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Anti-Gypsyism in France: the shame of the Republic

2016-09-02

By Bernard Rorke

While the attention of the world media remains focused on the absurd and oppressive “Burkini ban” in France, a recent spike in hate crimes against Roma has gone virtually unnoticed. In three attacks within the last few weeks Roma have been firebombed, threatened and beaten at knifepoint in a toxic political climate where racism and xenophobia have become more pronounced. The response of law enforcement has been at best lax. The European Roma Rights Centre has been monitoring the situation of Roma in France for some years, and 2016 is looking decidedly grim.

On the night of the 15th and 16th of August, Roma living in the largest slum in Marseille came under attack by a gang who had earlier ordered the Roma to leave. When the gang returned in the evening they set the place ablaze with Molotov cocktails and other homemade bombs, injuring several people; seven Roma were hospitalised including a 14-year-old boy. A police investigation is underway and the authorities announced that measures had been taken to protect the inhabitants of the slum. They later admitted that these measures are limited to ‘instructions’ to increase police patrols in the area.

Also in Marseille four weeks earlier, a 13-year-old Romani boy sustained serious facial injuries when three men attacked him as he went to a fire hydrant to fetch water. The same day other members of the same Roma community filed a complaint after being threatened at knifepoint.

The third recent attack took place in Montreuil, Paris on the night of the 26th and 27th of August. Six men armed with knives threatened Romani families and assaulted children while police reportedly looked on without intervening. The families have been camped outside the city hall in protest since they were evicted at the beginning of August without any offer of alternative accommodation. But these three incidents are just the latest in a long list of racist attacks targeting Roma.

Earlier in June, a Socialist councillor who ran the office of the mayor of Denain was charged with ordering his employees to set fire to a local Roma-owned grocery store. That same month, a Roma slum was set on fire in Loos, just hours after a mass eviction. In May, shots were fired at a Travellers halting site in the municipality of Lattes.

On the morning of 13 April, the Mayor of Cogolin filmed an eviction of Roma and in his Facebook posting described their personal possessions as “stolen goods”, and added, “Fortunately for those watching (the video), you cannot smell the bad odour … which at 8:30 in the morning is quite something …”   

The European Roma Rights Centre has monitored anti-Roma hate crime, hate speech, forced evictions in France for some years. What is abundantly clear from the catalogue of brutality and institutional racism is that the Socialist Party in power since 2012 has proven to be every bit as nasty as its right wing predecessors.

On the issue of forced eviction it is profoundly dispiriting that the pattern, initiated by Sarkozy in 2010, of dawn raids and demolition of Roma camps followed by swift and summary “voluntary returns” to the countries of origin, was adopted with such enthusiasm by France’s governing left. It became clear very early on that the populist political imperative to get tough on immigration in general, and Roma immigrants in particular, took precedence over any deliberations about what might make for a sustainable and humane policy on managing the migration of the European Union’s most disenfranchised and impoverished citizens.

“Ðorđe Jovanović, ERRC President, stated “we have monitored the brutal rounds of forced evictions that take such a harsh toll on the lives of the most vulnerable; we have extensively researched the worsening conditions with regard to access to water and sanitation for Roma; and observed with growing alarm the spike in anti-Roma hate speech and hate crime. Recent events, including the disgraceful Burkini ban, are a profound source of shame for right-minded citizens of the Republic and an international embarrassment for a country that supposedly holds human rights in high regard. Once again, ERRC publicly calls on the French government and public authorities to comply with the Republic's international human rights commitments, call an immediate halt to forced evictions, and forcefully condemn the hate speech that has incited so much anti-Roma prejudice in recent times."

The extraordinary kerfuffle created by the authorities about Roma – the inflammatory rhetoric, punitive policy measures, and the deliberate infliction of hardship upon Roma through forced evictions and deportations – is by any standards extraordinary when one considers that in a country of 66.3 million inhabitants, the migrant Roma amount to no more than 20,000. Rather than invest in strategic Roma inclusion policies, France chose the repressive option.

Manuel Valls, during his stint as Interior Minister, proved to be even more enthusiastic about mass evictions than Sarkozy, and claimed to be acting “not just as interior minister, but as a citizen, as a militant member of the left.”

Famously in 2013 he declared "The majority [of Roma] should be delivered back to the borders. We are not here to welcome these people”; that Roma lifestyles were "clearly in confrontation" with French ways of life – they could never be integrated; and that “the majority should be delivered back to the borders. We are not here to welcome these people.”

Quickly consumed with the desire for a populist fix, he became blinded to the obvious: short-term coercive responses make no long-term sense; exclusion is costly and counter-productive. This lesson has yet to sink in, worse still this approach has become the ‘new normal’, and with it racist prejudice became the new mainstream. Two indelible images from 2014 spelt out the consequences of this new and very toxic ‘normal’.

The first was the atrocious photograph of the young 16-year-old Roma victim of a lynching, beaten to a pulp and dumped for dead in a supermarket trolley by a motorway in the Seine-Saint-Denis area near Paris. The second image was that of the injuries sustained by 89-year-old French Traveller, holocaust survivor and resistance fighter, Raymond Gûreme, after a 40-strong police raid in November. The police beat him with batons and used tear gas when they stormed his caravan without a warrant.

The French president François Hollande, described the attack on the 16-year-old boy as "unspeakable and unjustifiable … and against all the principles on which our republic is founded.” Hollande however failed to find words to condemn the behaviour of his police officers who brutalised Raymond Gûreme, a resistance veteran whose life story is an embodiment of the founding principles of the Republic. Two years later, too many mainstream politicians are still playing catch-up with the far right to show the public who can ‘get toughest’ on migrants, Muslim women, and Roma. 

For the country whose revolution is seen as the founding moment for modern politics, proclaimed ad nauseam as the country of Droits de l'Homme in the abstract, France is finding it increasingly difficult to respect the rights of actual individual men, women and children in the 21st Century. For significant elements of both left and right, it seems that prejudice against visible minorities, though not a founding principle, has certainly become a guiding principle of the Republic. 

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