It is now a tradition. Every summer, migrant Roma in France are targets of forced eviction and removal from the country. It has become the norm ever since Nicolas Sarkozy announced in Grenoble, almost three years ago, that he would end the “wild establishments of Roma camps”.
In March 2012, François Hollande said the policy of Sarkozy’s government was responsible for the “intolerable precariousness in which these [Roma] families find themselves and that produces a group, an ideal scapegoat to justify ever-more-repressive policies.”
Candidate Hollande called for an end to discriminatory measures against Roma. But now, under President Hollande, we see the same images of destroyed shacks and Roma parents with their young children and their bags wondering where to go next. As candidate Hollande pointed out, families are chased from one place to another without a solution.
An August 2012 circular, signed by seven ministers, instructs prefects – the state’s representatives in a region or department – to conduct an assessment of unauthorized camps, to try to find alternative accommodation for their inhabitants, and to ensure that they have continued access to health care and education.
But the circular is not binding and also gives rise to contradictions and ambiguity by asserting that court decisions to evict unauthorized camps must be carried out. In a recent report, the Defender of Rights – France’s national ombudsman – concluded that the authorities have implemented the circular inconsistently or inadequately and in some cases failed to do so entirely. The ombudsman called on the government to comply with it completely.
Alain Régnier, the official appointed by the prime minister to assist prefects in applying the circular, said he faces challenges such as the lack of housing in the Paris region and negative stereotypes against the Roma. He confessed that it was the most difficult task of his entire career.
Indeed the interior minister, Manuel Valls, has been very clear about his personal views, saying that, “More than ever, the evictions are necessary and will continue.”
Removals of Roma from France are also ongoing, and there are reports of police issuing expulsion orders to people living in camps without conducting individual assessments of each person’s situation. A law enacted under Sarkozy that appears to target Roma from Romania and Bulgaria– the two countries from which most Roma migrants originate– for expulsion on the grounds that they have “abused” their right to free movement under EU law, is still in force. Courts have annulled many expulsion orders made on this basis for lack of evidence of repeated short-term stays in France.
Feeling the urge to do something to help the Roma, some local authorities have set up projects to provide temporary accommodation for Roma families and register the children in schools, or improve conditions in camps by providing running water and electricity.
But these case-by-case initiatives do not absolve the French government of its own duties. As a party to the UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, France has an obligation to carry out genuine consultation with those facing an eviction, provide them with reasonable notice, and ensure that no one is made homeless as a result.
These safeguards should be set out explicitly in law, rather than as guidance in a nonbinding circular. France should ensure that any expulsion decisions are preceded by an individual assessment of the evictees’ circumstances, and repeal the measure that permits expulsion on the basis of “abuse” of their right under EU law to short stays in France.
When France’s human rights record was under scrutiny before the UN Human Rights Council earlier this year, the government agreed to tackle discrimination against Roma and to review its policies to ensure that the rights of Roma living in camps are respected. However, it rejected a recommendation to amend its laws to end forced evictions of Roma.
Admittedly, the current government has taken some measures to improve the situation for Roma. The government has improved employment possibilities for Romanian and Bulgarian Roma by removing the tax on their employment and increasing the number of employment categories to which they have access.
And it is true that the current government has somewhat departed from its predecessor’s discourse, which stigmatized Roma and linked them to crime. But claims by Valls that Roma living in camps “do not wish to integrate due to cultural reasons” or that they are controlled by networks dedicated to “begging or prostitution” make me wonder how much has really changed.
Legislative changes, though necessary, will not be enough. The government also needs to send a clear message that discrimination against Roma will not be tolerated; that all people, whatever their immigration status, have a right to live in dignity.
With local elections coming up in 2014, a strong position from the government is more pressing than ever. The issue of Roma and camps will no doubt be on the agenda in many municipalities, and these men, women, and children who live in conditions unworthy of contemporary France cannot afford yet another layer of stigma.
It is more than time for François Hollande to prove he is different. No empty promises, and not another round of forced evictions in August.
Izza Leghtas is a Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch.