'Trying to run them out of town': French police confront Roma

In the Montreuil suburb of Paris, a three-month standoff between French officials and 40 Roma is coming to a head.

40 people are ordered to leave a Montreuil building some have called home for 6 years

Liliana Hristache, left, shows documents to Elisabetta Moldovan and Ciurar Octavien, a Roma couple looking for an apartment. Thirteen Roma families, including 19 minors, have been evicted from an abandoned industrial building in a suburb of Paris where they have lived for six years. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

At 1:30 on a grey Friday afternoon, Montreuil's Place Jean-Jaurès is mostly empty and yet noisy.  

Over at the far end of the town square, near the theatre, a few unruly children tear about screeching while Daniel Lacatus, who appears to be wearing all the clothes he owns, shouts "Alleluia!" as if expecting some outcome.

He and a few others foist leaflets on any takers, a low-tech and slightly abrupt attempt to find a solution to their three-month faceoff with city hall, which stands at the other end of the square.

On July 28, the city of Montreuil, a suburb just outside Paris, evicted 13 Roma families, including 19 minors, from an abandoned industrial building where they'd been living for six years.

The city claimed the site was unsafe, unhealthy and unlivable. The Roma claim Montreuil is their home.

"Some have lived here for 10 years," says Liliana Hristache, president of Rom Réussite, a local association that advocates for integration of France's Roma.
Nadia Lacatus helps move the Roma families to the back of a theatre. 'She's stopped dreaming the way she once did,' Liliana Hristache says. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

An estimated 20,000 Roma live in France. The country has been harshly criticized for its treatment of them.

In September 2015, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said, "it is becoming increasingly apparent that there is a systematic national policy to forcibly evict the Roma." He stressed that, "from the perspective of the rights of the child, this is extremely worrying."

Hristache says, "Six of the children are in school, some of the families have filed requests for housing. City hall knows they're tied to an association, that they're taking steps to be integrated socially and professionally. I'm very disappointed with the city, very disappointed. They're trying to run them out of town."

She isn't exaggerating. A week ago, orders to leave the country were handed to six of the 40-odd Roma who've been camped out on the square since the eviction.

"The police descended at 6 a.m., woke them up shining flashlights into their tents, demanding they provide proof of their ties to the community," Hristache says. "They knew no one from the support network would be around."
Liliana Hristache is a one-woman support network for the Roma of Montreuil. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

Hristache is their one-woman support network, and she knows the challenges of French integration intimately.

She is Roma, too. She tells the story of her early life in Romania: Married off at 14 to a wealthy family who treated her poorly, she broke with tradition and her husband at 16, and ran away with the man she's married to today.

They decided to move to France. On arrival, she received her rudest awakening. Any reverie about the Champs Elysées — her mother had told her to bring only her best — dissipated when she landed in a shantytown in Le Bourget, northeast of Paris.

She made herself two promises: if her people could live here so could she, but she would do everything in her power to leave. And she did.

It took years and assistance from several organizations, but now, like over 100 other Roma in Montreuil, she and her family have their own apartment. She has a job in social housing and her three children go to school. Her youngest has never known any other way of life.
Three-year old Raluca sings. Nineteen children under the age of 13 live on Place Jean-Jaurès in Montreuil, a suburb of Paris. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

And yet, she tears up when talking about the past.

"I remember what it was like and I feel so powerless right now. Living in shantytowns, on the street, without electricity, begging — I'm against begging — this is not a normal way to live."

"Throughout August and into September, the families were chased relentlessly by police, hunted, ousted from one spot to another. Six or seven police cars would show up on the square to apply pressure. They'd put their gloves on to show that they were ready, you know, to get violent if needed."

Hotel was no solution

She acknowledges that in early September the families were offered hotel rooms.

"They went for a few nights, but it was on the other side of Paris. Too far and too expensive to get their kids to school on time or follow through with any of their own business. So it wasn't a solution for them. They saw it as just another way to get them out of Montreuil. So they came back to the square."

Which is where Hristache has spent most of her spare time for the last three months.

The children's screeches turn to cries of "Lili, Lili" when she shows up. They run to her and paw at her until one gets picked up. She makes the rounds, stopping first to talk to Elisabetta Moldovan and her husband Ciurar Octavien. She has news about their housing application, documents to show them.

"I still remember the first time I received an envelope with my name on it. I couldn't believe it. We're not used to any of that. It's difficult, especially for those in their 30s and 40s, to understand the point of all this paperwork, to understand how meetings with social workers might help. It's not how we live."
Daniel Lacatus, the 'Alleluia' crier, locates himself in the mural painted on a theatre wall in Montreuil. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

And, as if to provide proof, an argument breaks out between father and daughter right behind us. They scream at each other for quite a while, and then it ends as abruptly as it began. Nobody flinches but me.

"They're loud but they're not violent," Hristache laughs. "I once told a policeman that evicting the Roma was the easiest job he could have. He agreed. When they're told to move, they move."

'People say we're thieves'

But she knows she has to fight prejudice, too. "People say we're thieves, beggars, that this is how we want to live. A policeman once told me, 'Even if the Roma were offered apartments or hotel rooms, they wouldn't be able to live there, they prefer to live on the streets and to beg.' I lost it."

But the Roma at the square have begun to beg. Where some residents and local restaurants drop off food, just as many people dodge past, evading the appeal or offering a pat "I already gave."

"I've known these people for two years and I've never seen them beg. Look at Nadia, the big boss over there," Hristache smiles, pointing at an imposing woman in an armchair holding a crumpled Dixie cup upside down. "Her heart clearly isn't in it."

'She sees no way out'

Now Nadia Lacatus breaks Hristache's heart.

"She was the most efficient when it came to paperwork, always on time for any job interview. During the municipal elections she organized postering for the Green Party, who we supported. She figured if we help them, they'll be there for us. But now she's given up. She sees no way out."

It's raining by 4 p.m. when the police show up. There are only two, in an unmarked car, but the Roma are already hauling away their wares by the time Hristache arrives.

"We'll be back," the police warn. "Anything that's not gone will be for the garbage."

Distraught, Hristache takes to Facebook to post the latest. She looks up and says, "They're going to start the hunt again."
Roma women sit at Montreuil's Place Jean-Jaurès on Oct. 14. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)


Michelle Gagnon is a producer for CBC News. She covers domestic and international affairs.