The Roma in France: "Is Hollande going to expel us all?"

Like their classmates, Roma children in one Paris suburb are getting to grips with a new school year - but French ministers continue to play politics with their future.

The Roma families who live in the Voltaire settlement in Saint-Denis, near Paris, count themselves lucky. They live on a piece of land owned by the state, they have houses – modest prefab affairs that they built themselves, using materials put at their disposal by a philantropic entrepreneur – and their children go to school. It's early September, la rentrée, and I'm following the steps of Adriana, a 30-year-old charity worker, who's going from house to house to help parents fill up school forms in French (the ones that say who to call in case of emergency, and whether you want your kid to have school meals). Adriana makes sure parents understand how parent-teacher books work, and I am reminded of my own childhood: a mother holds a notebook covered in yellow plastic, and nods intently to explanations given in Romanian. Here, school is taken seriously too.

In Romania, Adriana, who studied psychology, used to work in a bank. She moved to France three years ago and now acts as a mediator between the 200 Roma people who live in this settlement and the council (which finances her job). Like all Romanians, she is free to visit France but, in theory, not allowed to stay for longer than three months. She's been fighting to obtain the right to live in France, with the help of Rues et Cités, the charity that employs her. "I didn't know much about Roma culture before," she says. "I discovered they have values I can identify with." She confirms school is important to parents and their children. "In this settlement, there's a 13-year-old girl who was born in France. She's always been to school here. When kids have been going to school in France for a few years, there's never any problems with them. We don't receive reports from the schools signaling that they have been called this or that by their schoolmates – which can happen when they're only starting and don't speak French." Prejudice, she thinks, is largely fuelled by the French media. "If you were to believe them, you'd think there were 100 000 Roma people in France. As it happens, there's only 15,000 of them." Adriana was hoping that after Hollande election "people would stop talking about 'Roma', and only talk about 'Romanians' or 'Bulgarians', that the ethnicisation would be abandoned." But it hasn't. "I suppose headlines about Roma sell well," she says, shrugging.

Prejudice, indeed, is not hard to come across. As I take the tram to leave the settlement, I hear a black teenage schoolgirl tell her friends what she saw on a popular TV program (Jean-Luc Morandini's) the night before: "The police visited the slum in front of my house and found out that there were not 300, like they thought, but 600 Roma living there. And they only expelled 300. What are they waiting for? They say they're going to make Roma people work. I say: why don't they send them to work in the North Pole instead?" The girl has, I find out, strong suspicions that Roma boys stole her phone on the previous week, in this same tram.

The way Saint-Denis council treats its Roma inhabitants does not match up with what is happening in the rest of the country. The Saint-Denis district concentrates one fifth of Roma population in France, while wealthier districts like the Hauts de Seine (Sarkozy's electoral heartland) are very prompt, I am told, to let Roma know that they are not welcomed on their territory, effectively washing their hands of these migrants. Saint-Denis councillors have been pleading for a fairer repartition of newcomers in the country – to no avail so far. They have also had to appease the outrage and racist reactions of some of the local residents when Roma people settle near their houses. In the city, there are two heavily monitored 'insertion villages' (which are watched by a janitor and have a curfew), one settlement like the one I visited, that allows more freedom to its inhabitants, and six or seven slums where newcomers agregate. When possible, rather than systematically eliminating the slums, the council tries to ensure people who live there have access to water and that their garbage is collected. As Michel Ribay, delegate for environment and education for the council, puts it: "We try to be pragmatic, and focus on education. In the city, there are 15 kids who go to nursery school, 19 kids in elementary school, a dozen in secondary school. This is the generation who could turn things the other way around, so that boys and girls don't reproduce existing patterns of economic insertion and integration. It's also important to make some effort to keep the older Roma children in school, when they reach an age where they could be able to help their family by working."

France's policy towards Roma is flawed with major inconsistencies. Marian Mandache, head of Romani Criss, the main Roma NGO in Romania, condemns it strongly: "We believe that the French government, be it right-wing or left-wing, UMP or PS, is mainly looking at ways to reduce numbers, following the idea that Roma people should leave France and stay in Romania, and we believe this is wrong. The focus should not be on restrictive policies but rather on integration and insertion." For him, the new government has done little to make the Romas' situation better: "In the new set of measures they presented, they maintained the 800 euros tax that employers have to pay when they hire a Romanian or a Bulgarian worker – which is a lot of money for a small contract. They've only added a few jobs to the list of jobs that these migrants are authorised to do and are continuing the policy of expulsion, which is costly and inefficient, as Romanian and Bulgarian people can return the following day or week, and do. This money would be better spent on insertion programs." For Mandache, a succesful policy "should start by observing what jobs Roma people who live in France actually do (mostly metal and garbage collection, and some trade) and make them legal." Cooperation between Romanian and French schools for children who go back and forth is also much needed, he says, to prevent them being lost when they enter a different education system.

But this is not the way things seem to be going. On 12 September, Manuel Valls, French Interior Minister, chose to go to Bucharest to criticise discrimination against Roma there. "Everything he said was true," says Mandache, "but for the impact it's going to have, he might as well have stayed home." Observers point out that Valls seems keen to use the Roma case to pursue his own agenda. Benjamin Abtan, National Secretary of the EGAM (European Grassroots Antiracist Movement) and a member of SOS Racisme, says: "It's not as bad as with Sarkozy, who was pitting various elements of society against one another, Valls is using Roma to show that the left is not weak and that he is strong. Indeed, after the expulsions that took place at the end of the summer, he became France's most popular minister." In Brussels, important budgets have been allocated to the integration of Roma in Europe, reveals Abtan: "They amount to billions, and are only used up to 10 per cent. Sometimes there are even sent to the states and returned to Brussels untouched. It shows there is a lack of political will to embetter the condition of a population that is often misconstrued as being on the go, ready to leave at any minute."

Back at the Voltaire settlement, people are worried, because of the slum clearance that happened in Saint-Denis the same morning. "Is Hollande going to expel us all?," they ask. I cross paths with Lisa, who's 12 and excelling at school. I also meet a man who's holding a little baby girl in his arms. "We are Europe's misery", he says, several times in French, squeazing the little girl's cheeks. I look at him, puzzled, before suddenly realising he's using the words that Manuel Valls had been using on TV the day before when he declared that :"France cannot accommodate all Europe's misery". Meanwhile, the children who live here go to school. They know better than the French government.

Valeria Costa-Kostritsky is a French journalist based in London. This post first appeared on openDemocracy 50.50 here.

Children from the Roma community in Villeneuve d'Ascq, northern France. Photograph: Getty Images

Valeria Costa-Kostritsky is a French freelance journalist. She reports on social issues and contributes to the LRB, the Guardian, Index on Censorship and French Slate, with a particular interest in France and Russia. She is on Twitter as @valeria_wants.

 

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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism