Roma in France seek protection after attacks sparked by fake news
Ethnic Roma leaders called for round-the-clock police protection for their communities on Wednesday in Paris after a series of vigilante attacks sparked by false reports of attempted kidnappings.
Police arrested 20 people following attacks on Monday night on Roma people in suburbs northeast of Paris following false rumours of abductions spread on messaging apps and social media.
Eleven were still in custody on Wednesday, with three adults and a minor due to be brought before magistrates.
"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 online claims 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. They said there have been no reports of kidnappings in the area.
- Viral rumours against Roma -
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".
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."
Gheorghe Yasile Ibrahim, a man in his thirties who lives off selling scrap metal, doing furniture removals, and searching bins for discarded food, said he feared "starving to death" because he was too scared to leave the camp.
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.
-- Tensions --
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.
Rumours appear to have been spread on the Snapchat messaging service and 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 ($50,000 to $150,000).
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.
Although Roma are allowed to travel freely in Europe, they 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, six million of them within European Union borders, according to the Council of Europe human rights group.
? 2019 AFP