Roma village defies Sarkozy expulsion threat

Roma village defies Sarkozy expulsion threat

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Amidst the Sarkozy supported implementation of voluntary returns from Romanian communities in France, one Roma village stays rooted in their French surroundings.

Paris – As their compatriots are rounded up and put on planes back to Bucharest, the inhabitants of one small village of indomitable Roma outside Paris are still holding out against the French authorities.

"I'll stay in France until I die. There's no point going back," says Ianco Petro, 28, who lives with his family in one of a handful of yellow portable cabins that form this "integration village" at Aubervilliers, north of Paris.

Scattered over a few hundred square metres of dusty gravel next to a disused chicken abattoir, their lives represent an alternative to the summertime round-ups and expulsions ordered by President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Petro came here from Bucharest with his wife and two children, now aged nine and 11, five years ago and they will soon be moving, with a job, into mainstream society, without fear of forced repatriation.

In 2005, Petro did not speak French, lived in a tiny caravan and barely eked out a living by selling scrap metal. Today, he is a qualified window fitter, speaks French and is waiting to move his family into an apartment.

French policemen look at people belonging to a Roma community who agreed to a so-called "voluntary return procedure" at Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris prior to taking a regular flight to Bucharest. 

Unlike most of the around 15,000 Roma living in France, he cannot legally be expelled, because, thanks to the "village", he is able to satisfy the strict bureaucratic requirements demanded of any foreigner living in France.

"My parents live on a campground near here; they could be expelled any time. They're sad but they can't do anything about it. They don't speak any French and it's difficult for anyone to find work in France at the moment."

His son Adrien skips into the simply-decorated hut, sliding on a rug across the greying linoleum. When asked about the local school he says he likes it. He has never been to school in Romania.

Nabil Bendami is in charge of the villagers' economic development. The site was opened in December 2007 and Roma who live here must promise two things -- to try to find work and to send their children to school.

"No one much thought this would work," he tells AFP. "Employers can be afraid of Roma because they have gold teeth; because they look like Gypsies."

The grandchild of immigrants himself, Bendami is quick to see through the many Roma stereotypes perpetuated by the government and the media.

"People think that there's great solidarity between the Roma, but it's a forced solidarity," he says.

"Like when my grandparents came from Algeria in the '70s, the community sticks together because they don't have any choice; not because they want to.

Romanians who agreed to a so-called "voluntary return procedure" queue for boarding procedures at Charles de Gaulle airport prior to flying to Bucharest, Romania, under a controversial crackdown ordered by France's President Nicolas Sarkozy.

"The Roma are much more individualistic than people think. When a family leaves here, they ask us not to tell people where they're going because they want to live alone."

Bandami, who runs four other similar "villages", says that some prospective employers now like to hire Roma because "they come to work on time and they don't join the trade unions."

Some of the Roma habits and traditions have had to change, Bendami says, such as those acquired under the Communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu, which -- whatever its other faults -- provided free public services.

"There were some problems with the utilities. Because of Ceausescu, they would leave the water and electricity on all the time. But we showed them the utility bills that have to be paid and their habits changed."

While the adults are entrenched in their ways, their offspring are more open, and have started dating people from outside the community.

"One Roma girl is going out with an Arab but there's a problem because they can't meet each other's parents. The girls usually move things forward more than boys, but there are no marriages yet," Bendami says.

The 13 families living here have to pay a nominal rent, depending on their means, "because they need to get used to reality" and the aim is to get everyone to eventually leave the project.

Aubervilliers' Socialist mayor Jacques Salvator says that the project's annual cost is around EUR 300,000, spread between different authorities, but that no one has yet criticised the money being spent.
Romanians who agreed to a so-called "voluntary return procedure" check-in their baggages at Charles de Gaulle airport prior to taking a regular flight to the Romanian capital, Bucharest.

"No one has yet openly said they're against the programme. The cost is about one euro per inhabitant, but certainly some people will feel that the money is not being well spent."

"Perhaps they will start to express this openly given how the president of the republic is using the situation for political leverage."

Charles Onians / AFP / Expatica 

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