Roma raids intensify in France as Socialists seek ways to end 'PR disaster'
France's new Socialist government is to hold emergency talks on the plight of the country's Roma after a wave of evictions of makeshift camps prompted accusations that François Hollande was following Nicolas Sarkozy's lead in persecuting the ethnic minority.
Human rights groups expressed outrage at a recent dawn raids and forced evacuations of caravan sites and squats across France. The police raids left hundreds of Roma, including many children, homeless after caravans were impounded and no arrangements for temporary housing were made. Others were persuaded to board flights home to Romania, activists in Lyon reported.
The raids have reopened a bitter row over Roma in France. In 2010, Sarkozy prompted criticism from the European Commission and the Vatican when he linked immigration to crime and promised to expel Roma migrants and destroy illegal camps. More than 70% of illegal Roma encampments were bulldozed and families were offered a financial incentive to leave the country. Sarkozy's government was accused of discrimination in expelling Roma Gypsies to Bulgaria and Romania. Critics alluded to uncomfortable memories of deportations during the second world war. Many of the Roma simply returned to France, but, with old camps destroyed, they ended up living in deeper poverty and worse conditions than ever, amid a climate of fear and intimidation towards them.
Hollande had promised during his election campaign that any dismantling of camps would be coupled with the promise of "alternative solutions". But this has not happened with the recent evictions.
Behind a railway siding in Hellemmes, northern Lille, five extended Roma families and their children huddled under tarpaulins on a patch of land near an abandoned building. Flies circled piles of waste, mothers complained of rats and the stench of human excrement rose from a hole in the ground as well as faeces on grass near the edge of the camp.
"We were evicted from our camp two weeks ago, police knocked on my caravan door one morning and told me to leave," said Anita Proda, 27, whose five-year-old son was born in France had been due to start school in September. "They took my caravan, I grabbed a bag of belongings, but had to leave most behind. We've got no water here, we can't wash the children."
Most of the evicted Roma had put a few possessions in shopping trolleys and traipsed to this spot where a makeshift camp of six caravans already existed. They are now living in cramped, donated tents surrounded by rubbish and a burned-out car. Local volunteers had been bringing jerry-cans of water .
"These people are being hunted," said Yann Lafolie of Atelier Solidaire, which had run literacy and education projects and built wooden cabins in the long-standing camp which police dismantled earlier this month. "Our voluntary work used to be about integration, now we're trying to handle a humanitarian crisis. This Socialist president was elected for change but there is no change here."
In the centre of Lille a further 16 evicted families were sheltering temporarily in tents beside a church, where a local priest had said that suddenly seeing boys on bikes carrying jerry-cans of water was like "being in Burkina Faso".
Outside Lille, in Roubaix – known as the poorest town in France – Roma at a makeshift camp in what was once a supermarket car park were nervous, fearing they would soon be evicted too. Families, including a 23-year-old mother of four suffering from cancer, lived in decrepit caravans which leaked in winter, without electricity or proper water supply, although the authorities offer rubblish collection and portable toilets.
"There's a growing anger, a feeling of powerlessness: you can't force people out and leave them without the least sanitary conditions," said Bernadette Defais, a local nursing assistant, and volunteer for a local charity La Solidarite.
On a street nearby, Ramona Ripa, 22, a Roma mother of four from Romania, showed off her spotlessly scrubbed kitchen in a once abandoned terraced house. She and others now await a court ruling on whether they would be evicted from empty houses owned by the local authority which they had squatted for months, with the help of the French charity and activists group, Droit au Logement (Right to Housing). "We just want to settle in one place; put our children in school and work," Ripa said.
Philippe Deltombe, from Droit au Logement, said: "By evicting these people, the government is not addressing the Roma issue, it's just shifting it on to the next location."
Images of the dismantled camps and comparisons to Sarkozy's Roma-crackdown have been a PR disaster for Hollande. Measures under consideration in Wednesday's emergency government talks include the possible lifting of working restrictions for Bulgarian and Romanian nationals in an effort to provide legal status for around 15,000 Roma from those two EU countries currently living in France.
Manuel Valls, the Socialist party's tough-talking interior minister, said his government's approach to the Roma question had "nothing in common" with the Sarkozy era, arguing that "unsanitary camps" were "unacceptable" and "a challenge to community life" in poor neighbourhoods. Officials said police had just been honouring orders made by the courts. But there has been friction within government after the Green party housing minister, Cecile Duflot, said "dismantling Roma camps without solutions is putting people in an even more precarious situation".
A recent poll showed 80% approved of dismantling the illegal camps, but 73% thought it was not an effective measure as it merely "displaced" the problem.