Living behind the cirque du soleil

Article published on June 26, 2007
Article published on June 26, 2007
Some 4,000 people live in poor conditions in shanty towns on the outskirts of Paris. But an integration programme plans to lift 30 Roma families out of misery

The Canadian Cirque du Soleil ('Circus of the Sun') has set up their big top tents on the Saint-Denis esplanade, on the outskirts of Paris. Hundreds who attended the acrobatic performance each night remain oblivious to the fact that behind the metal railings surrounding the circus, another show is hidden. Some 600 gypsies juggle to survive in their impromptu shanty town. In total, 4,000 people live the shanty life on the fringes of Paris.

Different associations work in this camp: Doctors Of The World provide healthcare, Emmaus and the Abbé-Pierre Foundation provide food, and ATD Fourth World promote reading. The camp is also funded by the ever elegant Jehovah’s Witnesses who go from door to door hunting out the faithful.

Conflicting roles

Marco is a Roma member, and arrived in France five years ago. Since the beginning of 2007 he has been a European citizen, but still needs a work permit in France. He shows us a preliminary contract that a window-cleaning company has drawn up for him. A Roma volunteer is sceptical. 'It’s very difficult to get a contract without paying for it. In the majority of cases the employer keeps the first wage packet in return for the service.'

But Marco appears excited - he is only lacking a proof of address in order to be able to get his work permit. Although some associations carry out these procedures for nomadic people such as gypsies, the Roma aren’t considered nomadic and are often turned down by these associations.

The majority of the Roma who live in the camp come from the Arad and Timisoara areas in the west of Romania, and don’t move out of choice. Many flee due to misery and discrimination.

A handful of 5 cent coins are piled up in a corner of Maria’s hut. Less that 10 squares metres in total, it is home to four people. Maria is reluctant to explain why they came to France. She has other things to worry about. 'Do we have the right to receive benefits?' she asks. The volunteers direct her to a social worker. 'We’ll stay here until they get rid of us,' she says in a tired voice, getting up to go and pick flowers. Later, we see her on the metro selling bunches for £1.35 (two Euros).

Who makes the law?

Maria assures us that she doesn’t pay anything to live in her shack, but a volunteer explains that it’s a taboo subject. In each camp there is someone in charge who is the first to settle on the land. It’s he who makes the laws, resolves conflicts and receives a type of rent for each of the huts. In the neighbourhood of Saint-Denis, Cirque du Soleil has brought water to the camp and installed basins. But the camp has its own rules, and the associations are certain this owner is paid £1.35 (two Euros) a week by the families who want to use these.

Not far from Saint-Denis, the Aubervilliers Council established an integration programme to rehouse 30 families. The initiative of both the local and regional councils tries to eradicate the shanty towns. It has cost 1.2 million Euros, of which only 7% has been provided by the state. It’s a pioneering project - it is not only limited to offering housing to families, but also plans to supply work permits and promote professional integration.

Workers are putting the finishing touches on the pre-fab structures which at the end of June will open their doors to 82 people involved in the project, the majority of which are gypsies. 'It had been a two-year battle with the state in order to get work permits and residency for the beneficiaries, the majority of whom work illegally in manual labour sectors such as construction,' states Claudine Péjoux, town councilor.

Elena Radasanu is waiting to move. She lives in a caravan that she rents from Aubervilliers Council for 67p (one Euro) per day. In total, there are 15 caravans of people waiting to be relocated at the end of June. Conditions are better than in Saint-Denis. A valley marks out the extent of the camp, and there is security which only allows pre-registered residents to enter. 'Here we’re calm. There are no weapons, drugs or prostitution, and business transactions are banned,' explains the mother-of-two, who is one of the 82 beneficiaries of the integration project.

'We just want to be a normal family' - Elena's story

'We were poor in Romania. My mother and my husband often argued and one day we decided to come and work in France. A friend found us work in construction. Our boss let us an attic in Versailles, a wealthy western suburb of Paris. But our friend kept my husband’s salary to pay debts and we decided to leave.

We rented a studio in the eastern Parisian commune of Clichy-sous-Bois, for which we paid the extortionate price of £539 (800 Euros). My husband continued working in construction, and I began work as a waitress in a Portuguese bar. During this time I had my two children. Then the landlord sold the studio.

Later we arrived at the Chemin Vert gypsy camp in the northeastern suburbs, in Aubervilliers. The man in charge didn’t want to let us in because we weren’t of gypsy ethnicity. But my husband paid £471 (700 Euros) for a caravan and he accepted it. A week later a fire destroyed part of the camp. We built a hut as best we could and stayed there for two months, until the police evicted us all. But we had already been selected for the Aubervilliers integration programme. We lived in a tent next to the river Seine in central Paris for five months.

Last December, the council moved us into the caravan where we now live. We have heating, water, electricity, welfare, an address and a lease. The homeless movement Emmaus gave us a voucher to buy furniture and I’m dying to move it into the new house.

I don’t think about moving back to Romania. Within three years I hope to have my own house here, that the children go to school and we can all find work. Like a normal family.'