Ethnic Roma who have built lives and careers in France hit back on Thursday at a government minister who said they were incapable of integrating and should be deported.
As the row over French Interior Minister Manuel Valls’ controversial remarks rumbled on, some of the Roma who have defied the odds to thrive in France warned that stereotyping a community that has been persecuted for centuries would not help anyone.
“My future is in France, for my work and for my children,” said Sorin Ciorba, who only four years ago was living with his family in a makeshift shack made from cardboard boxes in a camp on the outskirts of Paris.
The vast majority of the estimated 20,000 Roma in France live rough in similar, usually unauthorized, encampments. From there to the world of regular work and monthly rent is a long journey, and Ciorba readily admits he needed luck and help to make it.
He met a worker from the Emmaus charity who helped him find accommodation in a temporary housing project set up by a local authority and soon he was helping to build bungalows for other families.
“It’s while working that I learnt French,” he said, sitting in his colorful apartment in Paris’ 15th district, where he now lives with his wife and six children, having obtained a work permit and been taken on full-time by Emmaus.
“Not everybody steals or begs,” he said.
Liliana Hristache, who lived in a shantytown from 2004 to 2007, said her community could deliver, if given a chance.
“We really must be given opportunities,” said Hristache, who now works as a concierge in a building in the Paris suburb of Montreuil.
“I hear what Manuel Valls is saying. It’s true that the Roma have a very different mentality,” she said, arguing that does not, however, make them incapable of adapting to the French way of life.
“When my husband and I arrived in France, we did not know what an employment contract or a pay slip was ... but it’s changed now and we too have adapted,” she said.
A man who identified himself as Sergiu said he had come to France five years ago as he had been told that “by begging you can earn 50 euros [US$61.6] per day,” but he was soon disillusioned.
“I only earned maybe two euros a day, it was hard,” he said.
He now works in home care and receives 500 euros a month, of which he sends 150 euros back to his family in Romania.
“In Romania, it’s hard, there is no work… Here life is good, you can take a chance to advance. That’s why we are here,” he said.
Meanwhile, France signaled on Wednesday that it would join other EU countries in blocking Bulgaria and Romania’s entry to the Schengen group of countries, which allow passport-free travel between them, in a move widely interpreted as reflecting concern over Roma migration from the two countries.
“Today, we consider that Romania and Bulgaria do not fulfill the conditions to be integrated” into the Schengen area, government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said.
France’s announcement came a day after the European Commission warned Paris that its attitude toward the Roma could put it in breach of its EU treaty commitments.
Valls also triggered an outcry from rights groups and some of his colleagues by saying any Roma not working should be “delivered back to the borders,” describing their way of life as “extremely different from ours,” and claiming they will never integrate into French society.