BRUSSELS — The European Union decided Wednesday to take legal action against France over its expulsions of Gypsies, or Roma, to poorer EU nations but said it lacked proof that Paris acted in a discriminatory way.
The EU decision gives France more time to defend its expulsions of more than 1,000 illegal Roma immigrants, mostly to Romania, and its demolition of hundreds of Roma camps in recent weeks.
France's government cheered that part of the decision, and claimed victory in its standoff with the EU's head office over expelling of one of Europe's poorest minorities.
"The European Commission today has decided to open infringement procedures against France," EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said in an interview with The Associated Press. She said the procedures will focus on France's perceived failure to apply EU rules of free movement of citizens across the 27-nation bloc. That could eventually lead to France being sent to court.
In its formal action against France, the Commission said Paris must come up by Oct. 15 with a transitional plan to align itself with EU rules on the free movement of citizens or face further action.
But the commission stopped short of ruling on whether France was being discriminatory. "On the discrimination aspect, we do not have the ... legal proof," Reding said.
The decision came two weeks after Reding linked the expulsions to the mass deportations of World War II. France deported thousands of Jews to Nazi death camps and interned thousands of French Gypsies during the war.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy called her remarks "disgusting," setting up a high-profile clash with the European Union leadership.
The Commission decision Wednesday "was far from a snub, it was the opposite," French Immigration Minister Eric Besson told lawmakers in Paris. "The Commission took note that there was no discrimination."
"We should all be happy," he said. "France is emerging with its head high from its exchange with the Commission. It's good news for everyone."
It certainly avoided the direct clash between Brussels and Paris some had feared.
The commission "went for a safer option, a less confrontational option, but it's still in fact very confrontational," said Piotr Maciej Kaczynski, a research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies.
"It's almost personal between the commission and President Sarkozy," he said.
Malik Salemkour, vice president of France's Human Rights League, which is a member of an umbrella advocacy group for Roma called Romeurope, said he was only partly satisfied with the decision.
French activists continue to petition the Commission with testimonies and statistics to show that France is discriminating against a minority community, that "all those who are being expelled are Roma, and all those who are being evicted from shantytowns are Roma," he said.
Some 10 million to 12 million Roma live in Europe according to EU estimates, and they face wide discrimination in housing, jobs and education across the continent. As EU citizens, they have a right to travel to France, but must get papers to work or live there in the long term.
Sarkozy has defended the expulsions, saying they are part of an overall crackdown on illegal immigrants and crime. The government also says most of the Roma are leaving voluntarily, with a small stipend from France. Most are being sent to Romania.
Critics say France is unfairly targeting an ethnic minority and lumping together entire communities instead of handling the expulsions on a case-by-case basis.
As many as 15,000 Roma live in France, according to the advocacy group Romeurope. French authorities have no official estimate.
Associated Press Writers Angela Doland and Angela Charlton contributed to this report from Paris.