Hollande urged to act as France's Roma row splits govt

President Francois Hollande came under mounting pressure to rein in his squabbling ministers on Monday as a row over the treatment of France's Roma population rumbled on.

Against a background of opposition claims that the Socialist-Green coalition is in disarray, Hollande side-stepped the controversy triggered by Interior Minister Manuel Valls's claim that most Roma in France will never integrate and should be sent back to their countries of origin.

Pressed to comment during a visit to a tidal wave power project in Normandy, Hollande replied: "Not here, soon."

The evasive response appeared unlikely to stem a wave of scathing criticism from even usually supportive media. The left-wing daily Liberation on Monday carried a headline describing Hollande as "a boss in name only".

Valls, who has also championed a controversial policy of dismantling illegal Roma encampments and deporting their residents, has been publicly criticised by three cabinet colleagues. The row has strained relations between Hollande's Socialist Party and their junior governing partners, the Greens.

The opposition has been quick to pounce on an episode they say has once again exposed Hollande's tendency to dither when confronted with difficult decisions.

"A government where you have some ministers organising attacks on other ministers cannot last," said Francois Bayrou, the leader of the centrist MoDem party.

"Coherence has to be re-established and that is the responsibility of the president and the prime minister."

The sniping at Valls from the Greens and the left of his own party continued unabated on Monday with Green Senator Esther Benbassa branding his attitudes on the Roma as "quite simply unacceptable."

She added: "These (Valls's) comments recall the darkest hours of our history. There is no such thing as a people who cannot be assimilated, only countries who do not make them welcome."

Housing minister Cecile Duflot, the most senior Green in the government, has accused Valls of betraying France's core values and urged Hollande to call the outspoken interior minister to order. Valls has denounced that claim as "unacceptable."

Delphine Batho, a Socialist former minister who was sacked by Hollande in July for criticising government spending cuts, accused the president of double standards.

"I was pushed out the door supposedly as a show of authority, but there hasn't been much of that on show in other cases," Batho said.

Valls meanwhile was basking in the glow of evidence that his stance on the Roma issue has bolstered his status as the most popular minister in Hollande's government.

A poll published at the weekend revealed that more than three in four (77 percent) voters believe he was right to say Roma migrants should be "delivered back to the border".

The minister was in unrepentant mood during a round of interviews on Sunday, in which he highlighted figures indicating that a disproportionate amount of petty crime in Paris is committed by minors who are nationals of Romania, from where the majority of recent Roma arrivals in France originate.

The extent to which the issue has gripped the country was reflected in the high-profile coverage given to a court case opening on Monday in which 27 members of three Roma families are accused of forcing children to carry out robberies and, in certain cases, people trafficking.

Defence lawyers have warned the current political atmosphere in France will make it impossible for their clients to get a fair trial.

"I hope there will not be a judicial stigmatisation as there is currently a political stigmatisation," said Alain Behr, a lawyer for one of the defendants.

Earlier this month, a magistrate in the southern city of Toulouse sparked outrage during his summing up of a case in which he told four defendants: "Don't you think France has had enough of Roma stealing?"