The camps were never much to begin with. They had no electricity or running water. Grocery carts served as makeshift grills. Rats ran rampant and fleas gnawed on young and old alike.
However, they were home — and they were better than the new reality for thousands of Roma, commonly known as Gypsies, who have been forced into hiding after France launched its latest campaign this month to drive them from their camps.
The last big sweep came in 2010, when France expelled Roma to Romania and Bulgaria. Then the European Commission imposed sanctions and thousands of French came out to protest in sympathy for the Roma.
This time, the Roma left quietly, gathering their belongings and heading into the woods with plans to re-emerge when the coast is clear.
“Why did God even create us, if Gypsies are to live like this?” 35-year-old Babica cried, as bulldozers moved in to tear down the camp in Gennevilliers, on the outskirts of Paris.
Like other Roma quoted in this story, he did not give his last name out of fear of arrest or deportation.
Most of the Roma have no plans to return to Romania, where their citizenship would at least allow them to educate their children and treat their illnesses. Amid a dismal economic environment across Europe, they say, begging in France is still more lucrative than trying to find work where there is none.
France has cast the most recent demolitions as necessary for public health and safety. It is hard to pinpoint how many camps were taken down. At least five around Paris were demolished and hundreds of their residents were ordered out; others came down in Lille and Lyon.
This time, the French Ministry of the Interior says, the camps were demolished in accordance with legal guidelines agreed upon with the EU.
“Respect for human dignity is a constant imperative of all public action, but the difficulties and local health risks posed by the unsanitary camps needed to be addressed,” the French Ministry of the Interior said.
In no case, the government said, “did the removals take the form of collective expulsion, which is forbidden by law.”
European Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva said the executive body was studying the situation.
The Roma Forum, which has ties to the 47-member Council of Europe, condemned the evictions, saying they contradict “[French] President [Francois] Hollande’s commitment from his election campaign to not expel Roma families without proposing alternative accommodation.”
It is not clear whether France consulted any Roma before moving in on the camps.
Human Rights Watch said 240 Romanian Roma evicted from camps around Lyon in southern France left last week on a charter flight to Romania after accepting 300 euros (US$370) for a “voluntary return.”
The French government has offered no hard numbers on how many Roma camps have come down, or how many Roma have been evicted. The government does not refer to the ethnic group by name, citing only “illicit encampments.”
Each Roma camp houses a couple dozen to hundreds of people, depending on the ancestral network.
At Gennevilliers, none of the Roma had much of an idea where they would sleep the night their camps came down.
“The boys are out looking for land to sleep on tonight,” said 24-year-old Senti, the first of his family to finish high school. “Tomorrow morning, the bulldozers are coming to finish things off.”