France cracks down on Roma migrants

Hundreds are evicted from illegal camps as President Sarkozy vows to shut such sites, alleging they are centers of trafficking and prostitution. Some see ethnic bias.

By Devorah Lauter, Special to the Los Angeles Times
August 13, 2010

Reporting from Pantin, France —

To survive, her grandparents ate grains of corn they picked out of horse excrement.

"It was real misery, not like now," said Ellena, who calls herself a Gypsy but prefers Roma because, she adds with a smile showing two gold-capped teeth, the name "demands respect."

Her grandparents traveled through Germany and Russia, escaping Nazi death camps. And before that, their ancestors suffered persecution in neighboring European countries.

Now Ellena, 26, who withheld her last name because she does not have a French residency permit, lives in a camp about a 40-minute Metro ride northeast of the Eiffel Tower in a low hut built out of scavenged scraps of wood and fabric.

The Roma are Europeans believed to be of Indian ancestry. For centuries they have lived nomadically, migrating throughout Europe, fleeing discrimination and poverty. The majority come from — and still live in — Bulgaria and Romania.

Most of the squatters in the camp here are from Romania. Work for the undocumented migrant in France is scarce, and begging only brings in about $5, a day. Yet life here is better, mainly because there is enough work to feed the family, they say.

But subsistence living in France has just become more difficult for Roma migrants. Ellena's settlement received an eviction notice July 31, after President Nicolas Sarkozy called illegal migrant camps "sources of illicit trafficking, profoundly disgraceful living conditions, exploitation of children for the means of begging, prostitution or crime."

He promised to dismantle by the end of October half of the country's illegal camps, which he estimated at 300, and he said Roma who "disturbed the peace" would be deported to Bulgaria or Romania, where, presumably, they have citizenship.

About 400,000 Roma have French citizenship and are referred to by the French as itinerant migrants, or "traveling people." Non-French Roma number as many as 15,000. French law requires that large communities provide campgrounds for migrants, but fewer than half of those communities actually abide by the law, forcing many into illegal settlements, including those now slated for demolition.

Though Romania and Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007, their citizens are subject to special provisions in France, which require them to apply for residency or work permits or risk having to leave after a three-month deadline.

About 80 Roma families without residency permits, including about 50 mostly illiterate children, camp with Ellena on an abandoned lot in Pantin. Their homes line a cobblestone road on a garbage-strewn patch of land owned by France's railroad system. The town hall provided toilets and recently cleared up a heaping pile of garbage at the entrance to the settlement.

For a week after the July 31 expulsion notice, "we had to wake up at dawn, with our bags packed, and are in stress when we sleep. It's hard to find a new place, and material for our homes," said Ellena, who has two young sons. "We have had enough."

On Thursday, about 60 Roma, including 20 children, all from Romania, were evicted from a 4-month-old camp under a major highway in Choisy-le-Roi, a suburb south of Paris.

Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux announced Thursday that, in the last two weeks, the government had "proceeded toward the dismantling of more than 40 Roma camps." He said 700 people among those evicted should be flown "back to their country of origin" by the end of August.

The intent is to show that "there is no future for Roma in an undocumented situation" without residency permits, Police Chief Pierre Soubelet told reporters in the central Loire region after the expulsion of 135 Roma on Aug. 6.

Associations in support of Roma migrants say expulsions only displace populations to other shantytowns.

Unlike her grandparents, who were forced to continually migrate, Ellena said she and other Roma are not nomadic. "We want our kids to go to school, and we have some work here. We have everything here, and nothing in Romania."

Ellena, who speaks four languages, dresses in what she calls a King Kong costume and entertains tourists at the Eiffel Tower every day. She brings home about $5 to $12 a day to feed her 6- and 3-year-old sons. The youngest has an illness that leaves him weak and barely able to move.

Some people in the Pantin camp occasionally get in trouble with the police for fights or petty theft, Ellena acknowledged.

"But we are not all like that," she said. "There are people who like Gypsies, and keep them really close in their heart, and others don't like us at all, and they think we are thieves who don't want to work.

"So we are marginalized for that," Ellena said. "But that is a big error."

Sarkozy condemned the camps after skirmishes between police officers and Roma migrants last month.

His government is also proposing a new law that would make it difficult for expelled Roma to return to France, which is a common practice because, as citizens of EU member states, Roma can technically travel freely here.

Critics have slammed the government for "stigmatizing" an ethnic group. They've also linked the crackdown against the Roma with another hard-line presidential proposal that French citizenship be stripped from "every person of foreign origin" caught attacking a public official or police officer.

"French nationality must be merited, and one must be able to show themselves worthy," Sarkozy said in Grenoble at the end of July, after shots were fired at police during riots there.

Sarkozy's proposals have shocked the moderate and liberal political elite.

"The first article of the Constitution says that France ensures equality under law for all its citizens, regardless of origin," said Robert Badinter, a former Socialist Party minister. "Regimes that suddenly lean toward the origins of its citizens … we've seen that throughout history."

But this month, a poll showed a large majority of the French, including left-leaning ones, support their government's attempt to stiffen punishment against non-native criminals.

Under French law now, only rare cases — such as terrorism, acts of war or espionage — can lead to the loss of naturalized citizenship. Since Sarkozy's latest proposals, however, the French interior minister has demanded that citizenship also be stripped from those immigrants who are found guilty of polygamy or advocating female genital excision.

In the United States, naturalized citizenship can be lost usually only in extreme cases, such as conviction for Nazi war crimes or the acquisition of citizenship by fraud, according to the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute think tank.

The stripping of naturalized citizenship is "used very rarely to target a specific individual," said Demetrios Papademetriou, chairman of the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on Migration.

Legal experts note that Sarkozy's proposals would mean foreign-born French citizens risk greater punishment than French natives for the same crimes.

"The risk is obvious," Papademetriou said. "You are basically marginalizing an entire class." ... 4395.story