Written for Minority Rights Group International
As the 17-year-old Roma youth known only as Darius recovers from a vicious gang assault that shined a spotlight on France's forced eviction policy last month, I spoke with Roma rights activists, a Romanian MEP and the Vice President of the nation's far-left party Front National, Louis Aliot, to get to the heart of the debate.
Louis Aliot, Front National (FN): 'There's no hatred!'
As much as Marine le Pen's husband has deplored the June attack on Darius, he refuses to recognise the incident as a hate crime. 'There's no hatred!' insisted Mr Aliot, 'There's only respect for the laws of the Republic and for public order.' According to reports, Darius' armed attackers beat up and burned his body before dissolving parts of his jaw with battery acid and dumping his body in a supermarket trolley. The teenager, a suspected thief, emerged from his coma last Wednesday.
Instead, Aliot claims that the incident flagged up a failure of the Hollande government to seize control of its own borders; 'We want to regain our sovereignty which has been stolen from the French people by the technocracy in Brussels,' insisted Mr. Aliot. The FN maintains that the loosening of EU migration requirements and withdrawal from the Schengen agreement is the only solution to the marginalisation of Roma in France. This would enable forced evictions to be followed by permanent deportations. But do we have to rid ourselves of Roma, I ask? Wouldn't a policy of social insertion be more effective?
'Integration is impossible in a country like France which is plagued by debt, the budget deficit, the crisis and mass unemployment!' argues Aliot. And supposing it were economically possible? 'I don't think [Roma] even ask themselves this question,' dismissed the politician, 'They go wherever they think is socially the best and where they can reap the most benefits without any special requirements.'
Draghici: 'The Front National are morally responsible'
'This is completely stupid,' reacts Ligue de Droits de l'Homme (LDH) activist and board member of the European Association for the Defence of Human rights (AEDH), Philippe Goossens, to Mr. Aliot's assertion that the Roma have no desire to integrate. 'It is based on a misunderstanding of the situation. People living in slums are trying to integrate, they want better lives and a future for their children. But when you put people in a precarious situation, it is difficult.'
For the Romanian Member of the European Parliament, Damian Draghici, it is exactly Aliot's attitude of dehumanisation that provokes hate speech and violence against the Roma. 'The irresponsible speech that these politicians are disseminating is in profound contradiction with the European spirit, and it undermines the project of a united European Union, where freedom of movement is one of its fundamental principles,' he claims. 'The idea that Roma do not want to be integrated is a prejudice that it is not statistically sustained. A vast majority of Roma that have emigrated to other countries looking for a better life, are active citizens, that do honest work and contribute to the development of the communities to which they belong.'
Goossens: 'Eviction has costs'
And besides, adds Goossens, it is not just integration and social support that costs the state money. 'Eviction has costs - both social and financial.' Since the beginning of this year, over 7,500 Roma have already been subject to forced eviction, while last year saw the eviction of 20,000 Roma, according to the Goossens. Erika Bodor, a European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) activist, shed light on the social costs; 'Families are forced to sleep in the streets, often lose belongings or important documents and this is extremely detrimental to the psychological well-being of children.'
The ERRC supports Goossens' claim that Roma seek social inclusion. According to Ms. Bodor, 59 per cent of 118 respondents stated that finding a job was their top priority, and 47 per cent said it was housing. A massive 39 per cent also said they came to France because they had family living there. It seems, therefore, that while Roma certainly desire to 'reap the... benefits' of a relatively stable European democracy, as Aliot claims, they also want to play a functional role in that democracy.
Goossens says that the policy of eviction - judged as illegal by the French High Commission for the Housing of Disadvantaged People (HCLPD) - needs to be accompanied by a programme of re-housing and social support; 'We need to work with these people for six months to one year to make sure they are stable.' Currently, he claims, only 10 per cent of evicted Roma are provided with any alternative housing solution. For Goossens, kicking them out onto the streets of France causes them to resort to crime, exacerbating an atmosphere of racial discrimination in the neighbourhoods in which Roma take shelter.
Bodor: 'The goal is to not have slums'
Without a programme of re-housing and social support, Roma generally find themselves in the poorest neighbourhoods of France, which suffer from high levels of unemployment and so are inevitably hostile to newcomers. 'In Marseille there is a strong division between the north and south parts of the city,' says Ms. Bodor. 'Roma settlements tend to be in the north, which is the poorest area of the city.'
The result of eviction, therefore, seems to be a stark and inescapable division between French citizens living in homes and Roma living in slums. This class division results in discrimination in all tiers of public life. Political authorities often block access to education for migrant Roma children living in slums in France,' claims Ms. Bodor. 'Our research showed that only 47 per cent of respondents said that their children attend school.' This figure is in spite of French law which states that education is obligatory for all children, French or foreign, from age six to 16. The majority of Roma parents whose children were not in school reported that they had been told by school authorities that there were no spaces available.
For Bodor and the ERRC, therefore, the source of discrimination against the Roma is their geographical marginalisation from the rest of society. 'The goal is not to have slums in France and to assure that these EU citizens live in dignity and safety, with the opportunity to build a life for themselves and their children.'
Mile: 'They share the same social needs'
'Integration is impossible' - a phrase recited by Louis Aliot, the rest of the FN, interior minister Manuel Valls and the conservative UMP party - perpetuates a cycle of anti-Roma feeling in France. Head of La Voix des Rroms, an online portal for Roma people in France, Saimir Mile, pointed out that '[Roma] settle in France for the same reasons as non-Roma people, with whom they share the same social needs.' They are simply in search of a better life, free from the social discrimination they faced in their home countries.
The European Convention of Human Rights, to which France is party, demands that they have the right to work, to be housed and to be educated. Damian Draghici insists that the answer lies in cooperation across Europe, rather the continued expulsion of the Roma from place to place. 'What is needed is a unified strategy that should start with the principle that Roma are a European minority, for whose social inclusion European policies are needed, as well as a common effort of all the European political decision makers.' For him, and other Roma rights activists, the French government's failure is not, as Mr. Aliot claims, their incompetency to shut off France's borders, but rather it is their refusal to accommodate those who venture across.
Photos (from top):
Roma communities protest in Paris. Credit: Philippe Le Royer/CC
President of the Front National Marine Le Pen speaks at a press conference in April 2012. Credit: Remi Noyon/CC
A Roma family in Val de Marne. Credit: Service photo, photothèque du Conseil Général du Val-de-Marne/CC
Roma communities are forced to live in slums like these in Lyon. Credit: Nicholas Nova/CC
Roma communities protest in Paris. Credit: Philippe Le Royer/CC