A Roma baby who died last week was buried in a Paris suburb on Monday after the mayor of a nearby town reportedly refused her a gravesite. The mayor's alleged comments have reignited a national debate about the country’s tense relationship with the Roma, a nomadic group that has struggled for acceptance in Western Europe.
The controversy arose over the weekend when daily newspaper La Parisien reported that Christian Leclerc, the conservative mayor of Champlan, refused to allow Maria to be buried in a local cemetery.
She died of sudden infant death syndrome in the early hours of Dec. 26 at a nearby hospital. But while Maria and her mother lived in Champlan, Mr. Leclerc said that the town's few available plots were reserved for taxpayers.
Leclerc’s alleged comments – seen as prejudiced against Roma, or Gypsies – have sparked outrage across France. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls denounced the “refusal to bury a child because of its origin” as an “insult to its memory, an insult to French values” on Twitter.
France’s official ombudsman, Jacques Toubon, said he was “shocked and stunned” by the incident and announced an investigation, the BBC reports.
Leclerc later denied ever refusing the burial, telling Agence France-Presse that his comments had been misunderstood and “at no moment did I oppose this burial.” He said there had been confusion among local staff about his instructions and that the 10-week-old infant could be buried in Champlan, but the family refused his offer.
Instead, she was buried in Wissous, a neighboring town just south of Paris, after Wissous Mayor Richard Trinquier offered to host the burial, France 24 reports. He called it “a question of humanity.”
"The pain of a mother who carried a child for nine months, and lost her after two and a half months must not be worsened," Mr. Trinquier told France 24.
About 200 family members and local residents attended a funeral service for the baby in Wissous on Monday, The Associated Press reports.
While Champlan's mayor has come under harsh criticism for his alleged discrimination, Paris’s handling of relations with Roma remains a contentious issue. As The Christian Science Monitor’s Isabelle de Pommereau reported in May, “ethnic Roma are at the bottom of most accepted socio-economic fields.”
“In modern Europe, 'anti-Gypsyism' has become the last acceptable prejudice,” says Aidan McGarry, an expert on southeastern immigration at the University of Brighton …
Over the past few years, Roma communities have come under fire from politicians in countries including Italy, Hungary, Germany, Britain, and France – the last most noticeably in 2010 when former French President Nicolas Sarkozy expelled 2,000 Roma back to Romania as part of his “war on crime,” a policy the Hollande government has more or less continued.
The New York Times reports that President François Hollande pledged to put a stop to such strict policies when he took office in 2012. Instead he expanded them. In 2013, French authorities demolished at least 165 camps and evicted some 20,000 Roma – roughly as many as those in the country today – according to a report published last January by the French Human Rights League and the European Roma Rights Center. The majority of France’s Roma who arrive from Eastern Europe live in makeshift settlements lacking basic amenities such as running water, though so-called French Gypsies are more established.