By CELESTINE BOHLEN
Published: October 11, 2013
PARIS — There is something odd about the pointed political debate under way in France about an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Roma migrants, mostly from Romania and Bulgaria, who, depending on who’s talking, are either a menace to society or victims of systematic discrimination.
Turn on the television, or open a newspaper, and you will see no shortage of strongly held opinions. Even the governing Socialist Party is sharply divided. Last month, Manuel Valls, the minister of the interior, said flatly that the foreign Roma — distinct from France’s estimated 350,000 native Gypsy, or “traveler,” population — are incapable of integrating into society and should go home. He was swiftly denounced by another cabinet minister who accused him of stigmatizing an entire ethnic group.
And so the debate continues, with both sides, each backed by small armies of editorialists and experts, talking past each other and over the heads of the Roma themselves. With six months to go before France’s critical municipal elections, many politicians, mostly on the right (plus Mr. Valls), blame the Roma for a rise in petty crime, a major factor in the overwhelming popular support — 77 percent, according to one poll — for the interior minister’s hard-line position.
They point to assorted statistics like a 69 percent increase, between 2009 and 2011, in crimes committed by Romanian citizens (by law, French statistics do not identify ethnic groups like the Roma) and the 23 percent of crimes committed by minors in Paris in 2010 attributed to young Romanians.
These statistics are brushed aside by human rights groups and politicians, mostly on the left, who concentrate on the unjust treatment of the Roma, a people who, having fled misery and discrimination back home, are facing both again in France.
Yet these views are not mutually exclusive. Both crime and misery are on display every day in the center of Paris, where women with children in their arms sit begging, where families spend the night on the streets and where bands of young girls, waving fake petitions, throng tourist sites, eyeing the purses of unsuspecting visitors.
Somehow, though, these people are invisible when it comes to the public debate. A recent demonstration in support of the Roma was held in the center of Paris, blocks away from a street corner where an extended family of Roma migrants had set up camp on two mattresses covered with food, blankets, children and stuffed animals. They did not attend the protest; they were not even aware it was taking place.
“So who are the Roma, and where are they?” asked Saimir Mile, president of the Voice of the Roma, a small organization founded in 2005. “You cannot understand certain realities without knowing the facts.”
Facts about the Roma, who number between 10 million and 12 million across Europe, are always difficult to come by. As citizens of the European Union, they can come and go without going through passport control, leaving no record of their stay.
The French estimate has remained the same for several years even as successive governments continue to deport Roma from France. In the first eight months of this year, a total of 3,180 Romanians and Bulgarians, many presumed to be Roma, have been escorted out of the country.
Meanwhile, within France, they are continually being moved from place to place, as courts, under pressure from local mayors, order them to evacuate their squalid shantytowns. In 2012, 12,841 Romanians and Bulgarians, mostly Roma, were evicted, an increase of 18.4 percent over 2011. Despite promises by the Socialist government to conduct these evictions in a more humane way, they have not slowed; in July and August this year, 3,746 Roma were displaced in 39 separate operations.
Mr. Mile, 38, an Albanian-born Rom in France since 1996, was a lecturer on Roma culture at a Paris university when he decided to create a group that could speak for the Roma, rather than about them.
“The Roma are a highly prized topic for structures of all kinds, which have their own interests, on the left, on the right,” he said.
His tiny group, with just 50 members, has had meager results. In one case, Mr. Mile managed to get some 30 Roma children ready for school, with the right vaccinations and documents, just when their families were evicted from a local campsite.
The fact is most migrant Roma have overstayed their three-month sojourns in France that are permitted without visas. Their encampments are also mostly illegal, since local officials are reluctant to give the necessary permission. Without jobs or legal residency, their access to social services is limited, and their vulnerability to evictions and expulsions is high.
The larger Roma community in France is not much help, Mr. Mile said. “They, too, have suffered from racism and discrimination,” he said. “Their first reaction is to say, ‘We’re not like those people.’ They are torn between a feeling of proximity and a fear of even greater stigmatism.”
This kind of silence leaves the Roma on the outside of the discussion. It is a complaint heard elsewhere in Europe as officials, on a national and E.U. level, try to come up with solutions to the centuries-old, Continent-wide problems of a population still in search of integration.
“Without the participation of the Roma, solving Roma issues is much more difficult,” said Peter Pollak, a Roma member of the Slovak Parliament and chief representative of a Roma community that makes up 10 percent of all Slovaks, in a recent interview in Bratislava.