France’s socialist president, François Hollande, had promised not to demolish the illegal Gypsy settlements in France. However, over the last two months, nearly 400 Roma have been forced to leave the country, despite having been European citizens since 2007.
Paris is the most visited city in the world, but it also represents the unattainable dream for many people who are seeking a better life and who, naively, find themselves there. Place de la Bastille is swarming with young people enjoying the terraces. Tourists, cameras in hands, have their picture taken next to the great symbol of the French Revolution. In its day the Bastille was a great fortress that defended the city against foreigners.
Although there are no physical walls left now, there are political, economic and social ones which are practically impassable. Gheorghe and Esperanza have been living here in this not-so-idyllic square for the past year, along with their eight children and three grandchildren. Split between several streets coming off the main square, as though they were rooms in a house, they live between a telephone box, a bus shelter and various building entrances. All of their earthly possessions fit in a supermarket trolley parked next to a doorway.
I’m European too
Faced with the large number of illegal Roma camps, thirteen left-wing town halls in the Paris area have joined forces to block expulsions which offer no re-housing option. Nevertheless, this union has been more symbolic than effective, and has not stopped the police from evicting 3, 000 people to date. One of the most recent evictions took place in Évry, the city in which Manuel Valls, France’s interior minister, has been mayor for the last decade; a total of 22 families, who had been living by the train tracks for several months, were evicted from the city.
On the other hand, the French government has just announced a series of measures to facilitate the integration of Romanian and Bulgarian citizens into the French job market. Until now, the list of professions that they could carry out was limited to just 150 (now 291), and their employers would have to pay 700 euros in tax in order to hire them.
The movement against racism and for friendship between peoples (mouvement contre le racisme et pour l’amitié entre les peuples, MRAP) organisation works closely with the Roma people. ‘Romania is part of Europe (since 2007 - ed), therefore its citizens have the right to travel around, but the current regulations prevent them from working and settling in France,’ explains Marie Annick, who works at MRAP. ‘There are children who go to school for one or two years and then suddenly they get moved on,’ adds her colleague Yves Loriette. ‘The organisations that work with these children see all of their work lost due to the deportations.’
Farewell Bucharest, bonjour Paris
Whereas in the past the opposition criticised these expulsions for damaging the image of the country, nowadays it is centred on humanitarian issues. The word ‘expulsion’ has been substituted with ‘evacuation’. While some defend the free movement of people, others argue that it raises security and public health concerns. Right in the middle of this debate are 15, 000 Romanian Gypsies living on French soil, stuck in a kind of pan-European limbo.
Gheorghe, a tall and skinny man with a big smile, introduces his family members to me one by one. The children watch in amazement. Last of all he points to his wife: ‘This is Esperanza. Mia esperanza (translated literally: ‘my hope’ - ed).’ His partner smiles timidly; she barely understands French. She spreads out a blanket on the pavement, which serves as both their bed and table, and everyone sits down. It starts to rain so they run for cover under the shelter, sharing it with people waiting for the bus. ‘Do you have somewhere to sleep tonight?’ they ask. ‘If you want, you can stay with us.’
Hanging with Roma family in Bastille, as France resumes forced evictions