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.

 

Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
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Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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