Paris: France begins its controversial expulsion of around 700 Roma to Romania and Bulgaria on Thursday, amid rising criticism of President Nicolas Sarkozy`s clampdown on the minority.
The first 79 Roma who agreed to a so-called "voluntary return procedure" will be put on an afternoon flight to Bucharest, the first such expulsion since Sarkozy last month vowed action against Roma, Gypsy and traveller communities.
France intends to fly 132 more to Timisoara, in western Romania, and Bucharest on Friday and 160 on August 26, with each adult granted EUR 300 (USD 385) and each minor EUR 100.
With unease growing over the roundups using tactics that one member of Sarkozy`s ruling party compared to those of Nazi-era France, the Interior Ministry insisted on Wednesday that each case had been looked at individually.
Romanian Foreign Minister Teodor Baconschi said he was worried about the risk of "xenophobic reactions".
"I am worried about the risks of populism and xenophobic reactions in a context of economic crisis", Baconschi said in an interview with the Romanian service of Radio France International (RFI Romania).
French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux will next week receive senior Romanian officials including Secretary of State for Roma Integration Valentin Mocanu to discuss the Roma`s predicament.
About 10,000 Roma from Romania and Bulgaria were returned to their countries last year, but this is the first expulsion since Sarkozy in July announced a clampdown on foreigners.
Baconschi said he "hopes" that all legal procedures have been duly applied for these "expulsions".
The European Union`s executive arm has said France must abide by the bloc`s freedom of movement rules when it expels Roma living illegally in the country.
The European Commission is following the situation "very attentively", a spokesman, Matthew Newman, said.
Most of the Roma who were sent to Romania last year returned to France afterwards as European citizens free to travel in the EU, officials admitted.
The French Foreign Ministry insisted the measures being taken against the Roma were in line with European rules.
"The measures taken by the French authorities with regard to dismantling illegal camps fully conform with European rules and do not in any way affect the freedom of movement for EU citizens, as defined by treaties," Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said.
Valero said a European directive "expressly allows for restrictions on the right to move freely for reasons of public order, public security and public health".
There are about 15,000 Roma of Eastern European origin in France.
The Roma community in Romania numbers 530,000 according to the national census or 2.5 million according to non-governmental organisations, who say that some do not declare themselves as Roma fearing discrimination.