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Europe

First cracks as French foreign minister almost resigns over Roma policy

Bernard Kouchner, a long-term humanitarian advocate, said he came close to stepping down over the French government's new law and order crusade against the Roma gypsies.

Bernard Kouchner in front of a French flag

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner at the Elysee Palace, Paris on Monday

The French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, told RTL radio on Monday that he had considered resigning over the French government's recent crackdown on Roma Gypsies. Kouchner said he told President Nicolas Sarkozy about his concerns and his thoughts of stepping down. He decided to remain in the job, saying that leaving amounted to 'deserting.'

"I asked myself whether I should resign, Kouchner said. "But what would have that changed? No, I was not happy about this policy. I've been involved with the Roma for 25 years. And I don't like making a political issue out of them."

On Friday, in an address to French ambassadors, Kouchner still openly supported Sarkozy's policy on the Roma deportations. Kouchner is the founder of the renowned medical charity Doctors Without Borders and is a highly respected human rights activist. Observers have generally believed that the former Socialist politician would have trouble accommodating himself in Sarkozy's conservative government whose views he does not always share.

In another sign that not everyone is in agreement with Sarkozy's tough anti-crime and immigration policy, France's Defense Minister Hervé Morin of the center-right New Center party also broke ranks, criticizing the tough crusade of President Sarkozy and the Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux.

An ethnic Roma man looks down while seating inside the transfer bus shortly after arriving at the international airport of Timisoara city

On average, 1,000 Roma Gypsies are expelled each month

8,000 Roma sent back this year already

Critics say the recent campaigns are a calculated move to boost Sarkozy's flagging popularity before elections in 2012 and distract attention from unpopular plans to cut public spending and raise the retirement age.

Jean-Marie le Pen, the veteran leader of the extreme-right National Front, however, agrees with the deportations. He added that Sarkozy was powerless to do anything fundamental about what he described as "a problem caused by the European Union opening the borders between European countries."

Roma can legally travel to EU countries, but they must show that they have found a job if they want to stay legally in France for more than three months.

The French government has sent more than 8,000 Roma back to Bulgaria and Romania since the start of the year. Around 1,000 were sent back in the past four weeks.

On Tuesday, French officials are due to meet with representatives of the European Commission, which is also critical of Paris's crackdown on Roma gypsies. The United Nations and the Vatican have also condemned the expulsions.

Author: Wilhelmina Lyffyt (Reuters/AFP/dpa)

Editor: Nigel Tandy

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