outcry over the expulsion of Roma migrants -- often referred to as gypsies -- has intensified in recent days.
Since the end of July, French authorities have dismantled over 100 illegal camps and deported more than 1,000 Roma back to Romania and Bulgaria.
The crackdown on illegal encampments and the expulsions of Roma were launched following the unveiling of a series of security measures by Sarkozy, himself the son of a Hungarian immigrant, and deadly shootings and other violence between French police and suspects in largely immigrants areas.
It also comes as Sarkozy, French analysts say, is trying to boost his flagging popularity with conservative voters ahead of the 2012 presidential election. Sarkozy was elected in 2007 for his good results as French Interior minister and for his strong stance on security issues during the campaign.
"The Roma community is an easy target to make the public opinion believe that the ruling conservatives are working for the safety of the French" Claudia Charles, a researcher at the Groupe d'Information et de Soutien des Immigrés, a French NGO providing information and support to immigrants, told ABC News.
The crackdown continued this week.
According to French media reports quoting Paris airport authorities, 160 Roma migrants were flown back to Romania on a special charter from Paris Tuesday. And a chartered Airbus took off from the southern city of Marseille for Bucharest with 69 Roma on board, police officials said.
The European Union Justice Commissioner lashed out at the conservative government of Sarkozy, condemning the expulsions as a "disgrace" and calling for the European Commission to initiate legal proceedings against France.
EU Commissioner Likens Roma Expulsion to Nazis in WW II
If France is found to have breached EU law, it could face fines by the European Court of Justice. Under EU law, Roma are free to move anywhere in the union and stay for up to three months. After that, they must have found work or be paying into a social security system. Many do not and are frequently marginalized in their host EU countries.
"I personally have been appalled by a situation which gave the impression that people are being removed from a member state of the EU just because they belong to a certain ethnic minority," EU commissioner Viviane Reding said today during a press conference in Brussels. "This is a situation I had thought Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War."
"National authorities who discriminate ethnic groups in the application of EU law are also violating the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which all member states, including France, have signed up to" she continued.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said the dismantling of Roma camps and their expulsion back to their home country added to the stigmatization of the Roma and the poverty in which they live.
Last Friday, the European Parliament urged the French government to halt the deportations, a call rejected by Paris.
Even the Catholic Church condemned the expulsions. A few weeks ago, the Pope Benedict XVI criticized the decision of France to repatriate Roma and called upon acceptance of people of all origins and nationalities.
"What we are seeing today is nothing new," Charles told ABC News. "Except that this time, there is a public relations campaign surrounding these expulsions. For years, the Roma community has been the target of French authorities when it comes to expulsions."
"The Roma community is visible, clustered and unwanted," Charles said.
The French government defended its actions on Tuesday, saying they were legitimate and necessary in the face of rising crime. Speaking before France's National Assembly, Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said, "We do not evacuate ... illegal camps because they are Roma's. We dismantle them because they are illegal."
French Deny Targeting Gypsies for Expulsion
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero expressed "astonishment" at the declarations of the EU commissioner. "We don't think, with this type of statement, that we can improve the situation of the Roma, who are at the heart of our concerns and our action," Valero told reporters. "It's not time for polemics. ... It's time for work in favor of the Roma population."
But French claims of wanting to help the Roma were undercut when the press published a leaked memo suggesting the Roma were specifically targeted by the authorities.
The leaked circular letter from the Interior Ministry caused embarrassment among the French government, especially since it contradicted a statement issued a few days earlier by the French Immigration minister that France is not stigmatizing the Roma community.
"France has taken no specific measure regarding the Roma", Eric Besson said in the statement. Hortefeux backpedalled and issued a new circular letter about dismantling illegal camps. In the new version, no mention of the Roma appears.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.