On the Parisian street outside my flat two teenage girls were being violently held by a group of men. The girls were biting, writhing, desperately trying to free themselves from the arms that held their heads, waists and ankles. One of the women watching the struggle contemptuously informed me that they were "tziganes" (or Roma travellers) who had just been caught stealing from the clothes shop next door. As a passerby called the police, the girls began crying hysterically and one fainted as more men came forward to restrain them.
When Nicholas Sarkozy announced the closure of 300 traveller camps in France in July last year it proved one of his most controversial legislations to date. The repatriation programme concerned France's Romanian and Bulgarian Roma travellers only, provoking accusations of racism from the European Commission and the Vatican. There are continuing fears that the race-specific expulsion is encouraging an 'us versus them' mentality in France and as those two shoplifters were discovering, the traveller population is often fiercely mistrusted by French society.
Despite an attempted intervention by the European Union, the French government's deportation efforts are continuing the Roma people's history of displacement and movement across Europe. For the first time, a number of newly published reports have exposed the French government's treatment of the travellers. In the last few weeks both the humanitarian aid organisation Médecins du Monde (Doctors of the World) and the Council of Europe have published reports stating that the state's treatment of the Romani people in France is currently a breach of international human rights. The French government has tried to claim that the Roma people left France "voluntarily" but the Council's report has found that this refuses to explain "discriminatory" expulsions "made under duress".
MDM's annual survey of healthcare found perhaps more disturbing injustices. In France Families are steadily being sent back to their countries of origin via the northern coast of France at Calais and Dunkirk and the report found that police forces actively hinder the intervention of humanitarian workers, at times destroying the aid materials delivered to protect against bad weather and the cold. The MDM found the repatriation programs pose a significant risk to national French health, with the deportations interrupting courses of vaccinations during a period of European health epidemics. Appeals have been made for an investigation into the French government by the European Committee of Social Rights.
With the Presidential elections drawing ever nearer, Sarkozy may start to distance himself from this highly charged political issue. Brice Hortefeux, his then Interior Minister, in 2010, attempted to do so in 2010 by repealing the controversial circular that directed police to evict the Roma camps first. Accusations of ethnic discrimination have dogged the repatriation policy ever since, however, and it looks as if Sarkozy's government will soon have to justify its treatment of the Romani population to the Council of Europe's other 46 member states.
Despite the government's determined efforts, MDM have found that the French Romani population is actually remaining constant, at about 15,000. Although thousands of travellers are leaving the state each year, the majority are simply returning - illegally. The conditions in their home countries of Bulgaria and Romania remain even worse than in the French camps, despite the best efforts of certain police officers and where they no longer have access to water or electricity. The far right party the National Front has inevitably responded by calling for harsher deportation policies. What is clear, however, is that Sarkozy's repatriation policy is not working.
Although Brice Hortefeux failed to justify his statement that one in five Parisian crimes were perpetrated by the Romas, criminality is undoubtedly higher among the traveller population, living as they do illegally and without the protection of the state. As I and most people living in Paris have experienced, these tensions regularly manifest in daily life. A reverend in Lyon was recently heralded by the left leaning French press for offering asylum to local Romani families following their expulsion from the local encampment at the beginning of September. Mathieu Thouvenot has organised monthly concerts to encourage his parishioners to discover the "rich and ancient culture" of the Romani people. The reverend's efforts have been welcomed by the local population, but his is a rare attempt to reconcile the French with their Romani neighbours.
The question of the Romani people in France remains a highly charged issue, be it played out on the streets of Paris or in the chambers of the Assemblée Nationale. What will soon be realised by both is that Sarkozy's deportation of the Romani population may well be breaking international human rights laws, even as it fails to reach its political aim. The Romani travellers are returning to France, to live in the inhumane conditions the French government offers them, but returning nonetheless.