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.
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.