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For Roma in France, Is Climate of Intolerance Fueling Violence?

Somewhere in a hospital in Paris tonight, a Roma teenager lies in a coma fighting for his life. Accounts suggest that the boy, known to us only as Darius, was accused of burglary by residents of a poverty-stricken public housing development in Pierefitte-sur-Sienne; they subsequently abducted him, beat him into a coma in a basement, and dumped his body in a shopping trolley.

President François Hollande has called the attack “unspeakable and unjustifiable,” and Prime Minister Manuel Valls also condemned the perpetrators. Le Monde, the leading French daily, characterized the attack as part of a culture of score-settling in a poor community that scorns the police. But it also saw the violence, after a new Roma group had established an encampment in the area, as the outcome of several years of failed public policy that has “perpetuated Roma poverty, and fueled a latent racism towards them in French society.”

This anti-Roma sentiment can be seen at the highest levels of French society and politics. As interior minister, Mr. Valls last year declared that “the majority [of Roma] should be delivered back to the borders. We are not here to welcome these people.” In July last year, during an eviction operation at a Roma settlement, MP Gilles Bourdouleix, of the Maine and Loire region of Western France, remarked to a journalist that “Hitler didn’t kill enough (Roma).”

Amid such intolerant rhetoric, should we be surprised that outright hostility to the presence of Roma in France manifests itself by violence?

And what are the repercussions of the mainstream political parties’ use of ethnic scapegoating? Following the European elections in May, the Front National became France’s main representation in the European Parliament, winning 25 percent of the vote.

Not everyone is silent. In October last year, schoolchildren blockaded the streets of Paris to protest the treatment of Leonarda Dibrani, a 15-year-old Roma schoolgirl. Dibrani was on a field trip when her school bus was surrounded by police and she was forcibly taken off in full view of her classmates. Her family had come to France five years ago to claim asylum, citing discrimination in their native Kosovo.

There was nobody around to defend Darius against violent mob rule last week—not his friends, not his family, and certainly not the French state. Despite President Hollande’s pledges to reverse his predecessor’s hardline approach towards Roma, evictions of settlements and deportations have increased under his tenure.

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