Sarkozy party suspends mayor for Roma fire 'gag'

PARIS (AFP) - France's main opposition party on Thursday suspended a local mayor for joking that firemen had been called "too early" to put out a blaze in a Roma camp.

The local branch of the right-wing UMP party of former president Nicolas Sarkozy said it had sent a letter to Luc Jousse, the mayor of the Riviera town of Roquebrune-sur-Argens, informing him of the temporary suspension.

It said the party, which had come under pressure to sack the mayor, would take a final decision next Wednesday after a disciplinary hearing.

Mr Jousse created a stir when he was recorded describing Roma living in the area as a "nightmare" and complaining about local firemen being called nine times to their temporary settlement.

"You know what they do: they pinch electric cables then burn them to get the copper and then they set their own caravans alight," Mr Jousse is heard saying on the recording, made secretly and published by investigative news website Mediapart.

"It's a joke! What's almost a shame is that the rescue services were called too early!" Mr Jousse could also face criminal proceedings after rights group SOS Racisme said it would file a complaint.

The mayor defended his comments as a joke that had been taken out of context. "To say I wanted to burn Roma is simply shameful when it was me who sent the firemen nine times," he told AFP.

UMP party leader Jean-Francois Cope has so far been silent on the incident, which has led to criticism from political rivals, including from the far right National Front which hopes to unseat Jousse in municipal elections next year.

The mayor's outburst was the latest in a series of anti-Roma remarks from politicians in France which have heightened concern amongst rights groups over the current climate of hostility towards the ethnic group.

There are an estimated 20,000 Roma - mostly migrants from Bulgaria or Romania - living in temporary, often illegal, camps on the edges of French towns.

Interior Minister Manuel Valls drew criticism earlier this year for saying few of the Roma had any interest in settling in France and should return to their countries of origin.