Daniel Mihailescu  /  AFP - Getty Images
A Romanian Roma woman wearing a T-shirt reading "Stinky Gypsy!" collects envelopes containing soap during a protest in front of the offices of Romanian President Traian Basescu in Bucharest on Monday.
updated 5/21/2007 7:28:20 PM ET 2007-05-21T23:28:20

Romanian President Traian Basescu apologized Monday for calling a journalist a "stinky Gypsy" during a conversation recorded on the reporter's cell phone and broadcast on local television.

Basescu was approached by the journalist, Andreea Pana, in a Bucharest supermarket on Saturday, when Romanians were voting on whether to impeach him for alleged constitutional abuses. Basescu overwhelmingly won the vote.

Pana tried to ask him about the ballot and filmed him with a cell phone. Irritated, Basescu snatched the phone from her, but it continued to record a conversation between Basescu and his wife, Maria, in which the president called Pana a "stinky Gypsy."

A Basescu spokesman later returned the phone to the journalist, and audio portions of the clip were broadcast on Romanian TV stations.

The president issued an apology, saying the remarks were caused by stress.

Basescu "regrets that an improper expression used in a private conversation ... became public," his office said. "He asks her to accept his sincere apology."

Basescu easily won the referendum, with more than 74 percent of Romanians backing him. Parliament had suspended the president and called the referendum, saying he violated the constitution by usurping the role of the prime minister and criticizing the courts.

The Constitutional Court had ruled that the president did not abuse his powers, but lawmakers were allowed to make their own decision.

On Monday, about 20 Gypsy and press freedom activists protested at the president's office, some wearing T-shirts reading "Stinky Gypsy." They left a bar of soap and a CD with Gypsy music.

"Not only does the president have a duty not to discriminate ... but he is obliged by the constitution to have a proactive role in fighting all forms of discrimination," the protesters said in a letter.

Gypsies in Romania are routinely discriminated against when applying for jobs, and many of them live in abject poverty.

There are officially some 500,000 Roma, or Gypsies, in Romania, but polls have put the actual figure at more than 1 million. Many do not declare themselves to be Gypsies due to widespread prejudice.

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