The French Roma File 1997-2005: The shame of the Republic (part 1)

28 April 2015

By Bernard Rorke

In the mid-nineteenth century in his Histoire de France, Jules Michelet wrote that France is “the moral ideal of the world” and ruminated that “no doubt every great nation represents an idea important to the human race. But great God! How much more true this is of France.” France’s long cherished self-image as the source of enlightenment, a republic where history is glorious and reason reigns supreme, has taken something of a thrashing since 2010, not least due to the publicity generated by its treatment of Roma.

The image of the Republic was further tarnished this year by the refusal of the mayor of the Paris suburb of Champlan to allow for the burial of a three-month-old Romani infant in the municipal cemetery; revelations about the brutal police beating of Raymond Guerre, a French Traveller, Holocaust survivor and resistance fighter; and most recently the approval of plans to run a separate bus service for Roma in Montpellier, because of “their unbearable smell.” 

While the world’s media came to focus its attention on France in the wake of then President Sarkozy’s declared intent in 2010 to raze Roma camps to the ground and deport Roma en masse back to Romania and Bulgaria, there is a long record of maltreatment of Roma and Travellers in France that predates the Sarkozy excesses and is too often overlooked. By way of a reminder, this perusal of the ERRC archives from 1997-2005 provides a short and sharply inglorious slice of recent French history.

From the archive

On 15 March 1997, about 300 Roma rioted in the city of Nantes, barricaded a bridge, burnt tyres and disrupted traffic in protests following the funerals of two Romani men shot dead by gendarmes. The gendarmerie affirmed that the officer who had opened fire “had acted in legitimate self-defense."

Amnesty International reported on 7 November 1997 on the reopening of a case of fatal shooting of an 8-year-old Romani boy by police in Southern France two years earlier. The boy was shot by police as he slept in the back of the second car in a convoy of four cars and two trailers containing 43 Roma, when it approached a police roadblock in a mountain pass at 3:30 a.m.

The group was from Novi Pazar, a town in the Muslim region of Sandjak, Serbia. They were apparently hoping to secure political asylum. Apart from the boy’s immediate family the rest of the convoy was expelled immediately without any being questioned as witnesses. Almost two years later, the French Council of State annulled the expulsion order and declared it illegal.

In August 1995, the Magistrates Union condemned the French Minister of Justice, Jacques Toubon for stating on French television that the officer had acted correctly, despite the fact that a police inquiry had established misuse of firearms and a judicial inquiry was pending.

Agence France Presse reported on 12 August 1998 that Mayor Claude Balland of Tonnoy, a town in northeastern France, ordered a one-metre deep ditch to be dug around a Romani camp. The site for travellers in Tonnoy was established in the early 1980s, and every year hundreds of Roma stop there on their way to attend an evangelical religious assembly. The RomNews Network reported that while Mayor Balland and a section of the population described the situation as ‘unbearable’, other citizens were so shocked with the trench that they immediately filled up a part of it.

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in a press release on 23 March 2000, expressed concern about negative images of Roma in the mass media, and recommended that France ensure the effective prohibition of actions that were discriminatory on grounds of race, ethnic or national origin.

On the 27 June 2000, the Council of Europe's European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) released a report on racism, xenophobia and related intolerance in France. The report expressed concerns about the considerable part of France's Romani population which is not permanently sedentary: "Although a 1990 law imposes on municipalities with a population of over 5,000 that they provide a place where travellers can stop, implementation of this law is reported to be unsatisfactory, inter alia because many municipalities have not provided such spaces or because the spaces provided are not suitable. This results in Roma/Gypsies settling in areas from which they are often expelled. The denial of travellers' right to stop also has important repercussions on their employment and education opportunities. ECRI urges the French authorities to address these questions."

About forty mayors from the region of northeastern France near the village of Chambley threatened to protest against an evangelical gathering of tens of thousands of Roma on the weekend of 20-21 August 2000. The Roma "are citizens like me but they do not respect the same laws," Jean Libotte, mayor of Chambley stated. France's Movement Against Racism and For Friendship Between Peoples (MRAP) condemned the mayors' attitude as racist.

On 3 October 2000, the NGO Union Socio-Educative Tzigane d'Aquitaine (USETA) based in the southwest of France reported increasing obstacles preventing Roma, Sinti or Traveller children from attending school during the academic school-year 1999/2000: the children were refused either in pre-school, elementary or secondary schools for various reasons: lack of places, lack of teaching materials, no certificate of schooling to evaluate the academic level of the children. In one school, the pedagogical team fixed an arbitrary quota on the number of Romani children allowed in school "to prevent conflict situations." Roma Mediators provided authorities with the relevant provisions of French law, as well as Articles 28 and 29 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, but could make little headway with the schools.

On 29 August 2002, a new law (LOPSI) entered into force with two recommendations specifically aimed at Travellers/ Gens du Voyage. The law recommends the use of Regional Intervention Groups (RIGs) to combat violence and delinquency, illegal trafficking and the underground economy. Specifically, the law stated that RIGs will "combat offences committed by Travellers that exhibit characteristics that justify the intervention of several administrations, specifically fiscal." Further, the law recommended financial sanctions and the confiscation of vehicles parked illegally on both private and public property to alleviate "difficulties linked to hosting Travellers and also for the better protection of every person's property […]."

According to Le Monde the amendments followed statements by Nicolas Sarkozy, Minister of the Interior, who asked publicly, "How is it that in certain camps there are beautiful cars when very few of these people work?" The article then stated that on 12 July 2002, a parliamentary commission was proposed to deal with Travellers. On 23 October 2002, Le Monde reported that Sarkozy presented a project targeting Travellers to the French Council of Ministers, which would set a fine of €3,750, allow for six months imprisonment or the confiscation of vehicles and the suspension of driving licenses, where vehicles have been illegally parked.

The newspaper Le Parisien reported that on the morning of 6 November 2002, the Seine-et-Marne Prefect cut the water and electrical supply in a settlement inhabited by Romanian Roma in the town of Lieusaint. The Roma had reportedly been living on government property for several years without permission. Following pressure protests by community leaders supplies were restored.

On 7 November 2002, French police raided a settlement of Bulgarian Roma, located in an airport hangar in Bordeaux in southwestern France. According to the Bulgarian daily newspaper Standard, around one hundred and fifty Bulgarians had been living in the hangar, without water, electricity or heating. There were reportedly no toilets in the settlement and inhabitants were reported to have been sleeping on the ground, as well as outside. The Standard reported that one week later 115 Roma were deported to Bulgaria.

According to the Le Monde of 6 December 2002, following the evacuation of squatters and a shantytown in the towns of Choisy-le-Roi and Rungis, near Paris, 44 Romanian Roma were brought in by French police for questioning and served with expulsion orders.  

Several Roma organizations in France, including La Voix des Rroms, accused the television station "5" of incitement to racial hatred due to the program "Delinquency: The Road of the Roms" which aired on 11 February 2005. The show consistently linked Roma with prostitution, organized crime and child labour. According to La Voix des Rroms, Mr. Laulan, from the Institute of Geopolitics, stated on the program that Romani children could be integrated into society only if removed from their family environments, and that he could see no solution for the adults. A policeman was also quoted accusing Roma of abducting children from poorer countries to be used for begging purposes.

In written comments to the UNCERD concerning Roma in France on 21 February 2005, the ERRC warned that “the situation of Gypsies, Travellers and Romani migrants in France has attained crisis proportions” … where the a combination of laws, policies and practices is applied to “drive Gypsies and Travellers from municipality to municipality”, and for police to constantly harass Romani migrants, who find themselves subject to expulsion en masse from France. The impact has been to dramatically inflame racial hatred against Roma and damage possibilities for social inclusion with full dignity. The ERRC was not aware of a single case in which a legal person was convicted for discrimination against a Traveller or Rom.

The ERRC testified that abusive police raids are a regular feature of life for French Travellers and Roma. Police characteristically arrive in large numbers, wearing combat gear, are frequently violently abusive and “systematically target all of the occupants of a given site rather than just the individual suspect.”

CERD, in its concluding remarks on 11 March 2005, recommended that France step up its efforts to provide Travellers with properly equipped halting sites located in clean environments; intensify its efforts in education, health provision and employment to combat exclusion. Among the many recommendations France was urged to take the necessary preventive measures to halt racist incidents involving members of the security forces; to ensure that impartial investigations are carried out into all these complaints; and to impose punishments that are proportionate to the gravity of the acts committed.

ERRC published its report Always Somewhere Else: Anti-Gypsyism in France on 28 November 2005. While the indivisible Republic proclaims equality before the law for all citizens without distinction, the report found that “Gypsies and Travellers experience a reality driven by racism that has resulted in them being treated as sub-citizens, subject to racial discrimination, rejection, repression and assimilation.”

On the issue of hate speech the report cited the contribution of Dominique Leclerc, Senator from the Department of Indre-et-Loire to discussions in the French Senate, who described the Travellers “as the plague of tomorrow”, bearing “extraordinary pathologies” and stated “They are anti-social people who have no respect for private property, no references, and for whom the words we use have no meaning.”

A complaint lodged against the Prefect for “public defamation directed against an individual” by Michel Débart a Traveller, was dismissed in court on 10 February 2004, on the grounds that the words in question did not target Débart as an individual, but Travellers as a whole, thus not constituting the act alleged by the complainant. Another complaint accused the Prefect of “public defamation against a group of persons on the grounds of their origin or their belonging or non-belonging to an ethnicity, nation or race.” On 21 January 2005, this complaint was rejected by the Court of Appeal of Paris on procedural grounds, due to the supposedly imprecise nature of the complaint.

A municipal counselor from the Department of Seine-et-Marne told the ERRC:

“Here, it is the Travellers who are the scapegoats. I could not have imagined the base level of many local officials before becoming a municipal counselor.” He quoted one mayor as saying “It is not halting areas that we need, it is prisons that need to be built.” The mayor in question boasted that he systematically refused to enroll Traveller children in the town schools, and that he rented fallow land to private individuals to be able to expel Travellers who halted in the municipality more easily. The counselor also described how officials act in a covert fashion actually creating local citizens’ associations that then carry out a variety of actions to protest against the creation of halting areas and the presence of Travellers and Gypsies in their town.

The report found that those targeted by repressive and discriminatory measures were in the large majority not foreigners but French nationals. And that French policymakers were particularly creative in finding ways to single out Roma, Travellers and Gypsies for negative treatment without being explicitly racist. Laws and policies are not openly aimed at an ethnic or cultural group, but instead at a “way of life.”

Law enforcement officials were less reticent about their racism during raids, and Travellers reported that police officers would often taunted them by saying, “It is too bad Hitler did not finish his work.” Mr M.C. described one such raid to the ERRC: 

“They took out their guns and threatened us with tear-gas. They saw my five-month-old son sleeping in the crib. One of the police officers asked his female colleague to come and said ‘It is at that age that you have to put a bullet through them’ and laughed … the police escorted us until we were outside of the municipality. They followed us to be sure that we left.”

The halting areas that the ERRC visited did not meet basic standards of decency. On 5 May 2004 the ERRC met a group of families on an official halting area “Saint Menet” in Marseille. The halting area was in a flood zone, in a state of acute disrepair, and registered as high-risk, located between two chemical factories, train tracks and a freeway:

“There were heaps of garbage around the entrance to the sanitary block with showers and toilets. The showers were all closed, and there were swastikas on the building. Of the five toilets, two did not work and in one a strong stream of water sprayed out at whomever had the misfortune of flushing … Families pay €35 a week per mobile home to halt at the site. The halting area appears somewhat reminiscent of a detention camp, with a two-storey concrete building with bars on the windows and cameras on the roof. Several Travellers told the ERRC that the former manager used to patrol the site with big dogs.”

The French authorities, in response to the criticisms contained in the ECRI report of 2005 and ERRC submissions - specific allegations of human rights abuses in the 21st Century - cited Article 1 of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, “as a reference for many peoples fighting for their freedom throughout the 19th century and the primary source of inspiration for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” In response to detailed allegations of hate speech, ethnic profiling, systemic discrimination and exclusion they declared, without the slightest hint of irony that:

“The French Republican structure is founded on a social pact which transcends all differences and to which every individual can willingly adhere, whatever his or her biological characteristics or personal convictions. It follows that the legal concept of “minority” does not exist in French law … any approach that attempts to introduce quotas or recognize communities within society in defiance of the principle that all persons are equal before the law is unambiguously rejected.”


Challenge discrimination, promote equality


Receive our public announcements Receive our Roma Rights Journal


The latest Roma Rights news and content online

join us

Find out how you can join or support our activities