Yesterday Housing Minister, Cécile Duflot vehemently criticised comments made earlier in the week about Roma people by Interior Minister Manuel Valls.
Valls had described the Roma way of life as “extremely different from ours”, and claimed Roma people could not integrate and that those who were not working should be “delivered back to the borders.”
On Thursday Duflot lashed out, declaring publicly that his words had “gone beyond endangering” France’s republican values.
She demanded that the French president take sides on the issue and make clear whether he approved of the Interior Minister’s comments or not.
Valls has continued Nicolas Sarkozy’s policy, highly criticised by Socialists at the time, of closing down illegal Roma encampments and sending the majority of Roma back to Romania and Bulgaria.
There are an estimated 15 - 20,000 Roma people in France.
Many of them live in squalid conditions in illegal encampments, where insanitary conditions pose a risk both to themselves and local populations.
There have been several clashes between Roma and local people, often themselves in economic difficulty, living near the camps.
On Wednesday, France signalled that it would join other European Union countries in blocking Bulgaria and Romania’s entry to the Schengen group of countries which allow passport-free travel.
Government spokesperson Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, said the two countries did not fulfil the conditions to be integrated.
Her comments reflect the government’s worry that if Romania and Bulgaria joined the Schengen group, large numbers of Roma would enter France, creating a strain on local communities.
The announcement of France’s previously undeclared position on the matter came a day after European Union Commissioner Viviane Reding warned Paris that its attitude towards the Roma could constitute a breach of its EU commitments on the free movement of people.
Her comments drew a sharp response from senior Socialist Party figure Claude Bartolone.
“She represents everything that leads us not to like Europe anymore”, he said. “Europe must stop being a Europe where the whip is cracked in punishment all the time.”
The row between Valls and Duflot was bound to happen...
While President Hollande and most of his ministers languish at the bottom of opinion polls, Manuel Valls is the undoubted star of this government with approval ratings of 70 – 80 per cent in opinion polls.
The public appear to like his tough, uncompromising words on law and order and immigration.
He was formerly Mayor of Evry, a town on the outskirts of Paris with a high immigrant population and some illegal Roma camps.
Often compared to Nicolas Sarkozy, he is telegenic, welcomes the limelight and makes no attempt to conceal his aim one day to become president.
He is much more right wing than many of his cabinet colleagues.
Cécile Duflot also enjoys the limelight.
Formerly leader of France’s Green Party (EELV), she accepted a job as Housing minister in the Socialist/ Green coalition government.
Her critics say she has sold out and no longer cares about green issues, preferring instead to tow the line and keep her ministerial post.
Some analysts suggest yesterday’s outburst was an attempt to distract attention after a senior Green Party figure left the party this week, angrily condemning her.
Will Hollande choose?
President Hollande has so far refused to comment on the row between the two ministers.
He is said to be furious that his relatively successful visit to a controversial steel plant on Thursday was completely overshadowed by the Valls-Duflot conflict.
He is in a difficult position. If he takes sides against Duflot, he could precipitate the collapse of his coalition government.
If he backs Cécile Duflot, he will antagonise the only government minister who has widespread public support.
The far-right Front National and the right-wing UMP intend to make sure the Roma issue is a key theme of upcoming municipal elections in March, making Hollande’s predicament still more complicated.