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France Begins Roma Expulsions

France's expulsion of Roma (gypsies) was due to begin on Thursday with 79 expected to fly out of the country. The European Commission says it's following very closely France's controversial dealings with the gypsies.

Thursday marked the beginning of France's controversial move to expel around 700 Roma to Romania and Bulgaria.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed to clamp down on the Roma last month, following a series of clashes between gypsies and the police in two French cities. The government has ordered the destruction of 300 Roma settlements - so far more than 50 camps have been broken up.

Mark Lattimer is executive director of London-based Minority Rights Group International. He says the move by the French government bodes badly for minorities across Europe.

"They are specifically targeted at one ethnic group - Europe's most disadvantaged, the Roma - and at the same time they are accompanied by a rhetoric that clearly plays into the hands of xenophobic far-right groups in society," said Lattimer.

France is part of the European Union which allows freedom of movement across national borders.

The European Commission says it is following the situation "very closely" but the French foreign ministry says expelling the Roma is fully in-line with European rules.

Foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero told the French news agency Agence-France Presse that the European law allows governments to restrict freedom of movement within the bloc if it's a question of public order, security, or health.

But Lattimer says the expulsion of the Roma breaks EU laws on discrimination.

"What they haven't taken account of is the fact that there is a duty not to discriminate by ethnicity," added Lattimer. "And I think it is quite arguable that there is an illegal animus - ie. That there is prima facie ground of discrimination in their action."

Romania's foreign minister says he is worried that the economic recession is creating "populism and xenophobic reactions".

Lattimer says that's not just the case in France, but also across Europe.

"In all European societies there has long been the danger of racism and xenophobia rising again. Of course in Europe we have a long history of attacks on minorities, most notably during the holocaust," said Lattimer. "But in recent years the situation has been much better but there is always the danger that racism will rise again."

Dozens of Roma began flying out of France Thursday with more to follow Friday and next week. The French Interior Ministry says each expulsion has been decided on a case-by-case basis.

There are around 15,000 Roma living in France.