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Roma call for protection after false rumours spark attacks

media A Roma camp in the Paris suburb of Bobigny, 25 March 2019. AFP/Kenzo Tribouillard

A group representing ethnic Roma called on French authorities for protection on Wednesday after several communities were targeted by vigilante attacks sparked by rumours of attempted kidnappings.

“We are calling today on the interior ministry [...] for immediate protection by way of round-the-clock police presence,” Anina Ciuciu, a lawyer and spokesperson for The Voice of Roma group, told French media.

She blamed the rumours on “a revival of the medieval stereotype” of Roma in which “gypsies are likened to thieves and child-catchers.”

After rumours spread on social media, some 50 people armed with sticks and knives set upon a shantytown home to some 150 Roma from Romania in the Paris suburb of Bobigny on Monday evening, setting fire to parked vans.

Roma people were also reportedly chased in the nearby suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, seeking refuge in a supermarket.

Police arrested 20 people on Tuesday, in response to the attacks.

On Wednesday, eleven people remained in custody, with three to appear in court to face charges of voluntary aggression. A minor was to appear in a juvenile court.

Rumours spread on social media

Prior to the attacks, false rumours spread on the messaging application Snapchat and social network Facebook via posts in which users claimed children or family members had been approached or abducted by strangers driving a white van.

Police said there were no reports of kidnappings and urged not to rely the claims, reminding users that under French law, spreading a false rumour could be punished with fives of 45,000 to 135,000 euros.

Such rumours have been surfacing for months, with police in Versailles west of Paris issuing a warning in December and a gang in Colombes attacking two people earlier this month.

Government spokesperson Benjamin Griveaux said the attacks showed “the absolute need to fight fake news.

“Spreading such rumours in a highly organised and viral way on social media results in violence [and] the stigmatisation of a community,” he said.

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