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In France, an Experiment in Integrating Roma

  • Lisa Bryant

Simona (R), a 11 year-old Roma schoolgirl who has been living in France for 6 years, plays with children near shelters at an illegal camp on the banks of the Var River in Nice, southeastern France, Nov. 6, 2013.

Simona (R), a 11 year-old Roma schoolgirl who has been living in France for 6 years, plays with children near shelters at an illegal camp on the banks of the Var River in Nice, southeastern France, Nov. 6, 2013.

Last month, the European Union lifted work restrictions on citizens from Romania and Bulgaria - including the hundreds of thousands of Roma people. Europe's largest minority has not exactly been welcomed with open arms. That's particularly true in France, which has been widely criticized for its evictions and deportations of Roma. But today, a growing number of communities reject the national government's tough stance and are trying a new approach.

These rows of battered camper trailers seem like an unlikely testing ground for social integration. It's afternoon and the compound is filling up. Men and women are coming home from work. Children are coming home from school.

People come over to say hello to Marie Louise Mouket, a big woman who wears a colourful scarf. Mouket heads a local association called ALJ93. It's working to carve out a future for the Roma community here in Montreuil and other working-class suburbs of Paris.

The aim is to help families realize their goals - which may change over time. So far, Mouket believes, the association has achieved positive results.

In some ways, the goals seem modest. Learning French and sending the children to school. A job. A place to live. But for the estimated 20,000 Roma in France, they are enormous. Many live precariously in squalid camps.

At her office, Mouket points to a map of Romania. This group of Roma come from a village in the western part of the country. In 2008, a fire destroyed their squatter camp in Montreuil. That's when the city began a program to find them housing and jobs through the IPJ93 association.

Richard Zamith oversees the program for the city. Zamith says the Roma families must agree to send their children to school, get health checkups and look for jobs with the help of social workers. They can't be in trouble with the police. If they don't respect these rules, they're out of the program.

Today, about 62 families are enrolled. Of the families in the trailer park, roughly half have at least one member with a job. And some have found housing outside of the camp.

Twenty-five-year-old Gavila Cirpacie works in the hotel industry. He says he likes the program. He's treated with respect. France is better than Romania, because he can find work here.

Many of these Roma work in the hotel or restaurant business around Paris. Twenty-four-year-old Gabriella Cripasi works at a canteen in the suburb of Aubervilliers.

She says she wasn't able to find a job until now. She really likes the restaurant business. She wants to become a cook.

Canteen manager Laurent Vidaller has hired five Roma from the integration program. He says they're hard working and punctual.

Vidaller acknowledges Roma tend to be associated with illegal immigration and foreign customs. But, he says, these perceptions change once you get to know them.

Changing perceptions of this ethnic community, which has ancient roots in India, isn't easy. Many French, and other Europeans, who may see Roma scrounging in garbage cans and begging in the subway, and stereotype them as beggars and thieves.

The Roma and human rights groups say those stereotypes are false, and they face discrimination in education, jobs and public services.

France has deported thousands over the years, earning sharp criticism from the European Union. As of this year, Roma from Romania and Bulgaria no longer need work permits in Europe. Even so, they can be deported if they can't find jobs.

Nor has France changed its policy of razing squatter camps. Philippe Goossens, Roma expert for the French Human Rights League, says French authorities evicted nearly 20,000 Roma from camps last year - double the number in 2012.

"It is crazy, because this eviction[s] doesn't solve anything. They just put the people on the street, and of course they go to another place and rebuild the slum. It's ridiculous," he said.

Now, some municipalities are taking a different approach - embracing the Roma, not rejecting them. Most are in the Seine-Saint-Denis, one of the poorest areas of France, which also has one of the highest Roma populations. Bordeaux, Nantes and Lille, have similar programs.

Zamith, the Montreuil official, says once these programs are widely adopted, people will stop talking about a "Roma problem".

For now, however, they are costly and limited in scope. And unless the state changes its tough policies, says Goossens, local efforts are unlikely to work.

"Today, we have a national policy of rejection..if, at the national level, there is no real will or policy of insertion of these [Roma] communities, it's difficult to put in place action at the local level," said Goossens.

But Montreuil's Zamith believes integration is the only option.

If France deports the Roma, they'll only return - and the problems will start again. All the more reason, he says, to address them now.