Roma have now got last-minute billing for the European summit on 16 September in Brussels. Initially, this gathering of the 27 EU heads of state, accompanied by their diplomacy chiefs, was supposed to be entirely about the new European foreign policy. But what with the clash between France and EU institutions getting out of hand, the item was added to the agenda at the 11th hour.

This isn’t the first time Paris and Brussels have been at loggerheads. But in the past they clashed over economic issues, such as competition policy, deficits, industrial or agricultural matters. This time around, however, the conflict hinges on fundamental European values. It brings to mind the Union’s blackballing of Austria back in 2000, when Jörg Haider’s far right party made it into the government.

"That’s no way to address a great state"

The present discord between Paris and Brussels, which has been simmering since August, came to a boil last weekend when the press got hold of an interior ministry memo specifically targeting the Roma, though the French government had assured the Commission it wasn’t singling out any ethnic group in particular for expulsion. So on 14 September, Viviane Reding announced her intention to take France to the European Court of Justice for ethnic discrimination, adding: “This is a situation I had thought Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War.” Instead of soft-pedalling the issue, Pierre Lellouche, Secretary of State for European Affairs, gruffly retorted: “There are limits to our patience: that’s no way to address a great state.” And a few hours later his head of state himself laid on another thick layer of hauteur and disdain.

This calamitous crisis mismanagement has basically left France stranded in the middle of the Union. Commission president José Manuel Barroso has “personally” seconded the commissioner, insisting on the need to “abide by Community law”. Germany argues that the Commission is “in its rights” asking France for an explanation, seeing as it has oversight in matters of “public freedoms” under the European treaties, including the Lisbon Treaty negotiated by Nicolas Sarkozy.

France against the rest of the world?

Then again – and Sarkozy knows this – the Roma, who are not welcome anywhere, get the same treatment in most other European countries, though the latter scrupulously avoid any hint of the kind of xenophobic rhetoric employed by the French conservatives. As a matter of fact, Germany has just signed a deal with Kosovo to repatriate 12,000 Roma, including 5,000 children, many of whom arrived in Germany over ten years ago seeking refuge.

All things considered, in other words, Paris is only guilty of having said loud and clear what others are doing discreetly, which could warrant some moderate support from its cohorts in the faceoff with the Commission. That, in turn, could enable France to come out of this crisis on top – provided it succeeds in making Roma a European issue that calls for a European solution. Can Nicolas Sarkozy manage that, or will he opt to stand by his bellicose rhetoric, France against the rest of the world?

Translated by Eric Rosencrantz