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Europe

Roma baby laid to rest after burial plot row stuns France

© Joel Saget, AFP | The cemetary in Champlan, outside Paris.

Text by Charlotte BOITIAUX

Latest update : 2015-01-05

A Roma baby was laid to rest in the French town of Wissous on Monday after the mayor of her hometown reportedly refused her a burial plot, saying priority should be given to taxpayers. The mayor of Champlan has denied the allegations.

The death of Maria Francesca, aged just 2 1/2 months, made headlines over the weekend after Mayor Christian Leclerc of the town of Champlan reportedly said burial plots should be reserved for taxpayers.

Leclerc has denied the allegations and said local staff had misunderstood his orders, while also accusing the media of taking his comments out of context.

Leclerc’s protestations failed to stem the mounting furore over the incident, which Prime Minister Manuel Valls described as an “insult to France”.

Jacques Toubon, who heads France’s human rights watchdog, said he was "shocked and stunned" by the case and called for an inquiry.

Mayor Leclerc later apologised to the family and offered to bury Maria Francesca in the town’s cemetery but the family refused.

Instead the girl was laid to rest in nearby Wissous.

The mayor of Wissous, Richard Trinquier, said it was "a question of humanity" to bury the girl.

The plight of France’s Roma

Maria Francesca died the day after Christmas of sudden infant death syndrome, and her family’s ordeal has come to symbolise the plight of France’s Roma.

Also known as “gypsies”, the Roma are a mostly nomadic people whose ancestors are thought to have left India in the 11th century, eventually settling in Eastern Europe and beyond.

Some 20,000 Roma are believed to live in France, most of them in squalid makeshift settlements built on the outskirts of towns and cities. Their presence is a divisive issue in a country where many believe they are impossible to integrate.

In 2013, when he was still serving as interior minister, Valls said that the Roma people had "lifestyles that are very different from ours" and that "their destiny is to return to Romania or Bulgaria", from which many of them have come.

Successive French governments have adopted tough policies towards Roma migrants, routinely demolishing their camps and deporting thousands each year. But many simply come back.

At the same time, the current left-wing administration has sought to remove obstacles to the integration of some Roma from Eastern Europe. As of January 2014, Romanian and Bulgarian citizens no longer need a residency permit to work in France.

But most communities still have little or no access to basic amenities, like Maria Francesca’s family, who live without electricity or running water close to Paris's Orly Airport.

‘One square metre’

Family members gathered Monday for a funeral Mass at Saint-Paul’s church in Massy, a town adjacent to Wissous and Champlan.

They were joined by representatives of the Roma community, members of Roma advocacy groups and a handful of local residents.

Few were willing to speak to the large contingent of journalists waiting outside in the cold, least of all about the row triggered by the reported refusal to bury the baby.

“We are here for the family. We have nothing to say about the mayor of Champlan,” said one Massy resident, upon entering the church.

“Could you not talk about dignity and respect instead of quizzing us about the row?” asked another, brushing aside a microphone.

While most reporters waited outside the church, some stepped inside to film the proceedings, drawing swift rebukes from members of the congregation, who slammed the media’s “voyeurism” and “indecency”.

Loïc Gandais, the head of the ASEFRR association, which supports Roma families in the region, likened the case to a Greek tragedy.

“One cannot help thinking of Sophocles,” he said, referring to the ancient Greek playwright whose mythological character Antigone defies a ban by King Oedipus to bury her brother Polynices.

One family friend did walk over to the cameras, with his 7-year-old son hiding behind him.

“We asked for a square metre for the coffin, just one square metre,” he said. “But he (the mayor of Champlan) said no.”

Date created : 2015-01-05

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