Roma crackdown in France

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In France, the crackdown against gypsy or Roma people continues. Police have been raiding Roma camps and deporting hundreds of people. Human rights groups and some European officials question the legality of the crackdown. But the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy isn't backing down. The World's Gerry Hadden reports from St. Denis, just north of Paris.

MARCO WERMAN: In France, the crackdown against gypsy ? or Roma ? people continues. Police have been raiding Roma camps and deporting hundreds of people. Human rights groups and some European officials question the legality of the crackdown. But the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy isn't backing down. The World's Gerry Hadden reports from St. Denis, just north of Paris.

GERRY HADDEN: In the shadow of France's national soccer stadium, some 40 Roma families erect shelters with scrap would and tar paper in a vacant lot. They're in a hurry. There are children here and soon it will be cold. For ten years, says a Roma man named Ion Zaharia, he and hundreds of other Roma lived in a vast makeshift slum under a nearby bridge. Then this July the police moved in.

ION ZAHARIA: [SPEAKING ROMA]

HADDEN: He says the cops came early one morning, forcing us from our homes, even pushing old ladies into the street with their batons. Zaharia says he and several families hid in nearby woods for several days, until local politicians offered them this small urban lot as a temporary solution. The raid in question predates President Sarkozy's crackdown. Zaharia says the Roma here fear the police will return.

Over the last several weeks the Sarkozy government has closed some one hundred Roma camps, and deported nearly a thousand Roma to Romania and Bulgaria, their countries of origin. The government offers two rationale: One, that many Roma haven't found jobs; and two, that they constitute a threat to public security. French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux announced this week that petty crime around Paris is way up. That includes panhandling, and he largely blames the Roma.

BRICE HORTEFEUX: [Speaking French]

TRANSLATOR: We are no longer able to turn a blind eye on the reality that any French citizen can identify. When he or she sees men, women and children begging in horrendous conditions ? you know what I'm talking about.

HADDEN: Sarkozy's conservative government is getting support for its Roma crackdown from far right parties across Europe. For example, in Hungary, the far right Jobbik party is now calling for special internment camps for Roma there. The trend, says researcher and Roma expert Lanna Hollo, is worrying.

LANNA HOLLO: It's a dangerous populist use of stereotypes that stigmatize a group of people based on their ethnic origin. I mean, this reminds people of pre-World War II days, where you conceived of Roma and gypsies as a problem, and as a security and a criminal problem.

HADDEN: Many Roma are choosing to come out of the shadows and fight the crackdown. In Bordeaux recently, mostly French Roma blocked a major bridge to protest the camp raids. And tomorrow in cities across France, Roma will march in massive numbers. Organizers say it will be the largest collective Roma action in European history. The Roma are buoyed in part by the European Union. EU officials have condemned France's Roma expulsions. They say French police are violating a law against singling out a particular ethnic group for action. It also says the French must investigate each Roma individually, on a case by case basis, before deciding whether to deport.

In the northern Paris suburb of Aubervilliers, local authorities are trying to provide an alternative. They run an experimental project known as Integration Village. It's a cluster of neat little yellow houses about the size of shipping containers, with a community center and small outdoor square. In 2007 Aubervilliers selected a dozen families to live here. The idea was to get at least some Roma out of their camps, and give them a taste of mainstream life. They get help finding jobs, help with school for their kids. And they pay only about 70 dollars a month in rent. Roma resident Bodika Comer says he's found work as a gardener.

BODIKA COMER: [SPEAKING FRENCH]

HADDEN: ?It's very nice here,? he says. ?My wife has also found work. Everyone's working.? And virtually all of the kids are in school. But there is one thing about Integration Village that rubs many Roma the wrong way. The security. No one gets in our out of this enclave without a pat-down by the ever-present guards stationed at the entrance. After 10 p.m., it's no visitors at all.

Back at the temporary Roma camp under construction in Saint Denis, an elderly man named Marcel Zaharia says he'd rather be in this abandoned lot and free, than under constant guard in a nicer house.

MARCEL ZAHARIA: [SPEAKING ROMA]

HADDEN: He says, ?We swung by Integration Village one night because we wanted to have coffee with our brother, who lives inside. But the guard at the door wouldn't even let him come out to see us, not even to talk to us outside on the street. They're locked down under curfew. That's not right,? he says. ?Freedom of movement is part of Roma culture.? Then he stands and begins to shovel rubble from one small corner of the lot. ?This is where my house will be,? he says.

For The World, I'm Gerry Hadden in Saint Denis, France.

WERMAN: You can see Gerry's pictures of the Roma people he spoke with in his report, at theworld.org.