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Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Grandfather becomes the face of French racism row

When Rene Galinier pulled the trigger on his old hunting rifle, he said he was acting to defend his home. Two young eastern European women had broken into his house while he was taking a siesta, and when the startled 73-year-old woke up, he shot and wounded them both.

Since Mr Galinier fired at the intruders, reverberations have been felt far beyond the four walls of his modest bungalow in a village in south-west France.

The case of "Papy" Galinier has become a cause celebre thanks to the bitter debate caused by President Nicolas Sarkozy's recent crackdown on the Roma community in France, which has seen itinerant camps demolished and hundreds of Roma returned to eastern Europe.

On one side stand those who have condemned the expulsions as redolent of Nazi Germany - on the other are those who say Mr Sarkozy has not gone far enough. In the middle of the political maelstrom sits Mr Galinier who is in a local prison cell, charged with attempted manslaughter and denied bail pending trial.

"He was a good man, who had been pushed too far," said 85-year-old Edouard Martin, a retired policeman and fellow resident of Mr Galinier's village, Nissan-lez-Enserunes. "People here are scared of the foreigners. I sleep with a revolver by my bed. If someone comes into my house, then I am going to kill them before they kill me."

Mr Sarkozy started to shut hundreds of illegal Roma camps in response to clashes between police and traveller communities last month. With more expulsions planned, and criticism mounting at home and abroad, he hopes to bolster support for his stance next week by convening a summit of interior ministers from countries facing similar immigration debates. Western European governments are split on the matter. While Italy is considering similar action, Britain will be sending a senior official to the meeting rather than the Home Secretary, Theresa May, for fear of being seen to endorse Mr Sarkozy's policies. On Friday, a United Nations human rights body rebuked France and urged the government to aim for integration of Roma rather than deportation.

Nissan-lez-Enserunes, where four generations of the Galinier family live, provides a vivid snapshot of why it has become such a charged issue in France. Not far from Montpellier, it is a picture-postcard image of southern French living, with elegant stone houses set among narrow winding streets filled with flowers. Mr Galinier has lived in the area all his life, raising two children, working for the council, then retiring to spend time with his wife and grandchildren and tend his garden.

He had been targeted by criminals twice before. In 2002, thieves attempted to break in and in February this year goldfish were stolen from his garden pond.

Among villagers, the finger of blame for local petty crime often points - rightly or wrongly - to a patch of wasteland several miles outside the village where a group of Roma recently made camp next to a motorway. The families and their wild-haired children live in ramshackle caravans among piles of rubbish. On the afternoon of August 5, two women in their early 20s broke into Mr Galinier's home. The unarmed pair, who speak no French and have not given police their names, were both shot at from just a few yards away. One was hit in the groin, the other in the chest. Both are in hospital awaiting identification and questioning.

Mr Galinier's story, with strong echoes of the British case of Norfolk farmer Tony Martin, has resonated throughout the village and beyond. A committee has been set up to fight for his cause, and slogans have been painted on the road to Nissan-lez-Enserunes proclaiming: "We're right behind you, Rene." A local petition has more than 8,000 signatures, with 10,000 from as far afield as the US joining the campaign on Facebook and internet forums.

The internet forums have attracted the attention of more extreme elements of French society, with queues of people denouncing the Roma community for every crime under the Mediterranean sun.

Mr Galinier has caught the eye of the extreme Right with some of his comments. After being arrested, he said: "I was in danger Ö I was scared. I was threatened by this dirty race. I've become racist."

"He's not a philosopher," admitted his lawyer, Josy-Jean Bousquet, acknowledging the unfortunate comments. "But I reject that he's racist. He was angry and upset."

The Front National, an extreme-Right party, seized the opportunity provided by Mr Galinier. Its vice-president, Marine Le Pen, whose father, Jean-Marie founded the organisation, described his arrest and detention as "totally abusive", given the "insupportable immunity of these notorious delinquents".

The village has had a total of 17 break-ins since the beginning of the year and a falling crime rate. Yet villagers still speak of a "crime wave" and lay the blame squarely on the caravan doorstep of the travellers. Roma rights organisations claim that "stigmatisation" will not solve the underlying problems of lack of integration and facilities. Maxime Andreu, of the regional Support Committee for the Roma, said: "We should be looking at why they are having to leave their countries - what is being done with all the EU funds to help them there?"

For the Roma travellers on the waste ground outside Nissan-lez-Enserunes, their new home remains better than the one they left behind. Picking her way among broken bottles, discarded sofas and heaps of rubbish, Mikaela Josephine, 19, is only interested in avoiding being sent back to Romania.

"It's wrong, what Mr Sarkozy is doing," the mother of two said. "But I don't want to go back there. It is more racist than France
Daily Telegraph