PARIS - Interior Minister Manuel Valls on Wednesday insisted he stood by a controversial call for tens of thousands of ethnic Roma to be kicked out of France.
Valls has triggered an outcry from human rights groups, the European Commission and some of his government colleagues by saying any Roma not working should be "delivered back to the borders", describing their way of life as "extremely different from ours," and claiming they will never integrate into French society.
The latter remark earned the minister a rebuke from his cabinet colleague, Arnaud Montebourg, who pointedly alluded to Valls' own status as the Barcelona-born son of Spanish immigrants who left for France during Franco's dictatorship.
"A theory that such and such a person or such and such a people will never, ever be able to integrate just doesn't stand up," Montebourg said.
"That's what they said about the Italians, that's what they said about the Spanish, it's what they said about the Portuguese, and what they said about the Arabs.
"Decreeing in advance that it is impossible seems to me excessive and is worthy of being corrected."
Valls hit back: "I've got nothing to correct. My remarks only shock those who don't know the subject."
He then repeated remarks that Amnesty International described as likely to "perpetuate stereotypes and encourage animosity" towards the 20,000 plus Roma currently living in France in makeshift camps.
"The majority (of Roma) should be delivered back to the borders," Valls said. "We are not here to welcome these people. I'd remind you of (former Socialist premier) Michel Rocard's statement: It's not France's job to deal with the misery of the whole world."
On Tuesday he had claimed the Roma in France had no interest in integrating, reiterating previous assertions that most of them were at the mercy of begging and prostitution networks.
Controversy over the issue is not new for Valls, a sharp-suited 51-year-old regarded as one of the stars of President Francois Hollande's struggling administration.
The European Commission has repeatedly questioned the legality of the government encouraging local councils to systematically dismantle illegal Roma camps and offering the expelled residents free flights and financial incentives to return to their countries of origin, primarily Bulgaria and Romania.
The policy has also been criticised by the UN's human rights arm. Roma organisations in France are threatening to bring a legal case against Valls for incitement to racial hatred and SOS Racisme, whose founder is now the Socialists' party leader, said Wednesday his latest comments had "crossed a red line."
It is all water off a duck's back to a ferociously ambitious, hugely energetic politician who appears to thrive - in a way reminiscent of Britain's Tony Blair - on taking a stand against the established beliefs and mantras of his own party.
Polls repeatedly suggest Valls is among the most admired members of Hollande's government with a cross-party appeal that has made him one of the early favourites to be the Left's candidate in the 2017 presidential elections. Sceptics have also been quick to point out that Valls' hardline on the Roms could play well with voters in municipal elections next year.
"There are elections in the air in France," observed Viviane Reding, the European Commissioner who has repeatedly taken France to task over the treatment of the Roma.
"Every time they don't want to talk about important things like the budget and debt, the Roma issue gets brought up."
Under pressure from the EU and what the daily Liberation described as the "humanist" wing of the government, Valls agreed last year that Roma camp clearances should not take place without alternative housing plans being put in place first.
But that policy has rarely been applied and 80 per cent of the 12,000 Roma expelled from their temporary homes in 2012 were forced to leave, the European Association for the Defence of Human Rights (AEDH) said in a report earlier this year.
Reding said Wednesday that France had made no attempt to access generous EU funds made available to promote Roma integration.
Valls maintains that forced evictions are preferable to tolerating squalid, insanitary camps and has defended repatriations as a better alternative than allowing Roma in France to continue working for organised criminal gangs.
But his approach has been criticised as inhuman by charities and a waste of money by France's public spending watchdog.
Despite thousands of government-financed repatriations, the numbers of Roma in France have remained stable, reflecting the reality that anyone flown back to Romania or Bulgaria can immediately return to France under EU freedom of movement laws.