French Gypsies affected by Roma crackdown
French Gypsies find themselves in an unexpected stand-off with authorities prohibiting caravans to settle as the expulsion of Roma groups continune.
Bordeaux – France's crackdown on travelling minorities has not only targeted Roma from Eastern Europe, but also French Gypsies, who feel they have been unfairly linked to foreign-born nomads.
As media coverage focus on the expulsion of Roma back to Romania, hundreds of French-born Gypsy families find themselves in a stand-off with authorities in the southwestern city of Bordeaux.
President Nicolas Sarkozy's government has vowed to dismantle all illegal camps, not just those inhabited by foreign-born minorities, and 250 caravans arrived in Bordeaux only to find riot police waiting for them.
Traditionally, the travellers would set up camp on sports fields, but -- having been kicked out of another illegal site further south -- when they rolled up they found 150 police and a two-foot deep ditch barring access.
"This space is for sports," said Bordeaux mayor Alain Juppe, a powerful former prime minister and member of Sarkozy's ruling UMP. "There are people that use it for sports, playing tennis and jogging, and it's not set up to receive 250 caravans."
After initially protesting by blocking a major bridge across the Garonne River, and briefly skirmishing with police protecting the fields, the Gypsies went to court to demand access -- and were turned down.
The city sought compromise by offering two asphalt sites; a two hectare plot in an industrial zone -- which the Gypsies rejected as too polluted -- and a convention centre car park -- which they say is too hot in summer. The resulting stand-off has led to the caravans being forced onto some strips of grass along an access road to the conference centre.
"Juppe has been straight with us, but let him come spend a weekend on asphalt in the heat," suggested James Dubois, president of the Gypsies' association "La Vie du Voyage" (LVDV).
The travellers had appeared confident of victory before the hearing, and took news of their defeat with a mixture of shock and anger.
"Normally we get an emergency court hearing, the decision comes two hours later, and we're in," said Dubois. "It's disappointing. It's not logical, but this is Bordeaux. Juppe is not a little country mayor."
LVDV vice president Franck Couchevelou shook his head."We tried everything," he said, gesturing to the riot police. "We'll have to capitulate. We don't want violence. We have children here."
"If it continues like this, we will all be in Paris on the Champs Elysees with our caravans in September," said Couchevelou. "We have to organise."
According to a police official a brief melee broke out during the night when male travellers visited the two-hectare lot and tried to stop city workers from cleaning up the site.
There appears to be little support for Gypsies from Bordeaux's citizens. It is common in the region to see travellers illegally occupying community sports fields, and until recently there has been little recourse for the towns.
President of "Life of travel" association, James Dubois, answers to journalists after a meeting with Bordeaux's mayor Alain Juppe. Juppe proposed to them a ground in Tourville to park.
Juppe's tough talk on illegal encampments came after Sarkozy vowed to clear 300 illegal Roma camps within 90 days and to repatriate foreign Roma. The policy has attracted fierce criticism from international human rights groups, the French opposition and even the Vatican, but the French Gypsies say they do not want to be dragged into a political row.
"We don't care about the politics of the left or the right," insisted Dubois. "All we want is a place to park our caravans so we can work."
The men complained they had already lost several days of work. The 140 families work as craftsmen and traders in local markets, selling products like mattresses and pots and pans.
A spokesman for the convoy felt the French Gypsies were being confused with foreign-born Roma. "There is an amalgamation at the national level. It's getting worse," said Jean Avrillas.
"We are not Roma and we have no contact with them," said Dubois. "We are clean. We are normal people. We are French."
Alissa de Carbonnel / AFP / Expatica