Comatose Boy, Roma Evictions up Pressure on France

"Out of a country of 67 million, we're talking about 15-20,000 people. It's not an invasion," said Loic Gandais, president of an association in an outlying area of the Paris region called Essonne, the home territory of France's combative prime minister, Manuel Valls. Valls, as France's top security official last year, publicly linked the Roma with crime and disorder, feeding on stereotypes widespread throughout Europe.

With high rates of illiteracy and unemployment, and little access to the European Union's promised labor market, the Roma catch blame for the kind of petty crimes — pickpocketing, scrap metal theft, burglary — that are highly visible in the daily life of the better-heeled. Last week, a group of Romanian Roma was convicted of forcing children as young as 9 to steal cell phones and wallets. It was the sort of trial that for some confirms deeply held prejudices against a group that — as Valls once put it — "does not wish to integrate."

The Roma who come to France from Eastern Europe say any thieves among them are a minority and complain bitterly that the path to gainful employment remains closed to them despite European Union rules opening up the frontiers to workers. Each time they are evicted, according to the Roma and French charities that work with them, they become more vulnerable — to disease, hunger and crime.

Police allegedly told one man to conduct his own investigation to locate the attackers who beat him and smashed in his wife's face in August 2013 in Paris' northern suburbs. In the southern city of Marseille in March 2013, a Roma woman was hospitalized after a crowd attacked their camp with tear gas, according to Amnesty International. In January, a resident tossed a bleach mixture at a Roma couple, only to be released when a judge said it was unclear whether the concoction was intended to be harmful.

"There is a tolerance of violence against Roma communities and authorities don't want to intervene," said Michelle Kelso, a professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C, who works with Roma communities. "The only thing that will work is systematically looking at how to resolve the issues of Romani poverty."

The attack on teenage Darius on June 13 was unusual only in its brutality.

He was beaten into a coma in the town of Pierrefitte, at the other end of the rickety suburban train line that cuts through Paris. His family visits him in the hospital from time to time. Police have made no arrests in the case, despite dozens of witnesses who saw a group of young men from the projects take him away, then return his limp body to the side of a road in a shopping cart hours later. From cell phone to cell phone, Roma have passed along horrific photos of his broken face and body.

A 32-year-old Roma woman, who didn't want to be identified for fear of repercussions, said she was in the Pierrefitte camp during the attack. She fled in fear after seeing what happened to Darius, and is now back in Romania. She could barely bring herself to speak about the day. The youngest of her four children was born in May at a French hospital.

She said Darius was sought out specifically by a gang of locals from the projects for reasons that vary with each narrator, but seem to involve a double-cross, a burglary gone wrong or simply an attempt to send a message to unwanted neighbors in one of the Paris region's most troubled towns.

Despite her terror, she expects to return to France. "We are illiterate and can't find work here."

Their welcome in France will be hardly warmer.

"We cannot do any more," said Rey, the Grigny spokesman. "It's not tenable."

———

Mutler contributed from Bucharest, Romania. Associated Press writer Sylvie Corbet contributed to this report.

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