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France shocked by violence against Roma

A Roma boy was brutally tortured in a Paris suburb because locals took him for an intruder. The violence has reignited the debate on the Roma minority in France.

The British Daily Telegraph newspaper was first to publish the photo. It showed the 16-year-old Darius crammed into a shopping cart, his face barely recognizable, swollen and bloody, his clothes torn and dirty. He was found by passersby after a dozen men abducted him, tortured him in a cellar, before finally leaving him unconscious in the shopping cart - a case of lynch justice that has shaken France.

Darius is one of a group of Roma who appeared in the Pierrefitte-sur-Seine district three weeks ago and built an illegal camp out of corrugated iron and scrap wood around an empty house - not far from a district ironically called "Cité des poètes". Darius' as-yet-unknown attackers apparently took him for an intruder. The boy has been put in an artificial coma because of the severe pain he was in, and doctors are still not sure he will survive.

The Darius case has reignited the debate about how France treats its Roma minority and the dramatic situation in the "banlieue" suburbs, where the police seem powerless in the face of vigilante criminal justice systems.

Lawless zones

Leonarda Dibrani - Frankreich Abschiebungsdebatte

The 15-year-old Dibrani was arrested while on a school trip

It is a decade since the banlieues actually burnt - 10,000 cars were set on fire throughout the country. It was a scream of outrage in the depressing, dilapidated high-rise complexes, where despair reigns among young people who feel socially marginalized often slide into crime.

The then-Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy coined the phrase "zero tolerance," and promised a clamp down on violence. For socially deprived young people, many of them children of immigrants from France's former colonies in Africa, Sarkozy and his supporters became figures of hate. They still see the police as enemies in the battle for control of their districts, and indeed many officers refuse to patrol certain areas.

That has created lawless zones where inhabitants live by their own rules. The left-wing daily Le Monde recently tried to explain the social climate in the Cité des poètes through statistics: those living in poverty (50 percent), welfare recipients (23 percent), people of immigrant background (33 percent), and the undereducated (75 percent).

The case of Darius reflects two central problems in French society that have clashed in tragic fashion - the unsustainable situation in the banlieues and the inhumane treatment of the Roma. The illegal Roma camps at the city limits are also largely lawless. Pierrefitte Mayor Michel Foucarde said the people in his community have been reporting increased theft since the arrival of the Roma, who parked their vehicles at the entrances to the Cité. In the morning after the attack, the group had abandoned the camp.

Hollande continues hardline policy

Le Monde quoted one inhabitant of Pierrefitte-sur-Seine who did not hide his satisfaction at the departure of the Roma. "They're in the same bad situation as us, but they steal everything from us," he told the paper. But the images are also a reminder of the regular clearances of Roma camps carried out by the French police, which the European Commission repeatedly condemned - though the criminal procedure it once promised is yet to materialize.

EU Parlamentswahl 25.05.2014 Frankreich Front National

Le Pen has forced the French president to be more hardline

The case of a young Roma girl raised similar concerns last year. In October 2013, the 15-year-old Leonarda Dibrani was picked up by the police during a school excursion and extradited to her country of origin - Kosovo - along with her family, because they had given false information to the asylum authorities.

The extradition was legal on paper, but President Francois Hollande came under pressure because his center-left government simply continued the hard-line policies of its predecessors, despite promises to the contrary.

In times when the populist far-right National Front of Marine Le Pen can win the European election in France, Hollande is eager to prove that he can provide law and order.

Ever since the Leonarda affair, circumstances for Roma in France have barely changed, though charities still attempt to improve the humanitarian situation in the camps by providing food and water.

Understanding the criminals

But the underlying question remains unanswered - can Roma be integrated into French society? Following the Leonarda affair, the current prime minister and former interior minister, Manuel Valls, described the Roma as people with "significantly different lifestyles," and that it would be "an illusion to believe that we can simply solve the Roma problem through integration." For that reason, the Roma should go back where they come from and integrate themselves there.

After the lynch-attack on Darius, both Valls and Hollande emphasized their outrage at the violence, while the French media are debating who is at fault when parallel societies establish themselves and the state and its security forces apparently have no control.

The reactions in social networks and online news portals were often racist and included expressions of support for Darius' torturers. "If the state can't provide security, it's only logical that people will practice vigilante justice," one French Twitter user wrote. What dangers that view brings with it has become clear in the past few days.

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