Broken camp, broken lives, as vigilante justice makes itself felt on Roma

A brutal assault on a teenager near Paris has highlighted ethnic tensions in France. But one town hall is trying to break the racist mould

Within hours of 16-year-old Darius being snatched, beaten and left for dead in a supermarket trolley near a Paris motorway, his Roma family had disappeared.

All that was left of their improvised camp was the ubiquitous detritus of the impoverished: an old car tyre; an empty gas canister; a plastic bucket; threadbare clothes hung out to dry on piles of wood.

As Darius lay on a life support machine in a Paris hospital, the prospect of too many police asking too many questions prompted the dozens of Roma at Pierrefitte-sur-Seine to pack up their few belongings and scurry for another dark and squalid corner where they could hide in broad daylight.

Vigilante "justice" had been dispensed, life for some of the poorest people in European society went on. More than a week later no arrests have been made and nobody has visited Darius in hospital. There is little sympathy for the youth in the Cité des Poètes (Poets' Estate), a housing project at Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, where it was rumoured – and nothing more than rumoured – that he had been caught breaking into an apartment.

In the Seine-Saint-Denis department, known as "the 93" after its postcode, a collection of suburban communes riddled with unemployment and rundown tower blocks that make them a powder-keg for rioting and violence, the estate is home to the poorest of the poor. Here, where 35% exist on or below the poverty line, unemployment hovers around 33%, and one-third of the population was born outside France, violence is a fact of life and there is a feeling that Darius got what he deserved.

The suggestion that a youth who had nothing might have tried to thieve from those who have very little stirred particular resentment. "They are in the same shit as us, but they shamelessly steal everything they see," one resident told journalists.

Although the plight of France's estimated 20,000 Roma, at least half of whom are believed to live in Seine-Saint-Denis, elicits little public sympathy, the attack sparked shock and outrage. Some saw it as a natural extension of growing support for the far-right Front National, others a result of the stigmatisation of Roma that has become the white noise of France's political discourse. Human Rights Watch says the repeated expulsion of Roma from camps is "administrative harassment", while the European Union has warned France it could face sanctions over the treatment of its Roma community.

Last year prime minister Manuel Valls, then interior minister, earned a rap over the knuckles from the European commission after Valls suggested the majority should be deported and that France was "not here to welcome these populations". However, a poll taken by BVA for Le Parisien found that 77% of the French public agreed with Valls and 93% thought the Roma did not integrate well in France.

The Roma, also called Tsiganes (Gypsies), are believed by some to have originated in the Punjab region of northern India and come to Europe between the 8th and 10th centuries. They are Europe's largest ethnic minority, believed to number up to 12 million across the continent. However, in many places where they have settled they have been marginalised and abused. Most of the 20,000 who live in camps in France come from Romania and Bulgaria.

Although French politicians, including President François Hollande, denounced the attack on Darius, many of those who work with the Roma community say it stems from a "toxic" atmosphere of stigmatisation of the ethnic group in France.

Ramona Strachinaru, from the organisation Association Logement Jeunes 93, which helps Roma families and youngsters access housing, jobs and education, said: "People are happy about Europe opening up so that capital and money can move freely, so people can move freely. Then they are shocked and horrified because surprise, surprise, poverty also moves freely.

"This was an appalling and sickening attack that cannot be in any way excused. The Roma are the poorest of the poor and find themselves made scapegoats for everything.

"Whatever this Roma did or didn't do, and we don't know because he is innocent until proved guilty, there is a justice system and it's not acceptable for people to take matters into their own hands. It's like going back 100 years. We should be asking ourselves, what kind of a world do we live in, when this sort of disgusting thing happens? And we need to ask ourselves how our society works."

Strachinaru, who is Romanian-born, added: "If you see how they live here – and they have come to France for a better life – you can only imagine the despair and lack of hope. Really, I say to people, have some humanity."

The issue of whether Roma can integrate into French society – referred to by some politicians as the "Roma question" – was a central theme in the trial of a group of Roma in Paris last year accused of running what amounted to child slavery rings. Defence lawyers argued that it wasn't just poverty and discrimination that drove Roma to crime, but their traditions and "middle ages-style" customs. The defence tactic did not work and the gang leaders were jailed.

Aubervilliers in the Seine-Saint-Denis region is in what is known as Paris's "red belt", a swath of working-class suburbs that historically formed the heart of French communism and remain one of its last bastions in France. The town hall has a proactive policy of trying to move Roma out of squats and shanty towns into council homes and getting Roma children to go to school.

"The Roma issue is like a hot potato; everyone wants to push the problem elsewhere. What we are doing is a drop in the ocean, but we have to behave and act with a certain compassion," said Nassima Kleit, an assistant to the Communist mayor Pascal Beaudet. "It's difficult to sell this to the electorate, and it's expensive. It's a political risk, but our mayor and politicians have had the courage to take it because it's the right thing, the only thing, to do.

"The problem needs a national political solution. The Roma come from another European country and have a perfect right to be here and should have the right to live in as decent conditions as everyone else. We cannot solve this problem on our own."

While part of the wider problem of social and political attitudes to immigration in general, Roma are certainly a very visible social problem in the French capital. If the families with babies and young children sleeping in the bus shelters of the city's symbolic squares, including Place de la République and Place de la Bastille, come rain, bitter cold or shine, generate some public sympathy, the perception of other groups is less positive.

It is illegal to compile data on the basis of ethnicity in France, so there is no evidence that the gangs of children who swarm around tourists to filch money, valuables and wallets, or pick pockets in the Métro, are in fact Roma. Because the word "Roma" has become synonymous with petty criminal and delinquent, the public perception is that they are.

"Of course, we can't put a gloss on this and say there's no criminals among the Roma, and of course we need to change cultural attitudes that see Roma parents sending their children out to beg or steal; but we can only do that by educating them and getting them out of these shanty towns into places where they can live with dignity," says Kleit. "Besides, what do they do if they have no jobs, so no money for food, and no chance of getting any?"

Kleit says this has created a rare consensus, including among other groups such as immigrant African and Maghreb communities that are stigmatised, that everything is always "the Roma's fault … The crimes are not exclusive to Roma, but they are almost exclusively blamed on Roma."

Or, as the postcard on the wall in the town hall put it succinctly: "Tous les Chemins du Racisme mènent aux Roms" (All racist roads lead to Roma).

Damian Draghici, a Roma member of the European parliament and a senator in the Romanian parliament in Bucharest, blamed the "hate speeches of the likes of Marine Le Pen, the Front National and even Nigel Farage" for creating fear and discrimination. "The police must track down the individuals who carried out this attack and punish them, and European countries have to show more solidarity against this type of extremism otherwise, God forbid, we may see even worse in the future," Draghici said.

He added: "I have no idea why Roma are so stigmatised wherever they go. We are human beings like anyone else; we need to sleep, eat, work and live ... Is that really so much to ask?"


Kim Willsher in Paris

The GuardianTramp

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