GRIGNY, France – It looked like any shantytown the world over — tarps to keep out the weather, scattered bits of trash that no truck would ever collect, plastic buckets to lug water. Then one of the inhabitants of this Roma camp on the northwest edge of Paris, a teenage boy named Darius, was beaten into a coma, apparently by residents of a neighboring housing project.
Within hours, the Roma vanished, seeking sanctuary in a new location on the fringes of one of the world's wealthiest cities. Three weeks later, 16-year-old Darius remains unconscious. His family is in hiding. Police have made no arrests.
France is coming under increasing pressure to answer allegations that it is encouraging harassment of Europe's poorest minority group in hopes that the Roma, also known as Gypsies, will leave the country.
About 20,000 are living in France, a number that appears to have changed little despite a decade spent bulldozing the squats that spring up, season after season, on unclaimed land. In 2013, the number of people evicted equaled the number still here, according to government figures. With job prospects and discrimination even worse back in their homelands in Eastern Europe, Roma migrants keep coming back.
French government policy on the Roma seems to be in crisis. The official in charge of Roma resettlement lost his job last week. The government will not say why, nor whether he will be replaced.
Police say the Roma give contradictory accounts of attacks against them. Roma say they are scared of retribution and distrustful of authorities in a country whose image as a beacon for the downtrodden is sullied by its long record of abuse of the minority. France's Roma policies are under criticism by Europe's top human rights court as well as Amnesty International and other organizations.
Despite European Union borders that opened to the Roma this year, life is about to get even more difficult for them in France: The government is launching its annual operation to destroy Roma shantytowns, scheduled with the argument that homeless children suffer less during summer vacation.
The camp at the Paris suburb of Grigny is among those coming down any day. Of the 300 Roma squatting there, 10 families will be resettled. The town of 30,000, the poorest in its region and boasting the largest public housing project in Europe, has chosen the 46 people who will be offered housing based on their perceived ability to integrate. The families themselves will not know who among them has been selected until the camp comes down in what is euphemistically called a "liberation of the land."
"We did what we could, but we cannot welcome 300 people," said Frederic Rey, the town's spokesman. "We're building what we can with the means we have."
Nearly all of the children are in local schools, and more than two dozen adults have regular jobs. Schooling and jobs are likely to come to an abrupt end when the camp comes down. Officials are in theory supposed to offer alternative housing under a 2012 government order, but in practice rarely do. Uprooted families spend days looking for a new pocket of unused land and piecing their lives back together.
"Out of a country of 67 million, we're talking about 15-20,000 people. It's not an invasion," said Loic Gandais, president of an association in an outlying area of the Paris region called Essonne, the home territory of France's combative prime minister, Manuel Valls. Valls, as France's top security official last year, publicly linked the Roma with crime and disorder, feeding on stereotypes widespread throughout Europe.
With high rates of illiteracy and unemployment, and little access to the European Union's promised labor market, the Roma catch blame for the kind of petty crimes — pickpocketing, scrap metal theft, burglary — that are highly visible in the daily life of the better-heeled. Last week, a group of Romanian Roma was convicted of forcing children as young as 9 to steal cell phones and wallets. It was the sort of trial that for some confirms deeply held prejudices against a group that — as Valls once put it — "does not wish to integrate."
The Roma who come to France from Eastern Europe say any thieves among them are a minority and complain bitterly that the path to gainful employment remains closed to them despite European Union rules opening up the frontiers to workers. Each time they are evicted, according to the Roma and French charities that work with them, they become more vulnerable — to disease, hunger and crime.
Police allegedly told one man to conduct his own investigation to locate the attackers who beat him and smashed in his wife's face in August 2013 in Paris' northern suburbs. In the southern city of Marseille in March 2013, a Roma woman was hospitalized after a crowd attacked their camp with tear gas, according to Amnesty International. In January, a resident tossed a bleach mixture at a Roma couple, only to be released when a judge said it was unclear whether the concoction was intended to be harmful.
"There is a tolerance of violence against Roma communities and authorities don't want to intervene," said Michelle Kelso, a professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C, who works with Roma communities. "The only thing that will work is systematically looking at how to resolve the issues of Romani poverty."
The attack on teenage Darius on June 13 was unusual only in its brutality.
He was beaten into a coma in the town of Pierrefitte, at the other end of the rickety suburban train line that cuts through Paris. His family visits him in the hospital from time to time. Police have made no arrests in the case, despite dozens of witnesses who saw a group of young men from the projects take him away, then return his limp body to the side of a road in a shopping cart hours later. From cell phone to cell phone, Roma have passed along horrific photos of his broken face and body.
Claudia, a 32-year-old Roma woman who was in the Pierrefitte camp during the attack, fled in fear after seeing what happened to Darius, and is now back in Romania. She could barely bring herself to speak about the day and refused to allow her surname to be published, fearing repercussions. The youngest of her four children was born in May at a French hospital.
Claudia said Darius was sought out specifically by a gang of locals from the projects for reasons that vary with each narrator, but seem to involve a double-cross, a burglary gone wrong or simply an attempt to send a message to unwanted neighbors in one of the Paris region's most troubled towns.
Despite her terror, she expects to return to France. "We are illiterate and can't find work here."
Their welcome in France will be hardly warmer.
"We cannot do any more," said Rey, the Grigny spokesman. "It's not tenable."
Mutler contributed from Bucharest, Romania. Associated Press writer Sylvie Corbet contributed.