August 20, 2010

France pushes forward Roma deportations: 'They are trying to get rid of us all'

Outside No 431, rue de Lyon, the Mediterranean sun beat down on the pavement and an old man lay in wait for the police. Inside, behind the long grass and a dilapidated green gate, the women were preparing themselves for the worst. "We are getting things ready," one explained, pointing at a half-packed suitcase. In among the ramshackle sheds and squealing toddlers, they took turns at holding a six-week-old baby in their arms.

Today, as the French government pushed forward with its mission to rid the country of foreign Roma it deems to be living there illegally, Marseille's most marginalised community was in the grip of both fear and resignation: fear because the authorities have in recent weeks ratcheted up the pressure, and resignation because, after years of repeated expulsions and unrelenting social isolation, many of them have seen it all before.

"That's France for you," said one middle-aged woman, sitting dejectedly in pink flip-flops at the rue de Lyon squat. She, like all other Roma to whom the Guardian spoke, was unwilling to be identified. Intense media interest since the start of Nicolas Sarkozy's crackdown on crime and illegal immigration last month has made them uneasy in front of the cameras.

Known as the melting pot of the south, Marseille is home to a large proportion – possibly up to a fifth – of France's total Roma population, itself estimated at between 15,000 and 20,000. Despite its reputation for successful integration, however, the city's Roma, as in so much of Europe, live apart from mainstream society. Observers say routine expulsions and endemic discrimination have pushed them to the outer limits, both physically and psychologically.

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