Disaster Highlights Roma's Struggle for Human Rights in France

Roma awaiting accommodation solutions after eviction,  Choisy-le-Roi, August 2010 Photo Alain Bachellier son Flickr cc-by-nc-sa 2.0

All links lead to French-language webpages unless otherwise stated.

violent fire destroyed an abandoned factory in the eastern French city of Lyon squatted by families from the Roma community, killing two women and 12-year-old child. In the aftermath of the tragedy on May 13, 2013, the survivors relocated into a school open only in the evenings, leaving them outside in the rain during the day.

Power in the building where the families had lived was cut shortly before the accident by the administration of the city of Lyon, it was revealed. The fire was caused by candles that the victims had used for lighting.

France has undertaken a controversial policy toward its Roma communities in recent years, and the latest developments show no signs of an improving relationship. In 2010, as described by Global Voices author Suzanne Lehn, Roma were victims of forced evicitions [en] and the destruction of several camps driven by interior minister Hortefeux under the Sarkozy government. In 2012, the new Ayrault government continued the dismantlement of Roma camps while trying to pass a new pro-Roma unemployment policy.

After the fire, some outraged netizens slammed France on social media for their treatment of the Roma. A Mediapart article behind a paywall, “The Roma are just like us, they also need light” in reference to the victims’ lack of electricity, was reposted several times on different platforms.

Alain Philippe described on his Mediapart blog, under the title “La France construit sa politique anti-roms sur des cadavres(France is building its anti-Roma policy on corpses):

Pendant plusieurs heures, les familles sont totalement abandonnées à leur sort. Une femme perd connaissance plusieurs fois. La police municipale, à quelques mètres reste les bras croisés. Il n’y a aucun médecin, aucun psychologue, aucun soutien.

For several hours a day, the families are completely abandoned homeless. One woman lost consciousness several times (from lack of food intake). Local police, just a few meters away stands idly by. There is no doctor, no psychologist, no support at all.

His outrage on full display, the author added:

Mardi soir, la préfecture du Rhône fait savoir que les expulsions vont s’accélérer dans les jours à venir. La chasse aux Roms est ouverte. La campagne des municipales également. Valls prétend que les roms n’ont pas vocation à s’intégrer en France. En les obligeant à vivre comme des chiens errants à la rue ou à brûler vifs dans des squats il est certain d’avoir raison.

Tuesday night, the district of Rhone (the Region of which Lyon is the capital city) stated that evictions will accelerate in the coming days. I guess, it is open season for the the hunt for Roma. In related news, the municipal electoral campaign has also began. Valls [France's Interior Minister] argues that Roma have no capacity to integrate into France. By forcing them to live as stray dogs in the streets or burned alive in squats, is a sure way to make sure he is right.

In the commentary section of the post , Vertige appeals to individual responsibility  :

Oui, la maltraitance se fait dans le secret des cachots, des lieux de rétention, de détention quels qu'ils soient. Mais elles sont toujours, pour un temps au moins, comptabilisées, écrites, détaillées. Et nous finissons par savoir au moment même où elles sont infligées. Lorsque nous voulons le savoir. Ici, nous savons.

Yes, plenty of abuse occur in the secret dungeons, detention places of the world wherever they might be. They are still, for now, all kept on record somewhere, written in details. And we end up finding out when such abuse happens. That is, when we want to know. Here, we know.

Individual rights?

A well-researched article by Grégoire Fleurot on Slate was published in 2010 at the height of the campaign for Roma expulsions during Sarkozy's presidency. It showed how the French administration juggles the limits of the law in trying to define people as communities, without being accused of discrimination against the same people:

La confusion entre les «gens du voyage» et les Tsiganes vient en partie de cette spécificité française qui interdit à l’administration de qualifier une partie de la population sur des critères ethniques. Au début du XXe siècle, le gouvernement français veut surveiller les Tsiganes qui sont alors victimes des pires préjugés, (…) L’appellation «nomades» est alors officiellement utilisée, et la loi du 16 juillet 1912 leur impose un carnet anthropométrique obligatoire qui contient des informations telles que l'envergure, la longueur et la largeur de la tête, la longueur de l'oreille droite, la longueur des doigts médius et auriculaires gauches, celle de la coudée gauche, celle du pied gauche, la couleur des yeux ou encore la forme du nez.(…) Après (la) persécution (de Vichy), le mot «nomades» est devenu inutilisable, et remplacé par le néologisme «Gens du voyage» avec la loi du 3 janvier 1969, qui remplace également le carnet anthropomorphique par un livret de circulation.

The confusion between “travelers” and gypsies comes in part from the unique provision in the French administration that prohibits the description of part of the population along ethnic lines. In the early twentieth century, the French government tried to monitor gypsies, who were then subjected to plenty of prejudices (…) The term “nomads” became the official term. After the Bill of July 16, 1912, compulsory anthropometric notebooks were imposed, containing information such as the size, length and width of the head, the length of the right ear, middle fingers length and left hand atrial, that of the left elbow, the left foot, eye colour and even the shape of the nose (…) After the tragic persecution (of minorities) during the Vichy Regime, the word “nomads” became taboo and was replaced by the neologism “traveler community” with the Bill of January 3, 1969. That bill also replaced the notebooks with a registration document.

Yet it is because the administration was set on defining individual rights according to their communities of origins that the country risks denying the same people their individual rights, as happened during the reign of France's pro-Nazi government installed after the country surrendered to Germany during World War II, known as the Vichy regime.

International Day of the Roma: Demonstration against forced evictions of Roma in Paris on April 6, 2013, by dirtykoala on flickr cc-by-nc 2,0

Integration or expulsion?

The fact that some Roma do not adapt to the dominant social model in France despite a prolonged stay there has become the crux of debate in France. L'essor, an independent newspaper of the French military police, addressed the issue of the Roma integration in this article from March 28:

Dans la droite ligne des propos du ministre de l'Intérieur, Manuel Valls, qui avait déclaré mi-mars que “les occupants des campements ne souhaitent pas s'intégrer dans notre pays”, le préfet du Rhône a estimé: “les Roms qui veulent être intégrés, il y a des choses à faire; ceux qui ne veulent pas être intégrés, il n'y a rien à faire”. “Ceux qui n'ont pas vocation à rester sur le territoire français, ceux qui ont une OQTF (Obligation de Quitter le Territoire Français), on ne fera pas d'effort majeur pour les reloger”, a-t-il ajouté.

In agreement with Manuel Valls, the interior minister, who declared in mid-March that “the inhabitants of the Roma camps do not want to integrate into our country”, the Rhone Prefect claimed that: “for the Roma that wish to be integrated, there are solutions to be found, and for those who do not wish to integrate, there is nothing that can be done”. “Those who are not meant to stay on French territory, those who have a OQTF (Obligation to leave French territory), there will be no major effort made by the administration to find them new homes”

Valentine, a frequent reader of the Al Kanz blog (a minority focused website),  comments on the issue of finding homes for Roma on the blog :

On est en droit de s’interroger sur les raisons qui poussent l’Europe à réclamer des millions – 2 milliards en tout – aux français en particulier et aux citoyens européens en général, censés aider la Bulgarie et la Roumanie à aménager dignement la vie de ces roms, et ensuite à réclamer à la France, comme si ça ne suffisait pas, d’accueillir ces populations – travail, logement.. les français chômeurs de longue durée survivant dans des caravanes apprécieront…

We have the right to question why the Europe Union requests millions of euros – two billion in fact –  from France and European citizens in general, for funds that are supposed to help Bulgaria and Romania to develop a dignified quality of life for the Roma and then it also expects from France, as if all the above were not enough to welcome these communities and provide work, homes, etc. The long-term unemployed Frenchmen residing in mobile homes will most certainly appreciate that…

The reply from Al Kanz to this typical commentary came swift and loud:

Les Roms n’ont pas à être méprisés et considérés comme des sous-hommes, tout comme ils n’ont pas à être privilégiés. S’agissant de la Bulgarie et de la Roumanie, je ne suis ni roumain ni bulgare. Je suis français, je dénonce ce qui se passe en France et que je considère indigne. Mon indignation n’est pas facile, elle est humaine.

The Roma are not to be despised as sub-humans, nor do they need to be granted special privileges. With regard to Bulgaria and Romania, I am not Romanian nor Bulgarian. I am French, I denounce what is happening in France and I consider this situation unworthy of France. My indignation is not easy, it is about being human.

“JR” commented on a note on the blog Legal News:

Pour revenir plus précisément sur les roms, à vous lire, l'on croirait presque que ce ne sont que des victimes. (…) Je ne développerai pas sur les enfants auxquels on apprend seulement à mendier, sur les vols (ce sont là des vérités incontestables), et même si vous pourrez me rétorquer, sans avoir totalement tort, que ces pratiques résultent en partie des conditions de vie qui leur sont imposées, je répondrai encore une fois qu'il leur incombe aussi de se prendre en main autrement que par la délinquance.

To return more specifically to Roma, as you read it appears that they are only victims (…) I will not expand on the children that are only taught to beg on flights (these are undeniable truths), and even you can argue that my assertion, without totally being wrong, it can be claimed that these practices are partly a consequence of the lifestyle imposed on them. To this, I would reply that it is their responsibility to take charge of their livelihoods beyond their delinquent behavior.


The politics of stigmatisation have became so well-established in the consciousness of French public opinion that it has made word: “romaphobia“.

Grégoire Cousin wrote in January 2013 about France's Roma policy on Urbarom, a blog that focuses on the analysis of Roma affairs :

Malgré des rappels à l’ordre très fermes de l’ONU, malgré les nombreuses protestations d’ONG françaises et internationales, tout indique que la politique menée par l’état français à l’égard des Roms est raciste et discriminatoire. Il suffit d’observer le nombre élevé de personnes évacuées de force par les autorités (9 404) par rapport au nombre estimé de Roms étrangers présents sur le territoire français (de 15 à 20 000). De fait, selon le Rapporteur Spécial de l’ONU sur les droits des migrants, François Crépeau, « l’objectif ultime semble être l’expulsion de France des communautés migrantes Rom ».

Despite warnings from the UN and countless protests of many French and international NGO's, all signs indicate that France's policy towards the Roma community is plain racist and discriminatory. A mere glance at the high numbers of people evacuated from the Roma community (9,404), compared to the estimated numbers of Roma on French Territory (15 to 20,000) will suffice to illustrate the point. In fact, according to the UN special rapporteur on immigrants rights, Francois Crepeau, “the goal seems to be the complete expulsion from France of the migrant Roma communities”.

It is difficult to imagine victims of a fire from another social group being treated with such indifference. Isn't it up to European democracies to prove that they are capable of protecting the rights of any individual, regardless of their community of origins?


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