Margaret and Dick   


June '05: The gypsies of Perpignan

May 24, 2005, Perpignan:  “Beaten to death after surprising a thief,” read the headline, announcing the savage murder of Mohamed Bachir by a band of gypsies.  He had returned to his car after shopping and confronted a teen-aged gypsy boy stealing a car radio.  Furious, the boy ran off to find reinforcements to get the guy who "humiliated him".  He returned with two or more cousins, who chased Bachir and beat him with lead pipes and iron bars.  The victim ran through the streets and tried to find refuge in several stores, pursued by the gypsies who would pull him out again and continue the beating until he lay bloody and dying on the street.  This in full view of local neighbors, no one intervened. 

Arrests followed, though slowed by the famous "law of silence” that reigns in this Perpignan neighborhood called St. Jacques, home to gypsies and North Africans.  The neighborhood has long been home to exiles:  first to the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, next to the gypsies when Spain clamped down on them, then to the Moroccans and Algerians after France’s difficult exit from North Africa in the 1960’s. 

The two underprivileged cultures had led a tense coexistence for over a century, but no longer.  The young radio thief was arrested along with the two cousins accused of the beating death.  Ironically, Mohamed Bachir had confronted the boy stealing the radio from another car, not his own.  “Just don’t take mine,” he had said. 

Margaret and I had learned to watch our step around the gypsies of Europe in an unpleasant encounter 20 years ago in Paris.  Sitting on the Metro, we were accosted by a group of gypsy girls who opened up a poster and spread it over my lap, pointing to it.

“She has her hand in your bag,” shouted Margaret, punching the girl in the stomach to force her away.  Sticking out of my bag was my passport that the little girl had in her hands.  Too close!

Since then, we have learned to avoid groups of gypsy children.  We’ve been accosted in Barcelona, with no harm done.  Awareness pays.  Margaret recalls seeing an English woman surrounded by gypsy girls.  “How cute they are!” said the woman.  “They're robbing you,” said Margaret.

Are we prejudiced?  Yes, no doubt about it.  In France there are euphemisms for social misfits.  The gypsies are called gens de voyage (people on the road).  The national law of this socialist society states that each municipality will provide a free trailer park for gens de voyage, with free electricity (these trailers have satellite dishes), water, and garbage collection.  Most municipalities try to avoid doing so.  Not in my backyard. 

Limoux has had a gypsy camp for years, a dozen trailers squatting on some underused land on a main road on the outskirts of town, and yes, it has free power, water, and garbage collection.  And frequently dogs that run free and chase cyclists.  The gypsy women are fixtures at the weekly market, where they sell baskets.

For people familiar with the St. Jacques neighborhood of Perpignan, a city near the Spanish border, the violent conflict between gypsies and North Africans ("Arabs" to the French) was a catastrophe waiting to happen.

Police followed up the savage murder with a half-dozen more arrests, including some for non-assistance of a person in danger.  Gypsy men shot guns into the air to try to intimidate the police.  A car went up in flames across from the death scene, target of a Molotov cocktail launched by an enraged North African.  Stolen car, said the policeman viewing the charred remains. 

May 29, 2005:  In a peaceful street demonstration, 4000 or more North Africans marched in silent dignity to the Prefecture, and a delegation was received by the authorities.  Posters read:  “Equality, Security, Fraternity,” “Gypsy Assassins,” “Justice for All,” “The Mayor Should Resign.”  Visibly embarrassed and shaken by the barbarous murder, the authorities reassured the delegation that “everything necessary will be done to apply the laws so that justice will be rendered.”

The next day, a second North African man was murdered in a drive-by shooting as he sat in a chair taking the air.   A masked person got out of a car, calmly put four bullets into him, and got back in the car, which sped away.  Police insisted that nothing in the second incident pointed to gypsy-Arab conflict.  No witnesses came forward.  Surveillance video cameras in the neighborhood gave no clue; the nearest camera was a dummy.

All hell broke loose that night in St. Jacques.  The police had elected not to patrol the neighborhood (their usual habit) and arrived only well after the violence erupted.  A North African crowd raged through the streets, breaking store windows (a hundred), burning cars (twenty), turning over motorcycles and garbage cans and setting them on fire.

June 1, 2005 headline:  “The gypsies have left the St. Jacques neighborhood.

The article continued:  “The gypsies left Sunday evening, bringing with them their wives, their children, and their guns.  They left behind their dogs.  The dog-catchers collected the dogs the next day.”

Though nominally settled into apartments, the gypsies of Perpignan are never are far from their trailers and caravans.  Several hundred families can (and did) pick up and leave town at a moment’s notice.  Witnesses reported that you could feel the fear in the air on the day of departure.  While national police patrolled the streets, gypsy men watched from the roof tops with big knives and guns.  Neighborhood opinion was that the Arabs were waiting for the police to leave to pounce on the gypsies.  Long-time residents regretted the events that had ended decades of mutual tolerance in the neighborhood.  People spoke of the occasional intermarriage and the general good-will between the women of the gypsy and North African (both macho) cultures.  But times had changed:  North African women were becoming educated and integrated in to French society, some even taking jobs outside the home, while gypsy women stayed at home and had children.  Gypsy children hung around the house, typically not in school, typically illiterate. 

An undercurrent of political rumor spread.  For 46 years the mayor had been named Alduy, first father, then son.  People said that the gypsy quarter had received a lot of vote-buying attention: a gift of a refrigerator, a motor-scooter, a job with the city.  A vote could be reportedly bought for 100 Francs, less than $20.  Mayor Alduy the younger denied these rumors, pointing with pride to the “constellation of nationalities” that had so long co-existed St. Jacques.  

After a week or so, the mood calmed down enough for the gypsy caravans to return to Perpignan.  Gypsy Patrick said, “We’ve been compadres (buddies) with the Arabs.  We skipped school together, we went drinking together.  I ate couscous at their houses; they came and ate Spanish rice at our houses.  It’s the drugs that tore us apart.  If the old folks saw what has just happened, they would rise up out of their graves.” 

It was time to come back to the neighborhood.  “It’s our home.  If we have to die, we’ll die in our homes.”  Gypsy Patrick, who neither reads nor writes, works for the city.  He’s a big fan of the mayor, who has “put a lot of money into the neighborhood, building parks and schools.”  Schools that the gypsy kids do not attend?  “Well, our kids are sick a lot.”

Now, several weeks later, a tense quiet reigns in the neighborhood.  The gypsy teen who started it all escaped from juvenile detention and made his way home but was turned back to the authorities by his family.  Not yet fifteen years old, this youth already has twenty arrests on his record.  Police put him into a detention center even further from home. 

The second murder rests unsolved.

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Attack on Mt Ventoux