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Roma in France: The Politics of Exclusion

By Nellie Peyton

PARIS— Ioana Francina washes her children’s clothes in a plastic bucket outside her home: a box-like shelter made of plywood and sheet metal, just high enough for an adult to clear the door. One of Francina’s daughters is playing with other children in the muddy road that separates their row of shacks from another. It is a Monday afternoon, but Valentina, 12, is not enrolled in school.

From Romania, she and her family have lived in France for six years but barely speak the language. Their current encampment is less than 30 minutes from the center of Paris, in the southern suburb of Rungis.   

“It’s a very bad life for us here,” says Francina. She has looked for work but has been unsuccessful, and now makes a small amount of money by begging. Even the meager comforts of her shantytown are not guaranteed. She has seen her last three homes bulldozed—bedding, kitchenwares, and all—when French authorities ordered the land to be cleared. Now it is only a matter of time before this will happen again. 

Amid discussions of immigration and integration in France, the Roma are a group that continues to be left out. There are about 20,000 Roma living in France, primarily citizens of Romania and Bulgaria who fled even worse conditions at home. Europe’s largest ethnic minority, they face discrimination wherever they go, but France treats them particularly badly in comparison to other Western countries. Despite decades of advocacy, the situation here shows signs of worsening. 

“We are building a generation of children who were born in France, who have never been to school and who have no example of life outside the slums,” says Manon Fillonneau, director of the human rights collective Romeurope. She traces the re-emergence of slums in France to the early 90s, when the fall of communism prompted a new wave of migration from Eastern Europe. The accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the European Union in 2007 gave many Roma greater rights to freedom of movement. In 2010, then-President Nicolas Sarkozy cracked down. Roma camps, he said, could no longer be tolerated and must be destroyed. “Within three months,” he promised, “half of these primitive settlements will have disappeared from French territory.” At the time he counted 539 camps.

Sarkozy pursued a policy of deportation alongside destruction, but since most Roma are European citizens they could quickly turn around and come back. Today deportations are rare, but the forced evictions and razing of settlements continue. With no alternative housing provided, Roma evicted from one camp usually set up or join another—sometimes only a stone’s throw away. In 2015, a Roma camp was destroyed every three days. 

Anti-Roma sentiment has a name in French—“antitsiganisme”—and it is poorly concealed. The Roma are stereotyped as being thieves, so French people don’t want them in their neighborhoods. Mayors make paperwork impossible to keep them from registering their children for school, or simply refuse to sign them up, says Fillonneau. In 2015, the European Roma Rights Centre reported an increase in acts of violence and hate speech against Roma in France.  

Milena Doytcheva, a sociologist at the University of Lille, says that the current dynamic can be compared to the way Arab workers were treated in France during decolonization. “Bidonvilles,” or shantytowns like those the Roma inhabit today, were largely populated by Algerians in the 1960s and 70s. The figure of the Rom and the Muslim are similar, says Doytcheva, in that the French have deemed both “incompatible” with their culture.

“The idea that [the Roma] don’t want to become integrated is made possible in France by the very concept of integration,” says Doytcheva. The French idea of integration, she explains, includes a process of cultural assimilation. 

Today, rather than including the Roma in broader social and economic policies, France continues to adopt special measures for them, insisting that they need “adapted” solutions. In recent years these have included so-called “integration villages,” which Romeurope says often involve ethnic ghettoization. Rather than advocating better policies for the Roma, Doytcheva and other experts say that the state needs to return to the principle of the “droit commun”: laws and rights that apply to all. For example, the Roma could benefit from access to France’s youth, unemployment, health, and housing programs. 

The current influx of migrants and refugees is likely to put the Roma even lower on politicians’ agendas, but Doytcheva thinks France would have an interest in considering these problems together. At the root, she says, they all involve questions about citizenship, belonging, and mobility within the “fortress” of Europe. 

"We shouldn’t think of it as refugees versus economic migrants versus Roma,” Doytcheva says. “Fundamentally, the same issues are at stake.”



Nellie Peyton is a former editorial assistant at World Policy Journal and a graduate student at the Paris Institute of Political Studies.

[Photo courtesy of Yann]


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