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French NGO Tackles the ‘Roma Question’ Through Community Building Projects

Programme du chantier de la Base de Vie, source Journal de l'Ambassade du PEROU à Ris-Orangis, avec permission

A poster of PEROU's community construction project called “Le chantier de la Base de Vie.” (A construction site for a new living area)  Source: Journal de l'Ambassade du PEROU à Ris-Orangis, used with permission.

[All links lead to French-language pages except where noted.]

The non-profit Embassy of PEROU has nothing to do with the similarly spelled Latin American country, but it does have plenty to do with diplomacy. 

Ris-Orangis and Grigny, two cities in the department of Essonne on the outskirts of Paris, are home to many Roma families. Demolitions of Roma camps reached a new high in France in total numbers and media visibility in 2013. PEROU, (a French acronym for Hub for the Exploration of Urban Resources) aims to bring together residents of these suburbs and their shantytown neighbors, including the Roma community as well as others, by building community centers together and improving the general living conditions in the shantytowns.

The NGO, which strives to mix social activities with architectural design, wants to serve ostracized communities that the government usually sees as social or ethnic problems needing to be solved instead of as fully fledged residents. By doing so, they hope to emphasize the absurdities and indignities of the current urban and social policies in France.

Coordinator Sebastien Thiery addressed the so-called “Roma question”, or the debate over how to deal with Roma and migrant communities, in an exchange on “Le Monde des Livres”, a weekly forum on cultural issues on Le Monde.fr :

Surtout, elle [La question rom] empêche de concevoir que la politique de violence et de non-accès aux droits ne cible pas seulement ces prétendus Roms, mais aussi les SDF à Paris ou les migrants à Calais. “Rom” est l'une de ces catégories qui naturalisent la précarité des personnes ainsi désignées : du côté du rebut humain par essence – ou pire, par volonté – elles “méritent” donc la violence qui s'abat sur elles. 

Most importantly, it [the Roma question] gets in the way of understanding that the policy of violence and lack of access to rights does not target only these alleged Roma, but also the homeless in Paris or the migrants in Calais. “Roma” is a category that naturalizes the insecurity of the people with that label: They are the dregs of society by virtue of their essence – or worse, by their own free will – and they therefore “deserve” the violence that is inflicted on them.

 In an interview published on the site “Questions de Classes,” Thiery explained what PEROU is:

Le PEROU – Pôle d’exploration des ressources urbaines est un collectif d’architectes, artistes et chercheurs qui souhaite contribuer à rénover le répertoire des savoirs sur la grande précarité urbaine, et peut-être par là-même à rénover le répertoire des actions publiques conduites pour y répondre. Notre méthode est pragmatique : agir sur les situations de cette grande précarité urbaine, transformer l’espace comme les représentations qui y sont associées.

PEROU (Hub for the Exploration of Urban Resources) is a collective of architects, artists and researchers who want to contribute to updating the knowledge base on severe urban insecurity and use this information to improve the set of public policies addressing the issue. Our method is practical: taking action in situations of severe urban insecurity, transforming the space as well as the perceptions that are associated with it.

The organization's blog Le Journal de l'Ambassade du PEROU à Ris-Orangis… et à Grigny seeks to shed light on the daily life of these disadvantaged families and to understand how language plays a role in discrimination, as explained in the journal's initial appeal in 2012:

Il en va ainsi d'Amnesty International qui, dans son tout dernier rapport intitulé “Chassés de toutes parts. Les expulsions forcées de Roms en Île-de-France” (lire ici), utilise l'expression “campements informels roms”. Voici une expression ahurissante à divers titres, et en premier lieu en raison de l'évocation appuyée de ce nomadisme hors-sujet, certes contrebalancée par l'étrange expression “expulsions forcées” (connaît-on des expulsions non forcées ?), qui raconte que si ces populations voyagent effectivement, ça n'est pas en raison d'un goût pour le nomadisme, mais à cause d'un destin d'indésirables qui, depuis des siècles peut-être, leur a inculqué un certain savoir-fuir.

In their latest report [en], entitled “Told to move on: Forced evictions of Roma in France,” Amnesty International uses the expression “informal Roma settlements.” This is an appalling expression for several reasons, most importantly because it imposes an off-topic implication of nomadism. True, it is counterbalanced by the strange expression “forced evictions” (is there any such thing as non-forced evictions?) which implies that if these populations do indeed travel, it is not because of a preference for the nomadic lifestyle, but because of a destiny of undesirables which, perhaps for centuries, has instilled in them a certain knack for fleeing. 

How to overturn these perceptions? By transforming their space, by building:

Evacuer les déchets, faire disparaître les rats, mettre à distance la boue, renforcer les baraques, les isoler de telle sorte à ce qu'elles ne puissent prendre feu, donner à l'espace, à partir des savoirs et savoir-faire des personnes habitant là, une qualité à distance des clichés assassins qui colportent qu'ici tout est branlant, tels sont les enjeux premiers d'une action qui, transformant l'espace, vise la transformation des regards portés sur ceux qui les habitent. Construire, c'est s'émanciper de la figure sulfureuse du dévastateur. 

Clear out the debris, get rid of the rats, clean out the mud, reinforce the shanties and insulate them so that they can't catch fire, and based on the knowledge and abilities of the people living there, give the space a quality that is a far cry from the deadly clichés that claim everything here is in shambles. Those are the stakes in an action that, by transforming the space, aims to transform the perceptions of those who live there. To build is to liberate one's self from the demonic figure of the destroyer.

Here is how the program began:

Dans une quinzaine de jours, le PEROU inaugurera son ambassade au coeur du bidonville situé en lisière de la Nationale 7 à Ris-Orangis. L'ambassade c'est un lieu de vie, de plaisir, de travail, d'imagination d'un autre avenir. C'est un lieu pour les enfants, un lieu de l'enfance, un lieu à partir duquel doivent s'inventer d'autres lieux, de nouveaux horizons.

Within two weeks, PEROU will open its embassy in the heart of the slum located along the Nationale 7 highway in Ris-Orangis. The embassy is a place of life, pleasure, work, and imagining a different future. It's a place for children, a place of childhood, a place that must serve as the source for other places and new horizons.

Roméo, a resident of one of the shantytowns near Ris-Orangis, posted the following description of their daily lives in December 24, 2012:

[…] Avec son mari et ses cinq enfants, vit ici Ekaterina, soeur de Roméo. Son sourire est délicat, ses gestes légers. Elle traverse sa petite baraque telle une danseuse, et attrape en bout de scène la tasse de café qu'elle s'empresse de nous offrir.

Roméo vit avec sa femme et ses parents dans la baraque d'à côté. Leur poêle a fonctionné toute la journée, et la chaleur est ici torride. Ils sont réunis autour d'on ne sait quelle discussion, comme écrasés par le sujet. On entre, ils s'animent, se lèvent presque tous pour nous céder un fauteuil. On commence à parler, et la discussion menace de ne jamais finir tant ils paraissent avides de nos paroles. 

[…] Romeo's sister Ekaterina lives here with her husband and her five children. Her smile is delicate, her movements light. She crosses her small shack like a dancer, and at the end of the stage, picks up the cup of coffee that she offers us eagerly.

Romeo lives with his wife and his parents in the shack next door. Their stove has been running all day, and the temperature in the room is sweltering. They are gathered in some kind of discussion, as if weighed down by the topic. We enter and they light up, almost everyone rising to offer us a chair. We begin to talk, and they seem so riveted by our words that the discussion may never end.

Through their actions, the NGO wishes to take a stand against urban policies in France :  

22 extincteurs, pour éviter le pire. Photos Margot Crayssac et Mabel Miranda

22 fire extinguishers, to avoid the worst.
From a photo series by Margot Crayssac and Mabel Miranda. Used with permission.

Eric Fassin, dans l'ouvrage collectif qu'il publie cette semaine aux éditions La Fabrique (Roms et riverains. Une politique municipale de la race) analyse ce qui tient lieu aujourd'hui de politique à l'endroit des bidonvilles : laisser se dégrader la situation jusqu'à ce que l'expulsion s'impose, ou rendre le quotidien des familles invivable jusqu'au cauchemar afin que l'auto-expulsion s'impose.
Par les actes, nous nous opposons à telle lâcheté. C'est pourquoi, inlassablement, nous avons construit à Ris-Orangis. C'est pourquoi inlassablement nous construisons à Grigny. C'est pourquoi nous avons installé 22 extincteurs le week-end dernier sur les baraques du bidonville de la Folie. Pour éviter le pire. Ce que, si tant est que nous demeurions en République, toute municipalité se devrait de faire. Exactement, il nous en a coûté 437 euros.

In an anthology published by La Fabrique this week (“Roma and Residents: A Municipal Policy of Race”), Eric Fassin analyzes what passes for public policy in the slums today: letting the situation deteriorate until eviction takes place, or making the families’ daily lives so unlivable that they are forced to exile themselves. We are taking a stand against this cowardice. This is why we did the construction in Ris-Orangis. This is why we are working tirelessly on the construction in Grigny. This is why we installed 22 fire extinguishers on the shacks in the La Folie slum last weekend. To avoid the worst. If we remain in the country, this is what every city should be doing. It cost exactly 437 euros (604 US dollars).

PEROU's work is documented in written updates and PDF image galleries on the association's site. To round out its project, the organization even has “its own employment agency:”

Studio photographique de la Folie mis en place par Rafaël Trapet afin de réaliser portraits de chacune et chacun pour trouver bonne place sur les CV notamment réalisés par les étudiants de l'Ensad. 1er mars

Photo studio in La Folie set up by Rafael Trapet to take portraits. The images will be included on participants’ CVs, which were put together by students from the ENSAD [en]. March 1, 2014. Used with permission.

Ce site Internet, forme d’agence pour l’emploi du PEROU, est alors conçu pour colporter cette parole [de quarante adultes européens vivant à Grigny sous la menace d’une énième expulsion] et faciliter les relations de travail auxquelles aspirent nos concitoyens européens ici représentés. Afin que leur éloignement n’ait plus lieu.

PEROU's employment agency website was conceived in order to spread the word [of 40 European adults living in Grigny under the threat of yet another eviction] and facilitate the work relationships sought by our fellow Europeans represented here. So that they will no longer be kept at a distance.

Two recent books illustrate the “municipal policy of race” and “the municipal art of destroying a slum:”

 "Considérant qu'il est plausible que de tels événements puissent à nouveau survenir. Sur l'art municipal de détruire un bidonville" Livre de PEROU offert, samedi, à chacune des familles qui pourra, entre autres, lire l'arrêté d'expulsion du bidonville de Ris-Orangis traduit en roumain par Ramona Strachinaru et Marina Nicusor. Photo : Laurent Malone avec permission  La Folie, Grigny, 29 mars  2014.

On Saturday, copies of PEROU's new book, “Considering That It Is Likely That Such Events May Reoccur: On the Municipal Art of Destroying a Slum,” were distributed to families so that they will be able to read about the mass eviction of the Ris-Orangis slum, among other issues. The book was translated into Romanian by Ramona Strachinaru and Marina Nicusor. Photo: Laurent Malone, used with permission. La Folie, Grigny, March 29, 2014.

A war against the poor is taking place today.

Official documents put [Roma people] in the same category as rats. The word “extermination” is used in reference to them. 

The book “Considering That It Is Likely That Such Events May Reoccur: On the Municipal Art of Destroying a Slum” was compiled and presented by Sebastien Thiery. The book takes its title from the municipal statement that ordered the destruction of the makeshift homes of Ris, which PEROU had worked for months to consolidate and improve. In the book, artists, philosophers, writers and landscapers parody and dissect the legalese in order to show its staggering effect. The book is supplemented by a film, which shows images of the “illicit settlement” accompanied by a reading of the endless municipal order:

CONSIDERANT by Perou Paris on Vimeo.

PEROU continues to work because “we still need to work on hospitality.” Together. With love and good humor.

All photos are from the blog Journal de l'Ambassade du PEROU à Ris-Orangis… et à Grigny and are used with their kind permission.

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