Sarkozy 'misunderstood' Merkel on Roma: German FM

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy's claim that Chancellor Angela Merkel had told him Germany plans to clear Roma camps is a "misunderstanding," Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said on Friday.

"The chancellor has... informed me about what was said in her talks (with Sarkozy)," Westerwelle told Deutschlandfunk radio.

"There was no such announcement by the chancellor. It would run contrary to the German constitution. I suspect that this was all a misunderstanding."

Sarkozy had made the claim after talks on Thursday with Merkel at a summit of European Union leaders in Brussels. Her spokesman swiftly issued a firm rebuttal.

"The topic of Roma in Germany played absolutely no role in talks between the chancellor and the French president," government spokesman Steffen Seibert told a regular briefing on Friday.

"The situation here in Germany is... in no way comparable to that in France."

 Merkel had initially offered support for Sarkozy, describing a parallel made by EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding of the deportation of Roma from France with persecution of Gypsies and Jews in World War II as "unfortunate."

For his part, Westerwelle slammed Reding's comments as "absolutely unacceptable."

"To tar France with the same brush as the horrific events of World War II is absolutely unacceptable, hurtful and probably led to the French president's angry reaction," he said.

France has been under fire for weeks over Sarkozy's controversial drive to deport ethnic Roma living in travelling communities in France back to Romania and Bulgaria, and Paris now faces the threat of European legal action.

Newspapers in Germany attacked Sarkozy Friday after his outburst, with one likening him to a "little child."

"Instead of calming down the rhetoric on the mass Roma deportations, Nicolas Sarkozy behaved at the EU summit like a little child who has been caught lying and now petulantly insists he is telling the truth," said the Financial Times Deutschland.

 Nevertheless, the paper added that "with his outburst, Sarkozy has actually done everyone a favour."

"If he had behaved diplomatically, then the issue of Roma in the EU would probably have vanished" but now EU leaders are forced to confront the issue.

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said that Sarkozy was trying to deflect attention from his domestic problems.

"Scarcely has a president had such a bad start after the summer break than Sarkozy," the paper commented.

Germany has been criticised for a deal struck in April with the government of the former Serbian province of Kosovo to return some 14,000 former refugees, including around 10,000 Roma.

Germany stressed at the time that no "mass deportations" were planned, with around 2,500 set to be repatriated each year to Kosovo, which unlike Romania and Bulgaria is not a member of the EU.

The UN Children's Fund UNICEF has said that about half those being deported are children, most born in Germany. Critics say Roma are being stigmatised and that they were being returned to live in abject poverty in Kosovo.