Published: 18:28 EDT, 2 August 2013 | Updated: 21:06 EDT, 2 August 2013>
Two young tourists stroll lazily across Place Sainte-Opportune in Central Paris, using a map to navigate the quiet backstreets linking the Louvre with Notre Dame Cathedral. Halfway across the picturesque cobbles they are approached by a group of teenage boys, who appear to be the children of Roma gipsies. There are eight of them, smiling manically and blowing kisses.
The tourists, both American men in their 20s, attempt to wave the beggars politely away. But the youths refuse to leave: instead, they crowd closer. Within seconds, the two men are surrounded. Hands grab at their pockets, or reach for their rucksacks. Voices are raised and a scuffle ensues.
It takes perhaps 20 seconds for the confusion to clear. By that time, the shocked Americans have been relieved of their bags, which lie torn open on the pavement, surrounded by personal belongings. At least one camera has been stolen, along with a wallet. Mobile phones are missing. A pair of designer sunglasses lie twisted in the gutter.
Counter-demonstration by extreme-right 'nationalists' against internationalism, near the Place de la Madeleine and Place des Pyramides. Some of them marched while doing the Hitler salute
A man holds his grand-child on April 5, 2011 in the Moulin-Galant camp in Corbeil-Essonnes, outside Paris, home to about 70 Roma families
Police are called, but the criminal gang is long gone. A detective shrugs apologetically as the victims dust themselves down and gather what remains of their belongings. We can safely assume that their summer holiday has been ruined.
The incident occurs at breakfast-time, at the start of another busy day in France’s capital, where the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe and other famous attractions draw 16 million overseas visitors each year.
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In August, when most locals are on holiday, the city centre is almost entirely given over to tourists, who form long queues outside museums and cathedrals, or sip coffee or ‘vin blanc’ on pavement terraces.
Yet as this ugly altercation last Friday suggests, a very different foreign invasion is now threatening the bonhomie that these international tourists so enjoy.
A Roma woman and her children begging in place de la Bastille in Paris, on August 22, 2012. The French government seeks to end a row over its treatment of ethnic Roma migrants in a move that could result in Bulgarian and Romanian citizens being granted the right to work in France
A member of an association (pictured 2nd from the right) speaks with people from the Roma community in front of the city hall of Evry, near Paris, after they were expelled by police from their camp, on August 27, 2012. According to the Essonne Association of Solidarity with Romanian Roma families (ASEFRR), 72 people lived in shacks for four months along the roads behind an abandoned hospital
In recent years, with the EU’s relaxation of travel restrictions across mainland Europe, hundreds of thousands of Roma gipsies, mostly from Romania and Bulgaria, have travelled west in search of a better life.
As many as half a million are estimated to be living in France, according to the European Roma Rights Centre. And many of them have chosen to take up residence in vast shanty towns that have sprung up on wasteland in the suburbs of Paris.
Each morning, a small army of women and children leave these illegal camps and catch trains into the city centre, where many spend the day trying to exploit, harass and steal from tourists.
Some sit begging by cashpoints — often with babies on their laps. Others tour the streets pretending to be deaf, dumb or otherwise disabled, and seeking donations for fictitious charities.
A few pick pockets. Others — like the group which struck in Place Sainte-Opportune — ‘swarm’ passers-by, using the ensuing confusion to brazenly steal from them.
Last month, an organised gang of gipsies upped the ante, attacking two minibuses full of Chinese visitors stuck in traffic as they travelled from Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, stealing thousands of euros in cash.
Two months earlier, an immigrant ‘Fagin’ called Fehim Hamidovic was sentenced to seven years in prison for masterminding one of the biggest ever child pickpocketing rings. He was found to have sent 500 young gipsy girls onto the Paris streets each day, threatening them with beatings, cigarette burns to the face and even rape unless they stole the equivalent of £250 a day.
Girls walking among caravans on April 5, 2011 in the Moulin-Galant camp in Corbeil-Essonnes, outside Paris, home to about 70 Roma families
Now it should be stressed that these criminals represent only a small fraction of the Roma now in France, many of whom are decent, law-abiding citizens. But these high-profile cases, taken as a whole, are sparking a widespread social shift in attitudes across the country.
In short, hostility to the Roma is contributing to the re-emergence of the racist Right in France, so much so that the country’s National Front party is on the verge of taking a lead in national opinion polls.
The past fortnight has seen tensions spill over. Several violent ‘revenge attacks’ by demonstrators carrying baseball bats, iron bars and petrol bombs have been reported at Roma camps.
Policemen stand in front of the city hall of Evry, near Paris, as people from the Roma community wait after being expelled by police from their camp on August 27, 2012
Meanwhile, even mainstream politicians have begun using inflammatory language to exploit widely-held public concern about immigration.
Only last month, for example, a member of parliament, Gilles Bourdouleix, made headlines after a visit to an illegal Roma encampment in the town of Cholet in Western France, where he is also Mayor.
In front of several journalists, Bourdouleix cast an eye around the squalid location before announcing that perhaps Adolf Hitler ‘did not kill enough’ Roma gipsies during the Holocaust.
The comment seemed especially chilling in light of the ugly thread of racism that runs through France’s modern political history. Untold numbers of Jews perished here during the Nazi occupation, many of them thanks to the Vichy regime and its anti-Semitic supporters.
Perhaps most infamous is the story of how French police in 1942 rounded up 13,000 Jews in Paris and confined many of them in a velodrome, before putting them on trains to Auschwitz.
Boy lost: more policemen standing in front of the city hall of Evry, near Paris, as people from the Roma community wait after being expelled
Two decades later, during the Algerian War, scores of Arab immigrants protesting against the French authorities in Paris were killed by police officers in what became known as the 1961 massacre.
Such extreme attitudes to minorities have been a stain on the French character. Now, with the National Front gaining strength by the day, the European Union’s insistence on freedom of movement across borders means that such prejudice is again rearing its head.
To understand why the Roma have become the Far Right’s favourite whipping boys, you need only spend a few hours in central Paris. One morning this week, I saw more than a hundred gipsy gang members at work within a couple of square miles.
Small groups could be seen at every tourist spot. Some were even begging outside the city’s police headquarters, and a few attempted to stop people passing the Palais de Justice, France’s High Court.
People belonging to the Roma community collect their luggage. The Roma Gypsies are expelled from France, Charles de Gaulle airport, Paris, France on 20 August, 2010. They had agreed to a 'voluntary return procedure', and then queue for boarding procedures at Charles de Gaulle airport and their flight to the Romanian capital, Bucharest
‘They’re everywhere, they behave with impunity, and everyone — particularly visitors — has to be incredibly careful not to become one of their victims,’ said Michael Graham, a British expat living in Paris.
‘The latest scam I’ve seen is they see a tourist sitting at a café with their mobile phone out, so they go over and pop a clipboard down on the table with some message or petition on it about a disability charity.
‘When the person tells them to go away, they scoop up the clipboard and take the phone, too. It happens all the time.’
Begging is illegal in France. Yet French police seem powerless to stem the rising tide of lawlessness. They arrested 1,769 minors for street crimes in Central Paris last year, but admit that represents only a tiny proportion of the active criminals shoehorned daily into a few miles of the city.
France was set to repatriate nearly 140 more of the Roma community, one day after scores were flown back to Romania under a controversial crackdown ordered by France's then President Nicolas Sarkozy
‘Welcome to Europe’s open borders,’ an exasperated senior police officer told me this week. ‘All of these kids are ultimately members of gangs from Romania and Bulgaria. They pitch their caravans on the outskirts of town.
‘Hundreds of them are trying to steal — and they’re becoming increasingly confident in how they do it. We can barely touch the kids because they’re considered too young in the eyes of the law.’
In France’s corridors of power, the political class has spent recent years stoking public fears about the gipsy community.
Their hostility began in 2004, when EU travel restrictions were first eased for Romanians and Bulgarians, and tens of thousands began to settle on patches of wasteland across France.
France’s then centre-right President Nicolas Sarkozy introduced a ‘destruction programme’, targeting many of the worst gipsy camps and offering Roma families hundreds of euros in cash to catch budget flights back to their homeland.
But no sooner had one camp been razed than another popped up. And many families who were ‘deported’ simply used some of the payments to buy cheap tickets back to France.
Despite these problems, Sarkozy’s policy was taken up enthusiastically by his Socialist successor as President, Francois Hollande. Last year, M Hollande’s government says it deported 13,000 Romanians and Bulgarians — an increase of 18 per cent on the previous year.
Two young girls living at a Roma camp in Vigneux-sur-Seine, France, pictured here on 24 January this year
Romanian camp at Patin near Paris. Home to about 125 people moved on by French Police following an order from then President Sarkozy in 2010
This number is, of course, a drop in the ocean. But Hollande’s pugnacious interior minister, Manuel Valls (who is already known as the ‘Sarkozy of the Left’), stated openly that he wants to send tens of thousands more home, since the Roma ‘do not want to integrate’.
In Britain, where EU ‘open borders’ legislation is due to take effect in January — meaning Romanian and Bulgarians will be free to live and work in the UK, just as they currently are in France — such comments would raise eyebrows, and quite possibly risk prosecution.
But in France, which has 12 per cent unemployment, today’s electorate seems to take a different view of racial politics. After all, in 2011, the government succeeded in pushing through a ‘burka ban’ — forbidding Muslim women from covering their faces in public.
At the time, Sarkozy claimed the veil was an affront to the French Republic, saying it could be used by criminals and shoplifters to hide their identity.
Opponents accused him of trying to stigmatise France’s seven million Muslims. Amnesty International and other human rights groups, opposed the ban.
Even today, anger over the policy runs deep. Last week, for example, there were two nights of rioting in Trappes, a Paris suburb, after police attempted to fine a woman for wearing a veil.
Inevitably, such unrest is being exploited by extremists.
Roma gypsies being evicted from their campsite in Saint-Priest, France on 28 August last year
Roma families, who were evicted from their camp, pictured camping out in the street in front of the administrative court, Lyon, France on April 4 this year
Recent infighting in Sarkozy’s former Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party, along with the failure of Hollande’s Socialists to kick-start the country’s ailing economy, has left a gap in the market for the far-right National Front to surge in popularity.
The party, which currently has two MPs in the National Assembly, was founded by the convicted racist and Holocaust denier Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has for years vilified Muslims, backed the burka ban, and recently made headlines by describing gipsies in Nice as ‘smelly’ and ‘rash-inducing’.
Despite — or perhaps because of — his extreme language, the most recent opinion poll put the National Front on 21 per cent, equal first with both the UMP and the Socialists. That support, if mirrored at an election, would make the party — now run by Le Pen’s daughter Marine — kingmakers in negotiations for a coalition government.
Little wonder, then, that politicians from mainstream parties have begun using similarly inflammatory rhetoric to discuss immigrants.
Last month, Christian Estrosi, a UMP MP who is also the mayor of Nice, was threatened with prosecution for inciting racial hatred against the Roma by saying he ‘wanted cameras everywhere’ to monitor ‘these criminals’.
On the streets, such comments can have ugly consequences.
Here they are pictured entering the Charles de Gaulle airport, Paris, France in August 2010 for a flight to the Romanian capital Bucharest. The Roma community people had agreed to a 'voluntary return procedure' to leave
Roma Gypsies checking in at the Charles de Gaulle airport for Bucharest - here they were pictured being watched over by guards
A short train ride from central Paris is the crime-ridden suburb of St Denis, home of the international sporting venue Stade de France.
Last Saturday night, a small group of gipsies who live by a canal in the shadow of the stadium, were attacked by a large group of residents from a nearby housing estate. Three were hospitalised, and one remains in intensive care.
‘We were drinking and listening to music,’ recalls Mario Marin, who lives in the camp with his wife Beatrice and three children.
‘A man pulled up on a scooter and asked us to turn the music down. It didn’t happen, and half an hour later a gang of 20 youths from the estate arrived with baseball bats and iron bars and started smashing up our cars. The police did nothing to catch the attackers. They didn’t care.’
Today, their cars and caravans remain on the street, their windows broken.
Laurent El Ghozi, spokesman for the Romeurope group which represents the interests of the gipsies in France, says there have been dozens of similar unreported attacks around Paris in recent weeks, many involving the use of petrol bombs.
A mile away from Marin’s home is a larger ‘Bidonville’, or shanty town, on a patch of wasteland between two dual carriageways. The place looks as if it might belong in the Third World. Houses are made from plywood and tarpaulin, or are tents pitched on wooden pallets. Rudimentary pit toilets are surrounded by corrugated iron walls.
Not long ago, Claude Capillon, the local UMP Member of Parliament, led a march to the site behind a banner reading ‘Expulsion Now’. He blamed its 300 residents for an upsurge in muggings and petty crime. Days after the march, a petrol bomb was lobbed into the camp.
‘The police never came,’ says a resident who gives his name as Nelson Blondel. ‘Every night, more of us have been attacked in the streets here. How many have been arrested for these crimes? None.’
Blondel looks up towards the Stade de France, looming in the background. Built for the 1998 Football World Cup, it’s supposed to be symbol of national unity.
‘When I look at the France of today, unity is the last thing I see,’ he says.
One thing seems indisputable: there is a worrying collision of ugly forces at work here. And you don’t need to be a pessimist to believe that these violent flashpoints will only get worse as the political rhetoric escalates, and the cracks in this troubled nation grow ever wider.
Source : http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2383855/How-Roma-invasion-sparked-rise-Frances-racist-Right.html