'It's all for show': French police officers speak out on Roma evictions

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The French socialist government this summer ordered the forced evictions of hundreds of Roma gypsy families from makeshift camps set-up around several of the country’s major cities, followed by the repatriation of some of the occupants to their native Romania. The crackdown has divided government ministers and caused an outcry from Roma rights’ associations, prompting Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault to organize an inter-ministerial meeting to seek wider solutions to dissolving the illegal camps, to be held on Wednesday. Mediapart sought out the views of several police officers involved directly and indirectly in evictions of two Roma camps near the city of Lille (photo) earlier this month. “The problem isn’t solved, what we’ve done is all for show,” commented one, echoing criticism leveled at the government that the forced dismantling of the camps is doing little else than keeping the Roma trapped in a spiral of poverty. Louise Fessard reports.

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The French government this summer ordered the forced evictions of hundreds of Roma gypsy families from makeshift camps set-up around several of the country’s major cities, followed by the repatriation of some of the occupants to their native Romania.

The crackdown, ordered by interior minister Manuel Valls, has caused controversy within government and Socialist Party ranks and has been slammed as a return to the harsh, high-profile campaign against Roma immigrants under the previous conservative government of President Nicolas Sarkozy. One objection is that alternative accommodation is rarely offered by the authorities, trapping the families in an endless spiral of poverty.

Following the criticism, and the outcry from associations campaigning for the rights of Roma migrants, who are estimated to number between 15,000 and 20,000 in France, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault announced an inter-ministerial meeting, to be held this Wednesday, to find wider solutions to the problem. One of the moves the meeting will consider is an end to exceptional measures established under the previous government that limit the rights to employment for Bulgarian and Romanian nationals, and which are often cited as a reason many Roma are unable to integrate into the wider society.     

Since the end of July, Roma camps in Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Lille and Aix-en-Provence have been dismantled following court orders for their evacuation. “I cannot tolerate, and even less so when a legal ruling has been taken, that in these camps there are problems of public health which are today quite unacceptable,” said Valls in July. “Yes, when there is a legal ruling taken, there will be a dismantling of these camps”.

Evacuation d'un camps à Villeneuve d'Ascq, le 9 août 2012. © Reuters/Pascal Rossignol Evacuation d'un camps à Villeneuve d'Ascq, le 9 août 2012. © Reuters/Pascal Rossignol

But housing minister Cécile Duflot, speaking last week on French radio station France Inter, openly criticized the manner in which the evictions were being managed.  “It is not admissible that in our country families, children, live in absolutely insupportable sanitary conditions, in shantytowns,” she said. “On the other hand, dismantling camps without any solution is to put people in an even more precarious situation.”

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the radical-left Front de Gauche coalition called the crackdown “unacceptable”. In an interview with French weekly JDD on August 18th, Mélenchon said: “What’s the difference between a camp destroyed upon the orders of a right-wing minister and a camp destroyed by a left-wing minister? […] urgent measures need to be taken, for example the opening up of access to the labour market.”

Nationals from Romania and Bulgaria, members of the European Union since 2007, are subjected to special ‘transitory’ measures taken in France and eight other EU-member states (Germany, the UK, Ireland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland, Austria, and Malta) which limit their rights to work and residency. In France, they are entitled to a three-month residence visa upon entering the country, but they are then subjected to a lengthy period before they can receive a full-blown residence permit.

Following the dismantling of two camps near the northern city of Lille on August 9th, at Hellemmes and Villeneuve d'Ascq, four police officers involved directly and indirectly in the operations agreed to be interviewed by Mediapart about the evictions, on condition that their names were not published. Their experiences and opinions largely echo the criticisms voiced by Duflot and Mélenchon, notably about the ineffectiveness of the campaign.

Two of them are from the CRS riot police force, the Compagnies républicaines de sécurité, and who were present during the raids on the camps. The other two are an officer from a local station of the regular national police force, and a detective colleague.

On August 9th, two CRS ‘companies’, representing about 150 men, were called out to secure the area around the camps, one at Lille-Hellemmes, which contained about 30 caravans, and the other, a smaller community, at Villeneuve-d’Ascq. Their mission was to prevent anyone leaving or entering the camp before officers from the border control police (PAF) and regular police had carried out an inventory of everyone present.

Thomas (last name withheld and first name changed), a member of one of the CRS companies involved in the expulsions of the two Roma camps, and who has 25 years’ experience in the force, said the frequency of the evictions he has been called upon to take part in remained the same as under the previous government. “Whether it’s under the Left or the Right, it doesn’t change much, there weren’t more before and no more since the government changed,” he commented. 

He said that on the day of the raids, he and his colleagues were readied for duty at about 4 a.m. “We were given the destination at the last minute,” Thomas said. “But when we arrived, the camp was already in the know and the [Roma support] associations were waiting for our visit.”

For him and the other CRS officer Mediapart spoke to, the operation, which ended at around midday, “went well”, and the inhabitants of the caravans and shelters were “cooperative”.

“It wasn’t a tense mission,” commented Thomas. “Unfortunately these are poor people, who live in a totally insalubrious state, with rats. But you need to take into account the nuisance caused to local folk.”

His colleague Pierre (last name withheld and first name changed), commented: “There was no trouble, it was more a good-natured situation. In any case, we’re not asked our opinion, it’s like when we break up a demonstration where people are defending their jobs. But when you see their misery, it’s sadder than other things. They have a right to live, those people.” He said he thought the means employed were disproportionate. “Two companies, not counting the local police and the PAF, that’s enormous given the numbers we found on the site.”

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