Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

New Barbarians at the Gates of Paris? Prosecuting Undocumented Minors in the Juvenile Court-The Problem of the 'Petits Roumains'

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

New Barbarians at the Gates of Paris? Prosecuting Undocumented Minors in the Juvenile Court-The Problem of the 'Petits Roumains'

Article excerpt


This article centers on the unaccompanied, undocumented minors who are arrested and subject to prosecution for non-violent offenses at the Paris juvenile court in disproportionate numbers. It illustrates the processes whereby public authorities distinguish between the criminal vagrant whose agency and choice makes him more accountable and liable for punishment and the victimized child whose vulnerability and manipulation by others makes him less responsible and eligible for assistance. The article examines the current debates surrounding children and agency within anthropology and asks what the French case adds to our understanding of the changing notions of childhood as well as the newly porous boundaries between the child and the adult. [Keywords: childhood, agency, delinquency, juvenile courts, irregular migrants]

On the French Ascension holiday in late May 2003 I accompanied the caseworker on duty to the Paris jail where she conducted intake interviews with the minors who had been arrested and held in police custody. Of the seven children in lock-up, five were Romanians (four girls and one boy) accused of theft. The Romanian boy, whom we will call Marius, was sixteen years old and well known to the police and the court. He had come to France at thirteen, arriving without a passport, visa (required before 2002) or knowledge of French. Abandoned by an adult smuggler upon arrival, he had joined other Romanian children who were living on the street, stealing and prostituting themselves for food, clothing, and money. By his own account, after rescue in 2001 by the Child Protection Brigade (Brigade de la Protection des Mineurs) he had "been in and out of every state home in Brittany" but had returned intermittently to the street, using three different identities, and accumulating a long police record. He had been arrested with a French adult for attempted theft of a motorcycle. Like Marius, the four Romanian girls were economic migrants not asylum seekers but in contrast to him, were (with one exception) first-time offenders. They had been arrested for shoplifting and had no identity papers, addresses or parental guardians. Despite this, the juvenile judge and prosecutor on duty accepted both their claim to minority status and their right to a hearing at the juvenile rather than the adult court.

Three years later, in November 2006, a Romanian girl without identity papers was arrested for theft and detained in prison pending trial by a Paris juvenile judge on the strength of a widely used but controversial test of skeletal development determining her age to be sixteen (Le Monde, 16 November 2006). Thanks to the prison doctor's outrage and the resulting press coverage, a relative appeared with a legal birth certificate showing her legal age as eleven and prompting her immediate release. The case was striking because the controversy centered on the age of the defendant, not her incarceration for theft. All assumed, based on her police record as a "recidivist," that she was an accountable delinquent rather than an endangered teenager. The court doctor, deputy prosecutor and juvenile judge at the Paris court all viewed the case as routine. It was yet another case of an unmoored and criminal vagrant.

A More Visible Problem

Between 1997-2001, unaccompanied, undocumented minors such as Marius arrested for theft, property damage, pimping, sex work or burglary were detained, indicted, released pending trial, judged and sentenced in absentia, disappearing and reappearing multiple times with different identities. They were subject to prosecution in disproportionate numbers compared to other suspects. Although they comprised only one fifth of the 5,200 minors arrested by the Paris police in 2001, they represented fully one half of the cases referred for prosecution to the juvenile court (Carle and Schosteck 2002:40). This trend continued in 2002 and 2003 with these minors representing forty-five per cent and forty-seven per cent respectively of the total cases prosecuted at court (IGSJ 2004:9). …

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