France’s Socialist government announced on Wednesday that it would ease employment restrictions on Roma (also known as Gypsies) in the country in a bid to smooth over an increasingly visible social problem on the streets of the French capital.
The announcement affects some15,000 to 20,000 Roma living in France. This population has been subject to dismantlement of their camps and “repatriations” to their home countries, a policy started in 2010 under former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-wing government.
Romania and Bulgaria, where the majority of Roma originate, became full members of the European Union in 2007. But “transitional arrangements” in their accession to the EU mean that citizens of these former communist bloc states will not enjoy complete freedom of employment in France until December 31, 2013.
Under current rules, Roma can only be hired for certain jobs, restricted to a list. In addition, local authorities must approve all new contracts (which can take at least three months) and employers have to pay a 713-euro surcharge for taking them on.
The government said on Wednesday that it wants to expand the list of potential jobs, but insisted that forced dismantlement of the often squalid Roma camps will continue, along with the repatriations.
The reality on the streets of Paris
In central Paris, meanwhile, dozens of Roma families have settled around the Place de la Bastille neighbourhood.
They have become an almost permanent fixture as well as a grim attraction to the many tourists visiting this historic part of the French capital.
Their “homes” are street corners, stretches of pavement, doorways and even in one case a telephone booth. Their meagre possessions include a few suitcases, cardboard boxes and a mattress or two.
“The tourists pass by and stare at us but they never give us anything,” Adrian Attila-Kallai, a 30-year-old Roma, complained. He stared suspiciously at a group of Japanese visitors hastily snapping pictures of the family group as they leaned against a wall under their hanging laundry.
“It’s always the same,” he says. “We are hungry and no one gives us anything.”
Adrian, his mother Marienara and several of their friends and relatives have been occupying their stretch of pavement for several weeks, along with dozens of other Roma families, most of them from Romania.
Roma are ‘here to stay’
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” says one shopkeeper. “There have been a few Roma groups here for several years but in recent months they have become much more visible. There are more and more families living on the streets here.”
According to Adrian they are here to stay – none of them has any desire to go “home”.
“There is only poverty in Romania,” he said. “I’ve been sent back [France has been “repatriating” displaced Roma since 2010] and I returned at once.”
Adrian added that he did not want to live in any of the numerous Roma camps dotted around France’s major cities. Many of these have been forcibly dismantled in recent months.
“It’s out of the question,” he said. “Those camps are dirty and dangerous. We would rather be here, where there are lots of passers-by, which means we can get some money. Also, the police don’t hassle us here.”
Despite feeling safer in the city centre, he said the nights still carried risks.
“Moroccans and Pakistanis try to kick us out and to rob us,” he alleged, his tone aggressive as he toyed with a penknife.
Adrian and his family were aware of the inter-ministerial meeting that took place on Wednesday to find a solution to France’s “Roma crisis”.
They hope that newly-elected French President François Hollande “won’t be a second Sarkozy”, and are crossing their fingers that promises to relax French laws limiting their right to work legally will bear fruit.
But Adrian was not overwhelmingly optimistic: “Everywhere you go in Europe, when people hear ‘Roma’ they think ‘thief’ or ‘criminal’.
“Even if the government eases the rules, people will continue to discriminate against us.”
Apart from a very few exceptions, these family groups are almost totally closed off from their wider social environment.
They do not receive any aid from the number of organisations that support Roma in France and seem barely aware of their existence. Hardly any of them speak French.
Many have to beg to survive, and they all say they are ashamed of it.
“You think I like to live like a dog?” said Sebastian Ungureanu, a young man in his 20s from a neighbouring family group who came to join the conversation. “I would rather work, and I am a hard worker. I would take any work, but for the moment there are zero opportunities.”
Compassion and exasperation
On the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir, just off Place de la Bastille, the attitude of shopkeepers and café owners is a mix of compassion and exasperation.
“It’s just so complicated,” said the manager of one bar. “Some of them steal, but others are really nice people whom we have gotten to know well. And we do try to help them out.”
Just like the Roma families that dot the landscape, she expects “much of our new Socialist government.”
“I do need to employ people and I would gladly take on some of these Roma,” she added. “But it doesn’t make sense to me to pay the 700-euro tax. It’s absurd.”
In front of the bar, a Roma father tried to keep control of his two children who were playing a game of football with an empty beer can.
He, his children and his wife, who begs outside a nearby fast food outlet, live in a telephone booth.
“I have absolutely nothing here,” he says. “But at least there are rubbish bins with rich pickings in Paris. Not like Bulgaria, where the bins are all empty.”