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Hollande acknowledges France's role in WWII Roma internment

President François Hollande talks to Violette Gureme, a former inmate at Montreuil-Bellay
President François Hollande talks to Violette Gureme, a former inmate at Montreuil-Bellay AFP

French President François Hollande on Saturday acknowledged France's responsibility for the internment of thousands of Roma under the World War II Vichy regime and immediately after the war - a historic first for a French head of state.

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"The Republic acknowledges the suffering of travelling people who were interned and admits that it bears a great responsibility in this tragedy," Hollande told a crowd of 500 at Montreuil-Bellay, the largest of the 31 camps in which 6,000-6,500 Roma were interned. "A country, our country, is always greater when it acknowledges its history."

Hollande was speaking a ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the closure of the camps.

"It was important to have this acknowledgement," commented Fernand Delage of the travelling people's organisation France Liberté Voyage. "This represents thousands and thousands of travelling families. It's late but better late than never."

Law may be repealed

Hollande hinted that a contentious law obliging travelling people to register at a police station every three months may be repealed.

A bill proposing to scrap the licence they have to carry, which was introduced in 1969 to replace special identity papers, has been debated in parliament and the president expressed the hope that it will be passed.

The 1940 law, passed by Marshall Philippe Pétain's colloborationist government, that forbade Roma to travel in France was the product of "mistrust fed by ancestral fears, prejudices and ignorance", Hollande said.

Thousands interned

More than 2,000 Roma, as well as homeless people from the nearby city of Nantes, were interned in the Montreuil-Bellay camp between November 1941 and January 1945 and about 100 died there.

Unlike in other countries occupied during the war, the German authorities did not order the mass deportation of Roma from France, although a number were sent to concentration camps for other reasons.

The first official acknowledgement of the wartime policy came under President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010 when then veterans minister Hubert Falco mentioned it during a day in honour of the victims of racist and anti-Semitic crimes.

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