Driving out the Unwanted: Sarkozy's War Against the Roma
Everybody hates Roma. That, at least, is what French President Nicolas Sarkozy is banking on with his policy aimed at deporting them to southeastern Europe. But the Roma themselves are used to being pariahs, and are struggling to get by despite the intensity of the current French campaign.
Only 500 meters, as the crow flies, from the Stade de France, France's national stadium, where the A86 motorway slices through the northern Paris suburbs, in a patchwork of industrial zones and dilapidated vacant lots, there is a door that opens directly into the Third World. A derelict old building in Aubervilliers, not far from the Avenue du Président Roosevelt, serves as the portal into a small, hidden settlement of about a dozen huts lining both sides of a dark, narrow passageway. The roofs are covered with plastic tarps and the walls are made of bulk refuse and cardboard boxes. If the sun were a little brighter and the late summer temperatures a little higher, this could easily be a scene from Nairobi, Kabul or the slums of Soweto. But this setting is France, once known as the birthplace of human rights.
Rodica and Cerasela live here, as do Gianni, Claudia, Benon, little Maria and many others. The settlement is home to between 30 and 40 people, including children, infants, adults and the elderly. The small camp is kept tidy, with laundry hanging outside to dry, but the interiors are squalid and sparsely furnished. There is no electricity and no running water. Every few days, friendly people in the neighborhood allow Rodica, Cerasela, Gianni and the others to fill a few canisters with water from their faucets, a small but important blessing.
Earning a Living with Scrap Metal and Trash
Gianni, an alert man, is married to Claudia, the most attractive woman in the community, tall, slim and elegant as a princess. Gianni, who once lived in Germany's Oberpfalz region, knows the city of Regensburg well, although he was as unwelcome there as he has been everyplace else. Despite the fact that he was eventually deported, he worships Germany and praises it for its well-known virtues of cleanliness and order. "You have Internet access," he says in relatively fluent German. "Perhaps you could search for a minibus for me, a Ford Transit. I'd pay up to 500 ($640)."
Like everyone in this small community, Gianni earns a living with scrap metal and garbage. It is lunchtime, and a pot of sweetened coffee and chicken are cooking on the grill. The men bum cigarettes, smoke and peel pieces of copper cable while the food is being prepared. Peeled copper cable sells for more than unpeeled cable. A short, beefy man named Vali, who has built the best hut out of an assortment of construction debris, is standing next to the grill, where he has spent the last few hours taking apart a car engine with hammers, screwdrivers and crowbars.
A kilo of scrap iron fetches 20 to 30 cents, a kilo of copper goes for four or five euros, and brass is also a good seller -- as long as they can find a scrap dealer willing to do business with the Roma. It's becoming more difficult in France at the moment. The traveling people, or "gens du voyage," as the Roma from Romania, Bulgaria and elsewhere are known in France, are suddenly finding themselves on the wrong side of the French government, more so than at any other time since World War II.
A Struggle to Find Buyers
After lunch, Gianni says: "I'm going to work. You want to come along?" A panel van outside his hut, borrowed from a compatriot, is loaded with scrap metal, pieces of cars and bundles of cable. A friend of Gianni who is also sitting in the van has been trying to unload a nylon bag full of copper wire for weeks. The van bumps along through the suburbs, a semi-industrial landscape of factories, derelict buildings, sports facilities and streets lined with row houses.
Gianni is driving to Boulevard Félix Faure, where scrap heaps, glittering piles of metal separated by type -- aluminum or iron parts, for example -- rise up behind windowless warehouses.
The Boulevard is constantly clogged with suppliers and heavily loaded dump trucks lined up in front of the gates of the scrap yards. The drivers shout obscenities from their windows whenever Gianni tries to maneuver his van into one of the lines.
"No problem. I know another one, farther back," he says. But he doesn't stand a chance there either. The other drivers close ranks and drive him away with gestures. Gianni drives to the next gate and then to the next one after that. He is unable to find the dealer who had bought his scrap a week earlier, and paid him in cash without asking too many questions. Gianni will not sell anything on this Tuesday -- and not on Wednesday or Thursday, either.
The scrap dealers on Boulevard Félix Faure are now asking for a French ID card, which Gianni doesn't have. All he has is a worthless foreigners' ID card from Spain, a piece of paper from Portugal and a temporary Romanian passport. The fact that he, as a Romanian, has been a citizen of the European Union since 2007 is also irrelevant. "The people look at my face and see a gypsy," he says. And gypsies are not the kinds of people with whom the French are eager to be doing business with these days.
Sarkozy: 'Put an End to the Wild Squatting and Camping'
More specifically, the new attitudes toward the Roma in France began on July 30, when President Nicolas Sarkozy decided that it was time to make life even more difficult for the ethnic group. On that Friday, Sarkozy gave a 33-minute speech in the Grenoble Prefecture, and after that the Republic was a changed place -- or, as Sarkozy's sharpest critics said afterwards, the Republic ceased to exist. Sarkozy hadn't come to Grenoble to talk about a major pension reform that will make things very difficult for the president and his administration this autumn, or about Labor Minister Eric Woerth's involvement in a scandal surrounding the fabulous wealth of L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt. Instead, he had come to Grenoble, which had been plagued by nighttime riots and an incident in the village of Saint-Aignan near Blois, where a mob of angry Roma had attacked a police station, to talk about his favorite subject: security. In doing so, Sarkozy was essentially launching the 2012 election campaign.
In his Grenoble speech, the president raged against every manner of gangster and thug, against drug dealers and hoodlums in the low-income suburbs of major cities, and declared a "national war" on crime. Instead of trying to bring calm to the situation, he said: "Anyone who shoots at a police officer is no longer worthy of being a Frenchman." He called for 30-year prison terms for attacks on civil servants, and jail sentences for parents whose children are involved in crimes. He announced his intention to deprive criminals who are "French citizens of foreign origin" of their French citizenship. Finally, turning his attention to the Roma, Sarkozy said that he had asked the interior minister to "put an end to the wild squatting and camping of the Roma." As president, he said, could not accept the fact that there were 539 illegal Roma camps in his country, and he promised that half of them would be gone within three months.
It was a short but hefty blow. And it was unexpected, because France has repeatedly deported the Roma for years. Almost 10,000 were ejected last year, and 8,500 in the year before that. Between the beginning of 2010 and Sarkozy's July speech, 24 charter flights loaded with Roma had already been flown to Romania and Bulgaria. According to the official account, the Roma were leaving the country voluntarily, because they had been pressured into signing a piece of paper and had been given 300 ($389) in compensation. Although Sarkozy was only ratcheting up the country's existing Roma policy in his Grenoble speech, its tone revealed a dramatic sharpening of the rhetoric. To a German, Sarkozy's move would be comparable to President Christian Wulff giving a major speech on questions of public security, only to pepper his rhetoric with a few pointed references to criminal Turks, ethnic Germans from Russia, Jews and "gypsies."
- Part 1: Sarkozy's War Against the Roma
- Part 2: It Might Be Called 'Ethnic Cleansing' in Less Prestigious Countries
- Part 3: 'Why Don't They Just Leave Us Alone?'
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