GENNEVILLIERS, France — The camps weren’t much to begin with: They had no electricity or running water. Grocery carts served as makeshift grills. Rats ran rampant, and fleas gnawed on young and old alike.
But they were home — and they were better than the new reality for thousands of Gypsies who have been forced into hiding after France launched its latest campaign to drive them from their camps.
The last big sweep came in 2010, when France expelled Gypsies to Romania and Bulgaria. Then the European Commission imposed sanctions, and thousands of French protested in sympathy for the Gypsies, also known as the Roma.
This time, the Gypsies left quietly — gathering their belongings and heading into the woods — with plans to reemerge when the coast is clear.
“Why did God even create us, if Gypsies are to live like this?” said Babica, 35, as bulldozers moved in to tear down the camp in Gennevilliers, on the outskirts of Paris. He did not give his last name in fear of arrest or deportation.
Most of the Gypsies have no plans to return to Romania, where their citizenship would at least allow them to educate their children and treat their illnesses. Amid a dismal economic environment across Europe, they say, begging in France is still more lucrative than trying to find work where there is none.
France has cast the most recent demolitions as necessary for public health and safety. It is hard to pinpoint how many camps were taken down. At least five around Paris were demolished, and several hundred of their residents were ordered out; others came down in Lille and Lyon.
This time, France’s Interior Ministry said, the camps were demolished in accordance with legal guidelines agreed upon with the European Union.
“Respect for human dignity is a constant imperative of all public action, but the difficulties and local health risks posed by the unsanitary camps needed to be addressed,” the Interior Ministry said. In no case, the government said, “did the removals take the form of collective expulsion, which is forbidden by law.”
Mina Andreeva, spokeswoman for the European Commission, said the executive body is studying the situation.
The Roma Forum, which has ties to the 47-member Council of Europe, condemned the evictions, saying they contradict “President [Francois] Hollande’s commitment from his election campaign to not expel Roma families without proposing alternative accommodation.” It is not clear whether France consulted any Roma before moving in on the camps.
Human Rights Watch said 240 Romanian Gypsies evicted from camps around Lyon in southern France left on a charter flight to Romania after accepting 300 euros for a “voluntary return.”
The French government has offered no hard numbers on how many Roma camps have come down, or how many Roma have been evicted.