Broken bicycles and old suitcases mark the entrance to the makeshift camp. Ankle-deep in mud that is newly wet from a rain-shower, the visitor is taken by the hand by lively children to meet their parents. “Papers?”, a woman named Elena asks, proffering her identity card. It shows she is from Romania, a member state of the European Union, just like France. In four years time, Romanian citizens will be allowed to work and live wherever they wish in the EU; for now, Elena, her family and all Roma gypsies in France face the risk that they could be expelled from the country at any moment.
In the centre of Villeneuve d’Ascq, an economically depressed suburb of Lille, transparent panels display excerpts from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Everyone has the right to a decent standard of living, one panel proclaims. No-one shall be arbitrarily deprived of property, says another.
It does not take long to find evidence of how these rights – officially regarded as fundamental by the United Nations – are being denied a short distance away. Lacking proper toilet facilities and running water, the children have to urinate on the edges of a car park. Meanwhile, the threat that the camp with its six caravans could be dismantled appears very real; bulldozers have been used to deprive other Romas of refuge nearby in recent weeks.
“We have many problems with the police,” a man called Vasir says, clearing out the boot of his car. “The police come here many times. We have no work, no money, nothing.”
The Lille region in northern France has been at the centre of efforts by the French government to drive Roma out of the country.
In July, the French president Nicolas Sarkozy gave an inflammatory speech, in which he blamed crime on foreigners and announced that Roma camps would not be “tolerated”. The first police operation against a Roma camp following that speech occurred in Lesquin, also near Lille. Forty-eight people and 14 caravans were “evacuated” – in the words of officialdom - during that move, kicking off a process that saw 1,000 Roma expelled from France in the month of August.
In another operation, nine adults and 12 children were forced out of their mobile homes one morning in the last week of August. The official reason given was that they were occupying private land.
The expulsions have not gone unchallenged. A Lille court has ruled twice recently against the national government’s policy that Roma camps can be considered a threat to public order. And some locals have taken to the streets of Lille, alleging that Sarkozy’s policy on Roma – coupled with his controversial efforts to cut the country’s social welfare system - are bringing shame to France.
The plight of the estimated 1,200 Roma in and around Lille has become the subject of squabbling between rival political parties, too. After Martine Aubry, leader of the opposition Socialist Party, spoke out about the expulsions, Sarkozy’s centre-right allies responded with claims of double standards. Aubry had requested that Roma be uprooted from camps earlier in the summer, when she was mayor of Lille, her rivals revealed.
Although a 2004 EU law forbids collective deportations from one of the Union’s member states to another, the Brussels authorities have been reluctant to take any action against France. José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission’s president, made no reference to the French policy of expelling Roma – and similar practices in some other EU countries – when he made his first ever “State of the Union” speech Sep. 7. Barroso’s reticence came despite how he had met Sarkozy the previous day and despite how the treatment of the Roma had been discussed extensively between France and the European Commission over the previous few weeks.
Viviane Reding, Europe’s justice commissioner, has similarly declined to publicly say that France has contravened EU law, even though internal papers prepared by officials working under her direction suggest that it has. One such paper refutes French assertions that the deportations were voluntary and says that the granting of small sums of money to Roma deportees was not sufficient to ensure that France complied with EU rules on the free movement of people.
Because the European Parliament – the EU’s only directly-elected body – was on holidays in August, it was also silent about the deportations. Yet once it resumed business, the assembly approved a resolution against the French policy. Supported by 337 members of Parliament – with 245 against – the resolution rejected “any statements which link minorities and immigration with criminality and create discriminatory stereotypes”.
•First published by Inter Press Service (www.ipsnews.net), 13 September 2010