Roma in France seek protection after attacks sparked by fake child snatching rumours

Ethnic Roma leaders called for round-the-clock police protection on Wednesday after a series of vigilante attacks in Paris sparked by false reports of attempted kidnappings.

Roma in France seek protection after attacks sparked by fake child snatching rumours
Police have renewed their calls on Twitter not to relay the abduction claims. Photo: AFP

Police arrested 20 people following attacks on Monday night on Roma people in suburbs northeast of Paris following false rumours spread on messaging apps and social media warning of abductions.

“We are calling today on the interior ministry… for immediate protection by way of round-the-clock police presence,” Anina Ciucin, a lawyer and spokesperson for The Voice of Roma group told RMC radio.

She said the reports were “a revival of the medieval stereotype” of Roma in which “gypsies are likened to thieves and child-catchers.”

The attacks appeared to have been sparked by the re-emergence of a long-standing online hoax that has circulated in France for years in which people warn of a white van being used in attempted kidnappings of young women or children.

Police have renewed their calls on Twitter not to relay the claims and have confirmed that there have been no reports of kidnappings in the area.

A Roma camp in 2017 built on an abandoned railway line in northern Paris. Photo: AFP

Government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux termed the attacks “unacceptable”, adding that this showed “the absolute need to fight 'fake news'”.

“Spreading such rumours in a highly organised and viral way on social media results in violence (and) the stigmatisation of a community,” he said, calling the process “detestable”.

READ ALSO: Paris: Fake rumours of 'white-van' child-snatchers spark attacks on Roma people

In one attack on Monday night in the suburb of Bobigny, some 50 people armed with sticks and knives set upon Roma living in a nearby slum, setting fire to their parked vans.

“Since then we're constantly scared,” said Georghe Marcus, one of around 150 Roma from Romania, Serbia and Moldova who live in wasteland next to a canal.

“We're not sleeping because we're keeping guard all night.”

Roma people were also chased in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois and had to seek refuge in a supermarket to escape violence, according to Ciucin and judicial sources who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity.


On March 16, a gang of around 20 young people attacked two people in a white van in the Paris suburb of Colombes, leaving both with light injuries, police said.

Many rumours appear to have been spread on the Snapchat messaging service, as well as on Facebook where posts from people claiming their children or family members had been approached by strangers or abducted have been widely shared.

In December, police in the town of Versailles, west of Paris, issued a warning about abduction rumours carried online.

Police reminded social media users that under French law spreading a false rumour could be punished with fines of 45,000 to 135,000 euros.

Tens of thousands of Roma people have lived in France for centuries, but a fresh influx of some 20,000 people, mainly from Romania and Bulgaria, since the 1980s has led to the creation of new slums and increased tensions, according to a 2017 study by the government-sponsored National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS).

Successive French governments have sought to dismantle the slums and repatriate recently arrived Roma who, while allowed to travel freely in Europe, are not eligible to apply for jobs in France unless they meet certain qualifications.

Between 10 and 12 million Roma people, also known as Roms, live in Europe, of whom six million are within European Union borders, according to the Council of Europe human rights group.


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France admits role in WWII Roma internment

President Francois Hollande on Saturday acknowledged that France bore "broad responsibility" for the internment of thousands of Roma by the World War II Vichy regime and in the early months of the post-war government.

France admits role in WWII Roma internment
‘The day has come, and this truth must be told,’ Hollande said of France’s role in the internment of Romas during WWII. Photo: Jean-sebastien Evrard / AFP

“The day has come, and this truth must be told,” Hollande said in the first presidential visit to the main internment camp for Roma, located in Montreuil-Bellay, central France.

“The (French) Republic acknowledges the suffering of travelling people who were interned and admits that it bears broad responsibility,” Hollande said.

Roma, also known as gypsies, were brutally persecuted in the Holocaust, parallelling the systematic murder of Jews. Estimates of how many died vary widely, between 220,000 and half a million.

The Vichy regime is the term for the government set up in France – but under de-facto Nazi control — after France surrendered to Germany in 1940.

The Vichy regime fell in late 1944 when the allied forces reconquered France and General Charles de Gaulle set up a provisional government.

Between 6,000 and 6,500 Roma were interned in 31 camps, the biggest of which was Montreuil-Bellay, where more than 2,000 were confined between November 1941 and January 1945. About a hundred of them died.

The camp was also used to intern a number of people from the city of Nantes who were officially categorised as homeless.

Some Roma remained interned in French camps until 1946.

“Nearly all families of travelling people have at least one relative who passed through Montreuil-Bellay,” Hollande said.

'Never forget'

More than 500 people took part in Saturday's ceremonies, held 66 years after the last interned Roma had been set free, including some survivors as well descendants of the victims.

“It was important to us to have this recognition. It affects thousands and thousands” of Roma families, said Fernande Delage, head of the France Liberte Voyage NGO.

“It's late, but better late than never,” he added.

Lucien Violet, a 69-year-old whose parents were held in Montreuil-Bellay, also attended the ceremony.

“This is the first president to pay homage to travelling people. We feel genuinely moved by his presence,” Violet said.

“Our families have suffered enormously and we will never forget, even though there is forgiveness,” he added.

At the site, a commemorative art installation by ceramics artist Armelle Benoit was set up, comprising a portico of eight columns engraved with the family names of the 473 affected families.

Hollande on Saturday also threw his weight behind moves in parliament to scrap a 1969 law that defenders of minorities say is discriminatory.

The legislation traces its roots to a regulation in 1912, which aimed at pressing Roma to settle down. It required “nomads” to have a special ID card.

This was replaced in 1969 by the requirement for “travelling people” to have a specific set of papers and name a district as their home base.