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France, Germany in spat over illegal Gypsy camps

Brussels, 18.9.2010 10:55, (AP)

Germany sought Friday to downplay a diplomatic incident involving French President Nicolas Sarkozy as the debate over his campaign to clear out illegal migrant camps reverberated across the European Union.

Sarkozy's attempts to defend his nation's policy against international complaints that France is being racist and unfairly targeting Gypsies threw a European Union summit into an uproar on Thursday.

Sarkozy then asserted to reporters that Chancellor Angela Merkel had told him that Germany was on the verge of similar action.

Merkel's office was quick to deny that she told Sarkozy anything of the kind, but refused to be drawn on what the chancellor thought of the situation or what might have been behind Sarkozy's comments.

In recent weeks, French authorities have cleared out some 100 illegal immigrant camps, most inhabited by Gypsies — also known as Roma, a nomadic ethnic group believed to have roots in the Indian subcontinent.

Many have been deported to Romania, which joined the EU three years ago and has a sizable Roma population. Roma, like other EU citizens, are allowed to travel freely within the EU's open borders but all EU citizens must get work or residency papers to reside in a separate country.

Speaking to reporters after Thursday's summit, Sarkozy said "Madame Merkel indicated to me her will to proceed in the coming weeks with the evacuation of camps."

Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, flatly denied the chancellor had made any such remark, adding that the situation in Germany cannot be compared to that in France.

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