By Jean-François Rosnoblet
MARSEILLE, France (Reuters) - Residents of a poor neighborhood of Marseille forced Roma migrants from their camp and set it ablaze in a vigilante eviction that French rights groups feared could set a precedent.
France is home to some 15-20,000 Roma, most of whom come from Romania and Bulgaria. Tensions over illegal camps, often on the outskirts of cities, have grown since the Socialist government made it harder for police to remove them.
Furious over a spate of robberies they blamed on the Roma squatters and unwilling to wait for a formal eviction, locals surrounded the makeshift camp in the north of the port city of Marseille on Thursday and ordered its 40 inhabitants to leave.
When the camp was cleared, they set fire to what remained: a few tents and washing machines.
"People say the government isn't doing anything so they take the situation into their own hands - this is what we had feared the most," said Fathi Bouaroua, an official at the Abbe Pierre Foundation, which tends to the homeless.
President Francois Hollande's four-month-old government has cleared dozens of camps and deported hundreds of Roma.
But after criticism of former Nicolas Sarkozy's hard line on Roma camps, it also made evictions more difficult - requiring a court order where previously an edict from a regional prefect had been enough.
The vigilantes in Marseille acted after being told they would have to wait for a court order, which could take weeks.
Locals had informed police of their plans. While officers were present they made no attempt to stop the eviction, which took place without violence, a police source told Reuters.
The mayor of the neighborhood, already plagued by gang violence and drug dealing, said she could not condone the forced eviction of Roma, but did understand the residents' irritation.
"They told me they were fed up with the situation, with having excrement everywhere," Samia Ghali told Le Figaro newspaper, adding that the new procedure was causing delays. "We need to stop sitting round tables and take decisions."
Further unlawful evictions were likely, she warned.
Roma are often accused of petty crime and littering.
In August, the government ordered dozens of camps cleared and sent hundreds of Roma back to their home countries, drawing European Union concerns over potential abuses of migration law.
Activists said the clearances had created a tolerance for targeting Roma, dredging up bad memories from the past.
During the Nazi occupation of France, Roma were arrested and put into camps along with Jews, prostitutes and homosexuals. Many died in the gas chambers. Roma camps remained operational in France even after the war, with the last closing in 1946.
Rights groups also drew parallels with the vigilante attacks during the Algerian War for independence, when locals hunted down North African immigrants. Many residents of the Saint Louis neighborhood in Marseille are of North African origin.
"Targeting a population and destroying its few possessions due to their ethnic background is a crime that recalls a sad time in our history," said Christophe Madrolle, vice president of Marseille's urban community. "Has the hunt for Roma begun?"
(Writing by Nicholas Vinocur; Editing by Matthew Tostevin)