Police officers showed up at the Samaritain slum in the northern Paris suburb of La Courneuve on Thursday morning and proceeded to evict the roughly 300 residents who called the area home.
Nestled between a rail track and a factory, the eight-year-old settlement has been dubbed "France's oldest slum" by charitable organizations that have provided assistance to the camp's Roma families over the years. Carrying cats and dogs, and pushing strollers and shopping carts piled high with their possessions, residents exited the camp in the rain, crossing a police cordon by the entrance.
VICE News toured the slum ten days ago accompanied by 17-year-old resident Jozsef Farkas, a young community advocate who launched a petition against the eviction and had become a spokesperson for the Roma community in La Courneuve.
Farkas led us past rows of makeshift homes along the slum's carpeted "streets." In a far corner of the shanty town, huge rats scurried around a heap of garbage.
Following a court decision on August 15, local authorities warned residents that the slum could be torn down any day, justifying the decision by highlighting the health and safety fears associated with living there.
Despite several charities pledging to help clean up the slum as part of a plan to gradually relocate residents to more suitable housing, officials moved forward with their plan to remove residents.
Outside the entrance, a number of residents argued with the police to be let back into the slum to fetch their belongings. Local official Mehdi Bouteghmes told VICE News that residents had not been warned of the police operation — a claim that was denied by the local prefecture. A spokesperson for the prefecture said that a "social diagnosis" had been undertaken on Wednesday to identify vulnerable families, including those with young children or disabled persons, which he said would be rehoused. Others, he said, would have to "call 115," France's emergency housing hotline.
According to the charitable organizations on the ground, about a third of the slum's 300 residents left the site following the august 2015 ruling. Local official Hughes Besancenot told reporters that the eviction of nearly 200 people who had remained was underway in an atmosphere of calm.
The decision to tear down the slum, he said, was prompted by the unsanitary living conditions, the lack of access to clean water, and the dangers presented by nearby train and truck traffic.
His shirt soaked through by the rain, Farkas said that he had no idea the eviction would be enforced today, and was at work when the police arrived this morning. "I left my ID inside," he told a police officer. Usually cheerful, Farkas was somber on Thursday. "It's disgusting," he remarked. "There are babies here, and people who are disabled."
Many of the residents VICE News spoke to said that they had no idea where to spend the night. Aside from creating an emergency housing issue, Roma advocacy groups have said that the evacuation would also jeopardize jobs and long-term integration. But according to the local authorities, residents have had six months to prepare for their departure.
As bulldozers entered the slum, one of the residents could be heard telling her neighbors that she would "sleep at the Town Hall tonight."
As people continued to leave the site in small groups well into the afternoon, some of the residents said that they were planning to stage a protest outside the Town Hall later that day. They would remain there, they warned, until they were offered alternative housing.
Follow Étienne Rouillon on Twitter: @rouillonetienne
Photos by Étienne Rouillon/VICE News