A Roma camp near Aubervilliers, France, the site of a small, hidden settlement
of about a dozen huts. The roofs are covered with plastic tarps and the walls
are made of bulk refuse and cardboard boxes. If the sun were a little brighter
and the temperatures a little higher, this could easily be a scene from Nairobi,
Kabul or the slums of Soweto.
By Ullrich Fichtner in Paris
Everybody hates Roma. That, at least, is what French President Nicolas Sarkozy is banking on with his policy aimed at deporting them to southeastern Europe. But the Roma themselves are used to being pariahs, and are struggling to get by despite the intensity of the current French campaign.
Only 500 meters, as the crow flies, from the Stade de France, France’s national stadium, where the A86 motorway slices through the northern Paris suburbs, in a patchwork of industrial zones and dilapidated vacant lots, there is a door that opens directly into the Third World. A derelict old building in Aubervilliers, not far from the Avenue du Président Roosevelt, serves as the portal into a small, hidden settlement of about a dozen huts lining both sides of a dark, narrow passageway. The roofs are covered with plastic tarps and the walls are made of bulk refuse and cardboard boxes. If the sun were a little brighter and the late summer temperatures a little higher, this could easily be a scene from Nairobi, Kabul or the slums of Soweto. But this setting is France, once known as the birthplace of human rights.
Rodica and Cerasela live here, as do Gianni, Claudia, Benon, little Maria and many others. The settlement is home to between 30 and 40 people, including children, infants, adults and the elderly. The small camp is kept tidy, with laundry hanging outside to dry, but the interiors are squalid and sparsely furnished. There is no electricity and no running water. Every few days, friendly people in the neighborhood allow Rodica, Cerasela, Gianni and the others to fill a few canisters with water from their faucets, a small but important blessing.
Earning a Living with Scrap Metal and Trash
Gianni, an alert man, is married to Claudia, the most attractive woman in the community, tall, slim and elegant as a princess. Gianni, who once lived in Germany’s Oberpfalz region, knows the city of Regensburg well, although he was as unwelcome there as he has been everyplace else. Despite the fact that he was eventually deported, he worships Germany and praises it for its well-known virtues of cleanliness and order. “You have Internet access,” he says in relatively fluent German. “Perhaps you could search for a minibus for me, a Ford Transit. I’d pay up to €500 ($640).”
But it’s actually the suburbs of Paris, France, a country once known as the
birthplace of human rights. However, President Nicolas Sarkozy has instituted
aggressive policies against the Roma population living there. This summer,
he asked the interior minister to “put an end to the wild squatting and
camping of the Roma.”
Like everyone in this small community, Gianni earns a living with scrap metal and garbage. It is lunchtime, and a pot of sweetened coffee and chicken are cooking on the grill. The men bum cigarettes, smoke and peel pieces of copper cable while the food is being prepared. Peeled copper cable sells for more than unpeeled cable. A short, beefy man named Vali, who has built the best hut out of an assortment of construction debris, is standing next to the grill, where he has spent the last few hours taking apart a car engine with hammers, screwdrivers and crowbars.
A kilo of scrap iron fetches 20 to 30 cents, a kilo of copper goes for four or five euros, and brass is also a good seller — as long as they can find a scrap dealer willing to do business with the Roma. It’s becoming more difficult in France at the moment. The traveling people, or “gens du voyage,” as the Roma from Romania, Bulgaria and elsewhere are known in France, are suddenly finding themselves on the wrong side of the French government, more so than at any other time since World War II.
A Struggle to Find Buyers
After lunch, Gianni says: “I’m going to work. You want to come along?” A panel van outside his hut, borrowed from a compatriot, is loaded with scrap metal, pieces of cars and bundles of cable. A friend of Gianni who is also sitting in the van has been trying to unload a nylon bag full of copper wire for weeks. The van bumps along through the suburbs, a semi-industrial landscape of factories, derelict buildings, sports facilities and streets lined with row houses.
Sarkozy said promised that half of the 539 illegal Roma camps in his country would
be cleared within three months. Before the demolition crews arrive, the
residents are driven out by canine squads. Then the police units arrive,
together with teams wearing white overalls and facemasks, suggesting
a need for disinfection.
Gianni is driving to Boulevard Félix Faure, where scrap heaps, glittering piles of metal separated by type — aluminum or iron parts, for example — rise up behind windowless warehouses.
The Boulevard is constantly clogged with suppliers and heavily loaded dump trucks lined up in front of the gates of the scrap yards. The drivers shout obscenities from their windows whenever Gianni tries to maneuver his van into one of the lines.
“No problem. I know another one, farther back,” he says. But he doesn’t stand a chance there either. The other drivers close ranks and drive him away with gestures. Gianni drives to the next gate and then to the next one after that. He is unable to find the dealer who had bought his scrap a week earlier, and paid him in cash without asking too many questions. Gianni will not sell anything on this Tuesday — and not on Wednesday or Thursday, either.
The scrap dealers on Boulevard Félix Faure are now asking for a French ID card, which Gianni doesn’t have. All he has is a worthless foreigners’ ID card from Spain, a piece of paper from Portugal and a temporary Romanian passport. The fact that he, as a Romanian, has been a citizen of the European Union since 2007 is also irrelevant. “The people look at my face and see a gypsy,” he says. And gypsies are not the kinds of people with whom the French are eager to be doing business with these days.
Sarkozy: ‘Put an End to the Wild Squatting and Camping’
More specifically, the new attitudes toward the Roma in France began on July 30, when President Nicolas Sarkozy decided that it was time to make life even more difficult for the ethnic group. On that Friday, Sarkozy gave a 33-minute speech in the Grenoble Prefecture, and after that the Republic was a changed place — or, as Sarkozy’s sharpest critics said afterwards, the Republic ceased to exist. Sarkozy hadn’t come to Grenoble to talk about a major pension reform that will make things very difficult for the president and his administration this autumn, or about Labor Minister Eric Woerth’s involvement in a scandal surrounding the fabulous wealth of L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt. Instead, he had come to Grenoble, which had been plagued by nighttime riots and an incident in the village of Saint-Aignan near Blois, where a mob of angry Roma had attacked a police station, to talk about his favorite subject: security. In doing so, Sarkozy was essentially launching the 2012 election campaign.
Eighteen-year-old Bianca (left) was born in Berlin. Bianca’s
family were discovered near Paris by researchers investigating
the flora and fauna of the area. They found what they were
looking for, but also many Roma families living on the margins
In his Grenoble speech, the president raged against every manner of gangster and thug, against drug dealers and hoodlums in the low-income suburbs of major cities, and declared a “national war” on crime. Instead of trying to bring calm to the situation, he said: “Anyone who shoots at a police officer is no longer worthy of being a Frenchman.” He called for 30-year prison terms for attacks on civil servants, and jail sentences for parents whose children are involved in crimes. He announced his intention to deprive criminals who are “French citizens of foreign origin” of their French citizenship. Finally, turning his attention to the Roma, Sarkozy said that he had asked the interior minister to “put an end to the wild squatting and camping of the Roma.” As president, he said, could not accept the fact that there were 539 illegal Roma camps in his country, and he promised that half of them would be gone within three months.
It was a short but hefty blow. And it was unexpected, because France has repeatedly deported the Roma for years. Almost 10,000 were ejected last year, and 8,500 in the year before that. Between the beginning of 2010 and Sarkozy’s July speech, 24 charter flights loaded with Roma had already been flown to Romania and Bulgaria. According to the official account, the Roma were leaving the country voluntarily, because they had been pressured into signing a piece of paper and had been given €300 ($389) in compensation. Although Sarkozy was only ratcheting up the country’s existing Roma policy in his Grenoble speech, its tone revealed a dramatic sharpening of the rhetoric. To a German, Sarkozy’s move would be comparable to President Christian Wulff giving a major speech on questions of public security, only to pepper his rhetoric with a few pointed references to criminal Turks, ethnic Germans from Russia, Jews and “gypsies.”
Contrary to the popular notion that they steal, are bothersome and defraud people,
the Roma and gens du voyage in France work hard to make ends meet.
They beg, scrounge and sell scrap metal to get by.
It Might Be Called ‘Ethnic Cleansing’ in Less Prestigious Countries
The consequences of Sarkozy’s inflammatory speech are now in full view almost daily. In fact, what is happening in France today would most likely be referred to as “ethnic cleansing” in less prestigious countries. Crews are showing up in shantytowns with bulldozers and backhoes, destroying the roofs of shacks or demolishing them completely. Before the demolition crews arrive, the residents are driven out by canine squads, often provided by private security firms. Then the police units arrive, together with teams wearing white overalls and facemasks, suggesting a need for disinfection.
Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux was quick to report results. Only two weeks after Sarkozy’s speech, Hortefeux announced that 40 camps had already been cleared. A few days later, the number had risen to 51, and by August 22 the authorities had eliminated 88 Roma camps. Now the government has taken to releasing counts representing the corresponding numbers of foreigners in those camps, a practice that hasn’t been used in France since the 1940s, resulting in official statements to the effect that 700 Romanians were “evacuated” from one location, 160 Bulgarians from another and 130 Roma from yet another camp.
‘Trampling on the Basic Right of Equality’
Addressing the eviction raids, a delegate to the National Assembly used the term rafles, a word that in France had been reserved for raids against the Jews during World War II until then. The Greens sharply criticized the policy as a case of “state racism,” the Socialists called it a “summer of shame,” and Edwy Plenel, editor-in-chief of the influential French newspaper Le Monde for many years, condemned the president as an enemy of the constitution who was trampling on the basic right to equality to which all citizens are entitled by law, “irrespective of their origins.”
Pingouin is the son of two gens du voyage, loosely translated as traveling people. The gens du voyage severed their ties with the Roma centuries ago. They have been naturalized French citizens for some time, Frenchmen whose most salient quality is that
they prefer living in trailers instead of houses. There are an estimated 300,000
gens du voyage in France. They, too, are hassled by the government.
Three former prime ministers have distanced themselves from Sarkozy’s new hard line and both EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding and the European Council have reprimanded France. Pope Benedict XVI voiced his criticism of the policy from his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, and the United Nations Human Rights Council expressed its concern over what it called “political speeches of a discriminatory nature” and “widespread racial discrimination” in France. Finally, French priest Pere Arthur Hervet, an old man in the northern city of Lille, caused an uproar when he publicly prayed “that Monsieur Sarkozy has a heart attack.”
Without downplaying the tragic nature of the new policy, the incidents also amount to an enormous farce. Individual members of the Roma, people like Rodica, Gianni, Cerasela and Benon, have no interest in politics, and they no longer pay attention when the public debate centers on them. Indeed, they already take it for granted that they are unwanted, wherever they turn up in Europe — and they are constantly trying to make the best of their miserable situation. In May, they felt that it would be a good idea for Rodica and few others from the community to return to Romania “voluntarily” to collect the €300 in “humanitarian repatriation aid.” After accounting for the cost of returning to France from Romania, perhaps €60 or €70, plus a few other expenses, they figured that they stood to turn a profit of about €200 apiece and be back in France within a week or two.
Many of the persecuted Roma are taking the same approach. The supposed repatriations, publicized by the government with much fanfare, are completely ineffective. For years, the estimated number of Roma in France has remained stable at about 15,000, even though 8,000 to 10,000 are repatriated each year. They leave and then they return, participants in a cat-and-mouse game the government cannot possibly win.
Modern Migrants in a Globalized World?
As EU citizens, no one can refuse these Romanians and Bulgarians entry into France, where they are entitled stay for three months without any red tape. After that, the charade of forced “voluntary returns” begins, but even that is merely a claim. In any given case, it is almost impossible for the police to determine how long the Roma have already been in the country. Besides, many illegal squatters avoid government scrutiny by hiding whenever they learn of an imminent raid, changing locations, moving south or disappearing into the forests. Some would even describe the Roma as extremely flexible migrant workers, or as modern migrants in a globalized world. But those kinds of definitions don’t win elections. For a politician, the more successful approach is to brand them as troublemakers, perpetrators of welfare fraud and thieves.
Rodica, Gianni, Claudia and the others don’t steal, are not particularly bothersome and don’t defraud anyone. They beg, scrounge and sell scrap metal, and in doing so they have, in a sense, found their niche. They live on the crumbs that fall from the tables of an affluent society. They spend half their days driving through the Paris suburbs, searching for usable waste, and anyone who observes them as they make their rounds quickly realizes that they work hard to make ends meet. They remove the things that people no longer want, the television sets, ironing boards and window frames left on the sidewalks. They dig around in garbage cans for electronic scrap or a few pieces of bread, and they go to the street markets at the end of the day to gather crushed vegetables and leftover fruit, and to take meat that is past its sell-by date off the hands of Arab butchers.
The Romanian squatters in Aubervilliers aren’t the only ones living this life. There are hundreds — no one knows exactly how many — of similar camps and villages in the areas surrounding Paris. When a team of researchers set out to investigate the plant and animal life on 21 large pieces of vacant land in the Paris banlieues, they often encountered people who had settled on the urban steppes, in communities that include both longer-term residents and recent arrivals. Wherever they looked, the scientists working on the “Wasteland” project — who had set out to spend the six months from March to August classifying ribwort plantain, common ragwort, peacock and brimstone butterflies — ran into homeless people, half-crazed urban Indians, scattered sub-Saharan Africans and Roma families. They also got to know Rodica, Gianni, Claudia, Benon and the others in Aubervilliers.
The researchers found another extended Roma family at one of the other sites in Aubervilliers, which they had dubbed “Wasteland 5.” The first room on the ground floor of the abandoned house where the family has settled looks like an ornate hair salon, with Christmas tree balls hanging from the ceiling. The housewife’s name is Elena, and her husband, a large man named Ioca, sits dead still in a chair, like some tragic prince. They have been living here for many years, and because the youngest son was born in France 13 years ago, they named him Napoleon. “One of the cats is also named Napoleon,” says Elena. “It’s a good name, isn’t it?”
Her 18-year-old daughter Bianca, born in Berlin’s Mitte district, is a fleshy, attractive woman who flashes gold teeth when she smiles. Bianca’s grandmother walks on crutches cobbled together out of table legs. One of her feet was shattered in an accident in the Berlin subway, and she asks whether we can look into the possibility of her receiving disability benefits in Germany. Finally Ioca, the head of the family, mumbles a few words. Someone brings in an old manual typewriter, which he promptly offers to sell. His son Napoleon, who is as overweight as he is, translates for Ioca.
Napoleon, who attended a French school for a few years, is a cheerful boy who explores nature in the surrounding wasteland and plays ball with the dogs. School is set to begin in a few days, but Napoleon says that he won’t be going back. When asked why now, he responds: “Because the black boys are always beating me up.” The mother says that Sarkozy, “the Hungarian,” has gone mad. She longs for the return of Chirac or Mitterand. Asked why they have been tolerated in this house for so many years, Elena says that they reached a deal of sorts with the local government. She and her family ensure that no other Roma settle on the vacant site. They are the guardians of a property that they themselves are occupying illegally. It’s a confusing world, here in the Paris banlieues.
French Citizens also Feel Assaulted by New Policy
The situation is just as confusing in the city of Stains, on another vacant lot, wedged between a massive bus depot for the Paris transport authority, a metal factory and a railroad embankment, against a backdrop of a bleak low-income housing development. A group of gens du voyage, loosely translated as “traveling people,” have set up camp here. These people, who severed their ties with the Roma centuries ago, could have roots in Germany. But now they have been naturalized French citizens for some time, Frenchmen whose most salient quality is that they prefer living in trailers instead of houses. There are an estimated 300,000 gens du voyage in France, and despite the fact that they are French citizens, they too are hassled by the government and feel assaulted by Sarkozy’s tough new policy.
‘Why Don’t They Just Leave Us Alone?’
Claudio, Francisco and their son Pingouin live in one of the trailers. They also have a daughter, who isn’t home at the moment. “Sarko is a racist,” says Claudia. “What else can you say?” She is sweeping out the trailer, complete with chicken feathers from one of Pingouin’s pets, a hen. He also has a pig. Francisco works with scrap metal, using an axe and his bare hands to take apart entire cars because the electric motor isn’t powerful enough. The drone of aircraft engines from planes taking off and landing at nearby Le Bourget Airport fills the air above the lot where the group’s 10 or 12 trailers are parked.
Claudia has an aunt who sings bittersweet songs about life on the road. In one of her new chansons, she pays homage to the culture of the gens du voyage. Claudia plays the song on a CD player, listening pensively as she leans on her broom and smokes a cigarette. One of the lines in the song reads: “Les maisons sont des prisons” (“houses are prisons”). Is she concerned about eviction? “Of course,” says Claudia. “I mean, we’re not worried about it here, because the city has given us the site. But others in our community, people who don’t get along with their mayor, who knows? Why don’t they just leave us alone?”
The constitutional state in France is in disarray over the question of what to do with traveling people, whether they are Roma or French, as everything becomes arbitrary. In the end, it is left up to local mayors to decide how to cope with itinerant groups. There are laws designed to address the problem, but often enough they are ignored. According to one law, any community with more than 5,000 residents must provide a parking lot, complete with electricity and running water, as well as sanitary facilities.
In Grenoble, Sarkozy claimed that there are 60,000 of these legal sites in France, but representatives of the Roma say that there are in fact only 6,000, and that half of them are in violation of the requirements. Communities determined to keep out itinerant groups have an easy job of it. Either they do nothing, or they assign the travelers to lots adjacent to landfills, sewage treatment plans or other inhospitable places where no one would want to spend the night.
Where the First and Third World Meet
There are, however, communities that make every effort to enable the marginalized minority to live in conditions fit for human beings. There are model projects to integrate the Roma in Aubervilliers and elsewhere, where they are given decent lots and steps are taken to ensure that the children attend school regularly. In the end, though, Roma arriving in France or itinerant Frenchmen often have no idea what sort of situation they can expect to encounter. And whether the welcome is friendly or hostile, there is no question that equality, one of the three proud pillars of French democracy, is not on the table.
Sometimes members of the Third World and the First World come into direct contact without taking much notice of each other. In Bondy, a group of about 100 Bulgarians has set up camp along a canal behind a Peugeot plant and across the street from a metal factory. To reach the camp, except by boat, one has to climb fences and squeeze through holes in walls. There are joggers along the canal, businessmen, civil servants and secretaries out for a morning run before heading off to work in nearby Paris. The Bulgarians, sitting in front of their shacks like vacationers on a campsite, watch the French doing their morning exercises. But the idyll won’t last.
One of the men, who is missing his front teeth and is wearing a tank top with the word “Australia” printed on it, tells his wife to bring out a piece of paper he was told to sign the last time the authorities were here. It’s an official document with an attractive letterhead, a notice from the prefect. It states that the undersigned has decided to return home voluntarily, that he is therefore entitled to €300 in humanitarian aid, and that he is to appear in Terminal 2B at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Roissy at 10 a.m. on Sept. 17.
The man in the tank top smokes Philip Morris cigarettes, and the walls of his hut are lined with large posters of bare-breasted blondes. He turns the document around in his hand and makes a disparaging face. Aside from Bulgarian, he speaks a little German, a few words of Italian and is relatively proficient in Russian, which a neighbor who speaks French translates. He says that he will certainly not be at the airport at 10 a.m. on Sept. 17. But what if the camp is torn down? “Then we’ll build a new one someplace else. It wouldn’t be the first time.”
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.
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