ERRC accuses France of rights violations, criminalisation and segregation of Travellers in new collective complaint

19 September 2023

By Bernard Rorke

In a new collective complaint to the European Committee of Social Rights (ECSR) against France, the ERRC and eight French NGOs assert that expedited procedures for the imposition of fixed fines on Travellers in France for "illegal halting in order to set up a home even temporarily" is blatantly discriminatory, further criminalises Travellers, and constitutes a violation of their fundamental human rights. 

This expedited procedure is discriminatory in specifically targeting a minority group, and repressive in allowing no room for discretion, and taking no account of individual circumstances. 

It also ignores the complete failure of national and local authorities since 2000, to provide adequate facilities for accommodation of Travellers, as stipulated in the Besson Act. Under this act, French districts with a population of 5000 or more are required to equip sites for Travellers with a minimum of one toilet and two showers per every five caravans, to assess the needs of Travellers in the areas of education, and social and economic assistance and implement programs as necessary, as well as to provide access to housing to Travellers wishing to stay in one area. 

Twenty-three years on, the French opt instead for more coercion. The collective complaint describes this fixed fine for illegal halting, which represents a further assault on the nomadic way of life, as “completing the legislative arsenal that contributes to the systemic discrimination of Travellers”. 

ECSR 2010: ‘Travellers have been victims of unjustified violence’ 

This new complaint to the European Committee of Social Rights (ECSR) follows on from an earlier ERRC submission, when France was condemned by the ECSR for its failure to provide effective access to housing for Travellers. In this case, the Committee found that France had violated the Revised Charter because eight years after the introduction of the Besson Law, only a minority of relevant municipalities had implemented it, leaving a shortage of halting spaces for Travellers in the country. 

The Committee also noted that many of the stopping sites did not meet the statutory requirements regarding regarding sanitation and access to water and electricity: 

The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights observes that in some cases, sites are created outside urban areas or near to facilities which are major sources of nuisance (such as electrical transformers or very busy roads), making them difficult – if not dangerous – to use, particularly for families with young children.”

The Commissioner also observed that evictions are a particularly problematic issue, plunging families into a climate of fear, and often “involve brutal methods, tear gas and the destruction of personal property”. Following some evictions, the National Commission for Police Ethics (CNDS) has found that unjustified and disproportionate acts of violence were committed. The ECSR found that Travellers “have been victims of unjustified violence during these expulsions.”

In its conclusions, the Committee stated that France had not only failed to take account “failed to adopt a coordinated approach to promoting effective access to housing for persons who live or risk living in a situation of social exclusion” 

Gendarme: “There’s a new law, and President Macron has said that there should be fines".

One Traveller whose testimony is included in the submission, explained how gendarmes came one day to the parking lot where their caravans had been pitched for six years to move them on and impose fines. The gendarmes ignored the fact that the owners had given the Travellers verbal permission to be there in return for them keeping the area clean and tidying up truckers’ litter and waste. When they objected, the gendarmes threatened not just to fine two people, but to fine everybody including the children, and stated “There’s a new law, and President Macron has said that there should be fines".

The Travellers had no option but to move to an approved halting site, where he described the conditions as ‘indecent’
There is no heating in the showers. The electrical outlets don't work. There are rats as big as my little dog. But we don't have a choice because if we move out of this field, we get fined. In the area there are not enough places for Travellers. For example, there is a transit site in a town nearby Fougères, but it is never open because it is always flooded. So maybe on paper everything is OK, but in reality, nothing is OK. 

Above all, we are told ‘why don't you go to such and such a town? You're Travellers, you just have to move!’ My children go to school here … My wife is under medical care here. We've been in the area for over thirty years. We are from this town and we want to stay here.”

Macron deliberately targets Travellers, and “saves a lot of time for many people”

Fixed fines, initially reserved for traffic offences, were created by a 2016 law to modernise justice in the 21st century, which put in place an exceptional procedure Amende Forfaitaire Délictuelle (AFD). That the AFD implemented since 19 October 2021 specifically reinforcing criminal sanctions against Travellers, was made clear by the President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, during his closing speech at the Beauvau Security Conference on 14 September 2021, where he declared that 

"We will save a lot of time for many people, we will lighten the procedure, but we will also make it possible to respond to unacceptable situations on the ground by having the same approach, by means of lump-sum criminal fines for the illegal occupation of land by Travellers." 

Compounding the racist targeting of Travellers, the complaint maintains that this procedure will affect the most vulnerable:  those who cannot find authorized land to settle on, who cannot buy land or who cannot access the so-called ‘reception areas’ on account of the prohibitive tariffs. Repeated fines and direct seizures of their assets, will consequently lead to further impoverishment and criminalisation. To avoid prison or poverty, those who cannot find a place on authorised land, will be forced to settle. 

These people will see their financial situation deteriorate as a result of fines to be paid and direct seizures on their bank accounts. The consequences will be the criminalization and massive impoverishment of the traveling population. To avoid bankruptcy or imprisonment, the only solution for those who cannot find authorized land will be to stop traveling. This procedure constitutes a direct attack on Travellers’ nomadic way of life, can only serve to increase hostility and oppression against an already stigmatised minority, and as such, is rotten to its core. 


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