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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: À Saint-Étienne, les Rom face à la politique du mépris

by Émilie Rive, special correspondent, Saint-Étienne

Administrative Contempt for the Roma in Saint-Étienne

Translated Wednesday 22 August 2007, by Patrick Bolland

Immigration. After new expulsions last week from a building of the electricity-supply company (EDF), 200 Roma (1) are now parked in two abandoned schools.

Montplaisir, south-east of Saint-Étienne and some 75 km west of Lyon. The name of the place (“Pleasure Mountain”) is light years away from what 220 people squeezed into two buildings of an abandonned school on Terrenoire Street are living through. Located in the shadow of a motorway, the parallel buildings are scheduled to be torn down in 2008: a panel announces a Red Cross nursing school will be built there soon. But it’s here that the Loire administration and the local municipality have decided to concentrate all the Roma living in the city.

Four people sharing a mattress

A few months ago the kindergarten building became the “residence” for some 100 Roma, frequently displaced from one unhealthy site to another. The classrooms are subdivided into provisional sleeping spaces, hardly larger than the size of a bed, protected from neighbours by hanging cloth. Sometimes a door is added giving a semblance of privacy. Each classroom houses 10, 14, even 18 people from different families. There is a nook for cooking. Outside, at the far end of the covered playground, under an overhang, a family has set down a mattress.

The two buildings contain a row of a dozen classrooms on two floors. The end of the corridor has been isolated as a “living area”. When asked if she has anything to eat, a mother holds her baby of just 15 days in her arms and smiles: “Not much …”. Her husband hasn’t managed to find a job.

Since last Wednesday (15 August), the second building, which had been the elementary school, shelters another 100 Roma, who at the same time last year were forced out of an abandoned electricity company (EDF) building on Béraud Street. Trade unions managed to arrange minimal material comforts and the children were able to go to school, so life was organized as well as it could be. But the EDF decided to repossess the building. One hundred riot police (one for each Roma!) proceeded with the expulsion order. The municipality transported a few mattresses – but refused to make more than one trip. Everything else was left behind, including the latest deliveries from charitable organizations of fresh produce, meat and yoghurts, which soon started rotting. The municipality disinfected the area before allowing any more things to be taken away the next day.

There are 10-18 per unit in this second building as well, without yet any pretence of even temporary separations. Four people can be sharing the same mattress, sleeping on it sideways ... A family is hunched up in a corner with the bed 20 cm from the wall, 50 cm from the window. The family? Four people, among them a young handicapped girl who gets around in a wheel-chair. Another corner serves as the bedroom, no window, under a stairway, so the “ceiling” comes down to the floor. There is only room for a very small bed. Anna Pidoux, working with the Roma support committee, tells us: On Thursday evening, without any warning, the police dumped a family of nine people on the street, and just left them there. We had to pack a few more in. There are children who are sick, handicapped, babies … It’s disgraceful.”

No showers, no hot water

The 220 occupants have access to three toilets per building, and, upstairs, 3 children’s-height taps. No showers, no hot water … Here and there, newcomers have set up calor-gas stoves. But the gas bottles are expensive and the electric heating-plates from the EDF building short-circuited as soon as they were plugged in. Schools are not equipped for such equipment. The electricity box has been repaired, but there isn’t enough power.

Where will the children go to school?

It comes down to a single question, for everyone: Where will the children go to school in the new term? As with each forced removal, neither the regional administration nor the local municipality are worried about these 50 children. The neighbouring schools, while they’d like to help, lack room for all these new pupils. The support committee doesn’t have an answer and hopes to meet very soon with the mayor and regional administration. But their main concern is different: “There is no question of accepting the creatioon of this ghetto”, Marcel Gaillard, Marie-Pierre Vincent, Anna Pidoux and Joël Dupuis say in a single voice. “Small housing units have to be found in different parts of the city. In this area, there are no structures adapted to the needs, no schools, no social services, no open areas. The local people have also expressed their concern for the way the Roma are being dumped – but these Roma are also victims of rejection: all these conditions overlap”.

Speaking on Monday for the Saint-Étienne Communist councillors, Marie-Hélène Thomas complained to the mayor and regional administration, emphasizing the danger of creating a ghetto in this neighbourhood, the occupants’ desire to work and find stable housing, and the need to move ahead with social and occupational integration. She also insisted that all levels of authority – national and European – come together to examine this exodus of Roma from Romania and find way of solving the problem.

They all want to work

These families have been living in this area for at least five and sometimes up to fifteen years, chased out of Romania when it opened up to neo-liberal policies resulting in high prices, unemployment and discrimination. One father of a family tells us: “Returning to Romania, we’d find no housing, no work – it’s just total racism. Even here, as we are now, we’re better off than back there. My wife and I were raised in orphanages. I don’t want my children to have to go through that. The orphanages are still there. I’m staying here.”

Some speak French well. Another explains: “I answer ads at the Jobs Office (ANPE), I phone up and they say the job is already taken. Yet the ad is still on the notice-board. Was I refused because I’m Romanian? I’m not going to hide the fact! I don’t want to return to Romania, or else just for a holiday. My life is here, my friends are here. I just need a job. Do you know anyone who can help? …”

“We have employers who can’t find workers, in restaurants, hotels, construction and they want to hire immediately”, Anna Pidoux points out angrily. “All these sectors where, as the minister of labour has said, French workers are unwilling to work. But to work legally, you have to have working papers, which take three months to be approved. Employers are going to look elsewhere. Particularly since if they want to employ a Romanian with a long-term contract at the minimum wage, they have to deposit either 600 € for a seasonal job or 900 € with the National Agency for Foreigners and Emigrants (ANAEM). This is a real racket, very discouraging. And then they tell you that these people don’t want to work …”

The administration has said it will study the situation of these Roma on a case-by-case basis. To filter out the undesirables and propose assistance for them to return to Romania? For the time being, no meeting is scheduled between the various parties, neither in the municipality nor in the département.

Translator’s note: A good source of information on the Roma is the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), an international public interest law organisation engaging in a range of activities aimed at combating anti-Roma racism and human rights abuse of Roma. (http://errc.org/)

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