There is increasing anger among many elements of French society over the government’s recent removal of members of the Roma community from the country.
But away from the controversies and politics, Laurence Lee finds a truly pioneering scheme in Paris which is working to help integrate the Roma.
Outside Paris’ city limits, stuck under a railway line and boxed in between industrial units, is a tiny, but extraordinary, example of what some campaigners say gives the lie to the usual story about all Roma being thieves or beggars.
It is a simple collection of about 20 small pre-fabricated box homes. They are not big, but they are a whole lot better than living on the streets.
They only came into being in the first place because of an accident. Over the road was a Roma campsite, but much of it burned down in a fire.
The police told the Roma they had to leave. But after persistent lobbying by a charity, the local authority was persuaded to erect the houses on one condition – that the Roma who would live there agree to find employment and send their children to school.
When you go there it looks like a series of show-homes. There is a pebbled courtyard with a palm tree and a bench in the middle.
Many of the houses have pot plants sitting outside, which the children carefully water.
Inside, the homes are spotless. There are fridges, cookers, coffee makers, showers.
They reminded me of a static caravan I recently stayed in with my family on the west coast of France, and which French people routinely go to on their holidays. Not great, but perfectly liveable.
All the children speak perfect French, and will tell you excitedly about how much they enjoy going to school and about the French friends they are making. They are impeccably mannered, as are their mothers.
“School is very important,” says 16-year-old Steluza Crizantema.
“Because if you don’t have school you do nothing in life. You can’t work, you’ll be on the street, it’s everything for life, you learn.”
Some of the fathers though show worry on their faces.
|Steluza Crizantema says ‘if you don’t have school you do nothing in life’ [Elizabeth Dunningham]|
That is partly because they cannot forget what life was like before they moved here, and partly because when they leave the calm of their commune they have to face the rest of France.
Adrian Radasanu now works as a mediator between his community and the authorities, helping other Roma with their papers and to get jobs.
When he first came to France, he worked on building sites where he would tell people he was Portuguese. When the truth came out, he said people’s faces fell.
The security guard at the entrance to the camp is important to him and his children’s safety.
“In the slum you live in fear, you live today but you don’t know what will happen tomorrow,” says Radasanu.
“The first thing about this place is the people are more relaxed. There is security here, which means you are being watched but you are being protected too.”
Marion Nairelet is the tireless charity worker who bounced the authorities into agreeing to the project.
She is absolutely apoplectic about the predisposed views much of France have about the Roma.
|Many of the houses have pot plants sitting outside, which the children carefully water [Elizabeth Dunningham]|
“People have to stop thinking they are thieves, it’s a prejudice which the president has only made worse,” says Nairelet.
“It makes me feel sick because they are people like everyone else, who just want a house and the possibility to work, that’s all.”
The project is the first France has ever attempted to give the Roma the benefit of the doubt over their claims that they are willing to integrate, and it is evident that a little dignity has paid its rewards.
The project has been copied elsewhere in the country, though it appears most French people do not have a clue about it.
The current debate among the political elite in France presupposes that most Roma are incapable of doing what the people we met have proved entirely capable of.