Has Someone Said the Unsayable Truth About the Roma?

There has been one single word in French headlines non-stop for the past week and that’s “Roma.” The French have a Roma problem and it is one of those intractable issues with no easy solutions and so loaded with taboos and unsayable truths that it makes everyone squeamish. It’s not a new problem, but it was set off again last week when France’s charismatic and very popular Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls, said in a radio interview that most Roma people in France “don’t want” to assimilate, and hence “are best off returning to Romania or Bulgaria.”

French Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls.

French Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls.

The comments set off fireworks of reactions, most notably from the Minister of Housing, Cécile Duflot (who is from France’s left-of-the-socialists Green Party). She accused Valls of betraying the “Republican Pact”. Those, in France, are fighting words—quite strong ones, the French equivalent of one senator accusing another of being un-American—and created a political stand-off between the two. Duflot is right, of course, on principle: it’s a terrible thing to stigmatize an entire ethnicity as being unwilling to assimilate, the kind of thing that was said about Jews, sixty years ago. In fact, if you replace “Roma” with any other ethnicity or race—Asian, Kurd, Arab, whatever—nobody would disagree that Vall’s statement was profoundly racist.

But the majority of French people tend—massively—to agree with…Valls. A poll this past weekend revealed that 77% of the French agree that the Roma would be better off going back to their countries of origin, and it’s not just France’s right-wing nationalists coming out of the woodwork to take advantage of a political opportunity: 98% of the French voters on the right agree, but so do 55% of voters on the left. Another poll yesterday simply asked who people thought was right, Valls or Duflot—and fully two-thirds of the French agree with the Minister of the Interior and just 28% with Duflot.

Valls has said out loud what more or less everyone, or a great majority of everyone, is thinking to themselves. He’s said in a—slightly—more appropriate way what the right-wing magazine Valeurs Actuelles said this summer on one of their August covers with the title, “Roma Overdose.”


The August 22, 2013 cover title of this right-wing news magazine. “Roma Overdose,” reads the title, “Exclusive poll: the French have had enough.”

I probably could have told you that without seeing any poll numbers at all. Here’s why, the unvarnished, politically incorrect reason why: if you live in Paris, or a number of other large French cities, in any neighborhood but the most exclusive, then you too live with the Roma—a lot of Roma. Thanks to European integration, Romania and Bulgaria, the country of origin of most Roma people, are part of Europe. Romanians and Bulgarians are free to circulate throughout the European Union and it is legal for them to live and work within most of the 28 member states. They do not need a visa.

As a result, there are nearly 20,000 Roma in France, three-quarters of whom are concentrated in the greater Paris region, living in some 400 illegal encampments. France does not allow any race or ethnicity based census-taking, but the Roma are involved in two main rackets: organized begging and prostitution. Both the beggars and the prostitutes tend to be women and children. Because they live in squalid, makeshift camps with no running water or electricity, and because they don’t have jobs or income, they also run organized rings of garbage-pickers. In one encampment, with its own makeshift mayor and security force, every family pays a Euro a day into the “municipal” kitty for access to the day’s scavenged food. There are vans that, every morning at dawn, drop off teenagers and women all over the city, in Paris’s dozens of arrondissements: some women settle onto a street corner to beg, others set out to pick over trash cans, and bands of teenagers, often including pregnant girls, rove about tourist areas with pens and pads of paper waiting to hit up some foreigners. Their lives, frankly, sound awful.

A Roma encampment in Paris's 19th arroniddissement.

A Roma encampment in Paris’s 19th arrondissement.

I live in a diverse, gentrifying neighbourhood of northern Paris, and my apartment happens to overlook a broad open green space, like a small public lawn. For over a year now, except during the winter’s coldest months, there has generally been a large family, or a big extended family, sometimes a whole gang of a several dozen Roma, camping out: mothers with babies, fathers, pregnant teenagers, multiple strollers, spreads of food, men lounging, even an old accordionist who all summer long, every day, from 6am to 6pm has played the same song. I either want to kill him or teach him to play another song. He’s there now. This summer for a while they’d dragged an old leather couch under a nearby scaffolding and hung out there when it rained. It stayed for weeks.

I wouldn’t want to live on the street. It’s a terrible life. But frankly, I wished they didn’t live in my street. Who does want them to live on their street? What community wants to host their encampment? What city will offer them jobs, education, and healthcare?

Roma are the thorny and taboo topic, the nuisance about which no one dares speak, now a part of everyday urban aggravation, a familiar and unwelcome feature of street-life, the unspoken target of everyone’s animosity, the legal and social problem to which no one on the left has dared offer a solution, and which the far-right has enthusiastically placed high up on their electoral agenda.

In reality, Manuel Valls said in language that was tolerable to the left (“they don’t want to assimilate”…“best off returning to Romania”) exactly what the right said in language that made them sound friendly to the far-right National Front party (“enough, leave, go home”). And now that he’s said it, it’s made him even more popular: he has become his party’s favorite campaign trail accessory in France’s local election campaigns that are now going full swing.

And that’s what’s so troubling—that most of the political spectrum, from the mainstream Socialists to the right to the far-right actually seem to agree. That should never happen. And when it does, it makes for a very ugly confusion of genres.

Because eventually Valls will no longer be able to cloak his phrases in euphemistic suggestions of “better off”, he’ll probably have to speak a little more clearly about exactly what he means—and then what will he sound like?

Gangland on the Riviera: France’s Marseille Problem

Marseille seen from the old port.

Marseille seen from the old port.

The idea of the south of France doesn’t usually evoke images of drug violence or drive-by shootings. If anything crime on the French Riviera might call to mind diamond heists in Cannes (of which there’ve been quite a few this year). But not much further down the sparkling azure coast, built on rolling hills surrounding an old port, there’s Marseille, where just this week, yet another pair of assault-weapon shootings left two youth dead, confirmed the city’s reputation for being—literally—the most dangerous place in Europe to be young, and has definitively added a Marseille Problem to the current government’s concerns.

The 15th person killed this year in Marseille was actually the son of a well-known city figure, José Anigo, the athletic director of the Olympique de Marseille soccer team.

The 15th person killed this year in Marseille was actually the son of a well-known city figure, José Anigo, the athletic director of the Olympique de Marseille soccer team.

What is most striking about the violence in Marseille is the perception of impunity. There is a sense about the city, which is the murder capital of France, with five times the national homicide rate, that it is actually beyond the power of authorities to do anything about it. That it has simply been left to its own devices. Several years ago already, in the summer of 2011, an incident occurred that got a lot of media coverage because it was so deeply symbolic of the situation.

A privately-run parking lot in the Porte d’Aix neighborhood, not far from the city center, was abandoned by the management company Vinci, who claimed that they were tired of dealing with the harassment and crime of the local gang of kids, and that they couldn’t insure the safety of their employees. The lot was soon taken over by the gang who ran the place, hitting up drivers for 5 Euros in order to leave the parking lot. The racket lasted for months. When the lot was finally evacuated, Vinci claimed the local authorities hadn’t done anything, the authorities claimed the police didn’t do enough in the neighborhood, and the police claimed that they regularly patrolled near the parking lot. Keeping in mind that the parking lot had formerly brought in about €100,000 of public revenue annually. “T.I.M,” you might say: This Is Marseille.

And this is the problem. In 2012, 24 people were killed in drug- and gang-related violence, and 15 have already been killed this year, despite the fact that both the Sarkozy government and the Hollande government each dispatched new brigades of hundreds more policemen and investigators in recent years. While I was editorial director of the news channel France 24, we produced a documentary about Marseille’s growing lawlessness that aired in October of 2011. Johnny, a 22-year-old aspiring rapper, drug dealer and gang leader, was one of the story’s affable characters, talking about himself as a kind of Robin Hood, just trying to get by without hurting anybody. A few months ago he was gunned down by a rival.

The sense of lawlessness in Marseille persists. Last summer, a socialist senator and district mayor from Marseille, Samia Ghali, called for the president to send in the army, raising eyebrows in her own party with this very un-leftist call for a kind of emergency martial law. Hollande at the time said this wasn’t the role of the army, and the Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, called for a special inter-ministerial summit to study the Marseille problem. Last week, Samia Ghali renewed her call for the army to help insure security in Marseille. And the Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls, called for a “national pact” to solve the crisis, with an emergency meeting involving all of Marseilles’s elected officials that was held this (Saturday) morning.

The Marseille Problem obviously has no simple solution. But it is hard to get past the bizarreness of the fact that in the second biggest city of one of the world’s wealthiest countries–which sees the United States as being a violent and weapons-addled society–that drug bosses and gangs are running the show essentially undeterred in some neighborhoods.

One of the banlieue in the north of Marseille where much of the violence takes place.

One of the banlieue in the north of Marseille where much of the violence takes place.

It’s unclear what the real root problems are and which to attack first: poverty, unemployment, alienated immigrant communities, gangs and violence itself? Marseille is a huge city with a  large immigrant population, high poverty, and among the highest unemployment rates in the country. But the problem runs even deeper, deep into the mafia history of the city, into the deeply-rooted culture of organized crime and omertà that goes back decades.

Still today, the local leadership will deny that this is all such a big deal. Marseille’s right-wing mayor, Jean-Claude Gaudin, an old-timer and a veteran of local and national politics (he is a former minister), sent aggressive tweets saying the media and the socialist government were giving a distorted image of Marseille and sullying its image. “Security issues” he tweeted, “allow too many politicians and the media to deform reality, to exaggerate the facts and hurt Marseille.”

The Marseille tradition of looking the other way seems to go way back, too. Here’s what the owner of a local bar where a man was shot dead said to a reporter from the French newspaper Libération, at the time of the parking lot affair. It sums up the resignation of locals who’ve gotten used to waiting for a solution to the Marseille problem:

“We don’t live in fear, we live in the expectation that this kind of thing will happen. Let me tell you, unlike other places, at least in Marseille they don’t mess up. They shoot, but not at customers. They know how to aim.”