The deceased baby of a Roma family at the center of a high-profile racism row in France was finally laid to rest Monday as officials launched an anti-discrimination investigation into a city's initial refusal to bury the infant.
The tiny white coffin was buried in a cemetery in the French town of Wissous, about 12 miles south of Paris, following a religious ceremony attended by about 100 people, including representatives from the Roma community.
The baby, identified only as Maria Francesca, was born Oct. 14 and stopped breathing in the early hours of Dec. 26 in her makeshift home in a Roma camp on the outskirts of Champlan, a community near Wissous. She was rushed to a nearby hospital, where she was pronounced dead from sudden infant death syndrome.
The death made headlines over the past weekend after Champlan Mayor Christian Leclerc reportedly refused to allow the infant to be buried there, reportedly saying priority should be given to taxpayers. He was apparently referring to widespread unemployment among the Roma. Leclerc has since denied objecting, chalking it up to a misunderstanding. "I have never been opposed to this burial," he told Le Monde.
The baby’s family had asked undertakers to request local authorities’ permission to lay the infant to rest there, but Julien Guenzi, manager of the undertakers' firm, said Leclerc refused "without explanation.” The mayor of Wissous, a few miles away, then offered to host the burial.
With fury mounting and Prime Minister Manuel Valls describing the refusal as an "insult" to France, Leclerc offered his condolences to the family and said they could bury the baby in Champlan, but the family refused.
The case highlights France’s tense relationship with the Roma, who are Europe’s biggest minority and face marginalization across the country. Successive French governments have drawn fire for demolishing numerous Roma camps and evicting families with children. In a much-publicized case in 2013, a 15-year-old undocumented Roma girl was deported to her native Kosovo while she was on a school trip in France.
Only 15 percent of young Roma adults in EU member states have completed high school or vocational education, compared with more than 70 percent of the general population, according to European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights. Across Europe about 10 to 12 million Roma people live in nomadic settlements in households often lacking an indoor kitchen, a toilet, electricity, a shower or a bath, according to the European Union. Maria Francesca’s family live in a makeshift settlement on the outskirts of Champlan without electricity or running water, near Paris's Orly airport.
The burial row came as it emerged that another 2-month-old Roma baby died in a shack near the train station of the northern French city of Lille amid freezing temperatures on Thursday.
Prime Minister Valls had weighed in on the matter on Twitter, saying: "Refusing a child a burial because of its roots is an insult to its memory, an insult to France."
President Francois Hollande also made a passing reference to the situation, saying in a two-hour radio interview that he did not want French people to "lash out at others, like what happened in that cemetery," according to Le Monde.
The child's parents are Romanian nationals who are in their mid-30s and have lived in France for at least eight years, according to supporters. They have two boys, ages 5 and 9, who attend school in Champlan.
Al Jazeera and Agence-France Presse