*Treatment Still Harsh for Bulgarian Roma in France
By STEVEN ERLANGER
New York Times
In the last three weeks alone, the French police have dismantled Roma encampments in Saint-Denis, just outside Paris, and along the Var River west of Nice.
In Lyon, 200 Roma were temporarily housed in a gymnasium when someone set fire to their squat in a disused factory, killing two women and a 12-year-old.
President François Hollande’s Socialist government came into office a year ago promising a better deal for the Roma, also known as Gypsies, an end to the shantytowns and the rehousing and integration of those displaced. But like other promises, including a return to economic growth, reality has been a recalcitrant political partner.
Having criticized the previous center-right government of Nicolas Sarkozy for being careless with individual rights and flirting with the anti-immigrant far right, the Hollande government has done little to change policy toward the Roma. The interior minister, Manuel Valls, who has been praised for his organizational ability and toughness, has expelled at least as many non-French Roma as his predecessor and continues to order the police to dismantle illegal camps and shantytowns, without rehousing most of those displaced.
On Jan. 1, the rules will change, as Romanians and Bulgarians, seven years after entering the European Union, will have the same right to travel and work in member countries as others in the union. But that will not make them more welcome — most illegal Roma immigrants come from those two nations. Fanned by anti-immigrant and nationalist parties of the right and far right all over Europe, the coming change has led to new fears of a large influx of poor workers and criminals seeking to take jobs from citizens and benefit from lavish social welfare systems.
“In principle, things are different in France, but in practice, things are pretty much the same,” said Dezideriu Gergely, the executive director of the European Roma Rights Center in Budapest. “We expected a different approach, to reduce social exclusion and economic problems, instead of taking a problem and moving it from one place to another.”
The complexity and tragedy of the problem are easily seen here in Paris at the Gare du Nord, one of the busiest transportation hubs in France. Near the third glass door from the left of the older building, young Roma men hover. Small, thin, often wearing bright clothing like green pants or a pink scarf, the men are prostitutes, looking for work or waiting for prearranged rendezvous.
Some are as young as 14, though they insist they are older; some are 16 and married, sometimes with children. They come from a community around Craiova, in south-central Romania. They troll the station to earn a living, which they say gets them about 100 euros a day, or $130.
A young man named Ruset said he was 19 and had left Romania as a child. He and his friends, like Bogdan, 17, and Gutsa, 17, whose wife is pregnant, “do business” at the station, he said; they live in a shantytown in a forest east of Paris, near the Noisy-Champs station on the suburban railway line. None wanted to have their family names used.
“France is terrible for us,” Ruset said, watching for the police, whom he called “superracist, hassling us all the time.” Echoing many of France’s estimated 20,000 noncitizen Roma, he said: “I would like to stay in Romania, but there is no chance to work there. France I liked well at the start, but today things are very hard.”
Despite the coming change in the rules, expulsions from France are increasing. In 2012, an election year, 12,841 citizens of Romania and Bulgaria, nearly all of them Roma, were deported from France, compared with 10,841 in 2011, an increase of 18.4 percent; 9,529 were deported in 2010, according to the Interior Ministry.
While the Sarkozy government provided airfare home and 300 euros for every adult and 100 euros for each child to induce a “voluntary” repatriation, the Hollande government called the system perverse and wasteful. But Paris still provides 50 euros per adult and 30 euros per child, Mr. Valls has said, while emphasizing that France is instead financing “80 microprojects” in Romania “to improve living conditions.”
Guillaume Lardanchet is the director of Hors la Rue, a Paris-based organization that works with young Roma and other foreign minors in trouble. “Valls reproduces the same security strategy as Sarkozy,” he said. “We haven’t seen a concrete difference compared with the old government.”
Robert A. Kushen, the chairman of the European Roma Rights Center, agreed that Mr. Hollande “has really continued the policies of his predecessor.” Under pressure from the European Union, France introduced “some cosmetic changes to the law, but the substance hasn’t changed,” he said.
Perhaps even odder, he said, the government is pursuing its expulsions even though the rules will soon change. Although Romania and Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007, special restrictions were put in place requiring their citizens to obtain work permits, and only in certain industries, within three months of visa-free entry or leave France. The Hollande government eliminated a special tax on employers for each person hired, but with France in a triple-dip recession and unemployment high, jobs are scarce.
A recent joint letter to the European Council and European Commission from the interior ministers of Britain, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands asked for new penalties against those who travel across visa-free borders to “abuse” social welfare systems. Citing support for freedom of travel, the four wrote: “We are equally committed to preventing and combating the fraudulent use of the right of free movement by union citizens or by third-country nationals abusing free movement rights in order to circumvent national immigration controls” to prevent “excessive strain on the social systems of the receiving societies.”
The politicians have also focused on petty crime, like pickpocketing and the theft of smartphones, which they associate with Roma. Recently, the Louvre was shut down for a day in protest because groups of young men were harassing staff members and visitors. (The museum is free for those under 18.) The Louvre now has a warning on its Web site about pickpockets.
The police support Mr. Valls. “We salute the firmness of Mr. Valls in his Roma policy,” said Christophe Crépin of the main police union, UNSA Police. “These are people who sell themselves, who racketeer, who construct criminal networks, and their way of life is totally incompatible with that of our modern societies.”
The legal limbo for Romania and Bulgaria has been bad for the Roma, said Alexandre Le Clève, a former director of Hors la Rue and member of Romeurope, associations that work in six countries to improve the health and lives of Roma. “Paradoxically, their situation has worsened since the entry of Romania into the European Union,” he said. “The Roma lost certain rights, like state medical aid, that they had as non-E.U. foreigners.”
The new rules, Mr. Le Clève said, “will put into relief all the contradictions of this government.” In the United States, he said, “people talk of regularizing immigrants. Not here.”
At the Gare du Nord, Ruset said he would prefer to return to Romania. “But there is no work, and here there is plenty,” he said. “There you earn 15 euros a day, if that, and here at least 50 to 100.”
In the forest, he and his extended family have built cabins of discarded wood. There is no running water. Asked about toilets, he laughed and said, “It’s a big forest.”
Mr. Le Clève, who speaks Roma and has worked with these young men, said Roma were often denied housing, in part because they are dark-skinned and so recognizable. “The problem is that they are very visible,” he said. “But, institutionally, they’re invisible.”
*The title has been changed by Novinite.com.