28 March 2012
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A new chapter was added to the recent controversy over France's treatment of Roma people when lawyers Françoise Cotta and William Bourdon told Le Monde newspaper that they had filed a lawsuit on behalf of four associations of Roma people and travellers in Paris on 6 October 2010 concerning an unlawful database held by the gendarmerie (police force with a military status) in Arcueil (Val-de-Marne).
The four associations for which they are acting are La Voix des Rroms, the Union française des associations tsiganes (UFAT), the Fédération nationale des associations solidaires d'action avec les Tsiganes et les gens du voyage (FNASAT) and the association nationale des gens du voyage catholique (ANGVC). The suit concerning the database, named MENS (minorités éthniques non sedentarisés, non sedentary ethnic monorities) and allegedly held by the gendarmerie's central office against itinerant criminality (OCLDI), in the fort of Montrouge in Arcueil, complains about the setting up of a database that was not declared to the relevant authorities (CNIL, Commission nationale informatique et libertés) and the keeping of "personal data that features … racial and ethnic origins", offences that may entail sentences of five years' imprisonment and a 300,000 euro fine. The lawyers stated that they would also submit the matter to the CNIL and HALDE, the authority responsible for fighting discrimination and ensuring equality.
While the interior ministry admitted that the expression MENS was used by the gendarmerie in the 1990s, it claimed that it was not aware of the existence of the database, which the gendarmerie denies, adding that if this were true the group that is responsible for oversight of databases would "naturally" be asked to examine the matter. Mrs. Bordon noted that the "scents" given off by the database are reminiscent of "very bad memories", while Mrs. Cotta argued that "there must be a reaction by the public for this to stop quickly", because "we are not in 1940" and the "main danger for the public peace lies within this government".
The suit also noted that there were documents indicating that an effort was made to draw up the "genealogy of tsigane families" and, on 8 October, interior minister Brice Hortefeux confirmed that this had indeed happened, clarifying that a "genealogic database held by OCLDI was suppressed on 13 December 2007". As for the use of the "non sedentary ethnic minorities" expression, he claimed that it was used in a gendarmerie note in 1992 but subsequently disappeared, although documents published by Le Monde indicate that it was used as recently as 2004 and 2005.
Le Monde reported that plaintiff Roma organisations came across details of the database on Internet, in a PowerPoint presentation by the head of an OCLDI unit in Lille during a meeting on 23-24 November 2004 that detailed the office's mission. One page of the presentation (imitations of a number of its most significant pages were posted on the newspaper's website) referred to the "genealogy of tsigane families". By clicking on the different regions, the names of traveller families would appear, without detailing whether its members were found guilty, prosecuted or suspected of offences. The newspaper notes that even if this were the case, attributing responsibility for personal offences by one of its members to a group (in this case a family) would be unlawful. Another frame listed the number of foreign Roma people who were questioned by the gendarmerie, divided by nationality. Alain Bauer, responsible for the group that supervises the databases held by the police and gendarmerie, claimed that he had not heard of the database, but "it would not be the first undeclared database that we discover".
It is also worth noting that the OCLDI's mission statement does not explicitly mention Roma people, as it is to fight: "against crime and delinquency carried out by habitual delinquents who act in structured and itinerant groups in several points of the territory". This description is remarkably similar to the expression used when the European Council entered the controversy on the French expulsion of Roma people by producing a document that included Draft Council Conclusions on "the fight against mobile (itinerant) criminal groups", which appeared to be a veiled reference to Roma people (see Statewatch News Online, October 2010). This sanitised use of language to conceal discriminatory practices has also been evident in the "emergency" which has now lasted for over two years (since May 2008) in the Italian regions of Lombardy and Lazio concerning "illegal camps" or "settlements" primarily populated by "nomads". A ruling by the Lazio Tribunale Amministrativo Regionale (TAR, regional administrative court) on 1 July 2009, upheld some complaints concerning the villages or camps in which the evicted residents would be moved, but denied that the emergency itself and the measures that it entailed were discriminatory because they concerned the settlements rather than the people themselves, and people residing there who are not "nomads" would be subjected to the same forms of control and identification as those who are (see Statewatch news online, analysis no. 87, November 2009).
Le Monde, 7, 8.10.2010. An in-depth article that includes imitations of pages from the PowerPoint presentation is available in the newspaper's Libertés Surveillés blog
Council of the European Union intervenes in the France-Roma controversy - proposing the targeting of "mobile (itinerant) criminal groups": "itinerant"=travellers=Roma, Statewatch News Online
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