PARIS (Reuters) - The European Union is closely watching how France expels members of the Roma community to ensure their removal is consistent with the bloc's rules on the free movement of people, a spokeswoman for its executive arm said on Friday.
Police have evicted hundreds of Roma from makeshift camps this week and repatriated dozens to Romania as President Francois Hollande follows the previous administration's policy of expelling illegal immigrants in the summer.
The move has attracted fresh scrutiny from the EU's executive arm, two years after it criticized France over a crackdown on illegal Roma camps launched under former conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy.
"We are monitoring the situation," European Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva told Reuters.
The Commission, in charge of enforcing EU treaties, has requested further information from the French authorities on the expulsions to ensure they are being conducted in compliance with EU rules, she added.
France's Interior Minister Manuel Valls defended the camp evacuations as necessary due to health risks, saying that immigrants were only being repatriated after an individual evaluation of their legal status in France.
"The repatriations do not take the form, in any way, of forced, collective expulsions," he said in a statement.
RIGHTS GROUPS UNIMPRESSED
His comments appeared designed to fend off accusations that France is flouting EU law following a diplomatic spat in 2010, when European Rights and Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding called France's policy of expelling Roma a "disgrace".
At the time, the Catholic Church and rights groups joined in, accusing Sarkozy of enforcing a xenophobic policy to seduce far-right voters in his bid for re-election.
Under pressure from Brussels, France agreed to fully incorporate European migration regulations into its statute book - including, notably, a clause guaranteeing immigrants' right to appeal the reason for their repatriation.
But rights groups appear unconvinced that France has embraced the spirit of EU rules and once again accused its leaders of turning a blind eye to abuses.
"Hollande's promises to end discrimination against Roma couldn't ring more hollow in the wake of this week's events," Veronika Szente Goldston, a director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
"Rather than embracing its predecessor's approach, the Hollande government should urgently fix France's problematic Roma expulsion policy," she added.
An estimated 15-20,000 Roma live in France, most of whom come from Romania and Bulgaria. Both countries are EU members and have sought to join the bloc's "Schengen" customs-free travel zone, but their applications have not yet been approved and are still pending due to opposition from the Netherlands.
Critics of Sarkozy's policy on the Roma pointed out that many Roma agreed to leave France only to return after a short stay abroad by taking advantage of porous EU borders, having pocketed aid for departure worth 300 euros ($370)from the French state.
There are some 12 million Roma living in eastern Europe, particularly in Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Hungary.
(Reporting By Chine Labbe; Additional reporting and writing by Nicholas Vinocur; Editing by Andrew Osborn)