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Friday, July 4 2014
Racism/ The Roma Conendrum
The more hatred for even a small part of the Roma people is taken for granted now, the more one may overlook the gravity and criminal character of the Nazi anti-Roma persecution and genocide some eighty years ago.
Last month, a 16 years old Rumanian born Roma known as Darius was kidnapped and brutallly beaten by hooded men at Pierrefitte, in Greater Paris, and then left unconscious in a stolen supermarket cart near National Highway 1.
Was it a "racist crime" ? Well, yes. But what kind of a "racist crime" exactly ?
Pierrefitte is what one would call a "multicultural" city. The bulk of the population is Muslim North African or Muslim Subsaharan African. They live in usually well tended public housing neighborhoods. There are also about 150 Christian Romas from Rumania, settled in a non descript shanty town.
The Muslim neighborhoods have turned in enclaves ruled by criminal gangs and devoted to what sociologists euphemistically call "a parallel economy". French law is ignored in such places ; but the gangs enforce they own law and see to it to protect the locals against outsiders.
It appears that many of the Pierrefitte Romas are engaging in petty thievery and burglary and tend to use children or teenagers to that end, since minors cannot be prosecuted under French law. According to the police, Darius had been involved in many such misdeeds. While the cases were documented and recorded, no judiciary action had been taken against him.
The problem was that Darius was usually operating at Cité des Poètes ("the Poets Neighborhood"), an African-populated area close to the Roma shanty town. On June 4, some African locals seized him and gave him a light beating : a warning of sorts. Subsequently, he was defered to the police – who, as usual, let him go.
Apparently, the ruling gangs decided it was not enough and that Darius deserved a more effective « punishment » ; hence the kidnapping and the near lynching nine days later (http://www.lejdd.fr/Societe/Faits-divers/Enquete-sur-le-lynchage-de-la-cite-des-Poetes-672782). There is an element of racism here : albeit an unconventional one, not between native, European French citizens and Romas, as expected, but rather between non-European immigrants and Romas.
For several days, the media and the public opinion were unaware of such subtelties. Even the French president François Hollande, who said that the assault on the young boy « went against eveything the French Republic stands for », was apparently not informed about the agression’s actual circumstances. This vagueness and imprecision had to do with the law : mentions of race, nationality or religion are more often than not forbidden in France, either in terms of census, or in relation with the judiciary. The specific situation at Pierrefitte emerged only when some journalists investigated it and reported about it.
For all that, one cannot deny either anti-Roma racism or hostility among the native, European, French population. But again, one must be accurate about facts, figures and details.
More than one million citizens or residents of France are of Roma descent : related in one way or another to the wandering people of North Indian origin who spread all over Europe from the 11th century on. They are known in French parlance as Bohémiens, Romanichels, Manouches, Gitans or Tsiganes, rather than as Romas or Romanis, recently coined academic appelations. Most of them have lived in France since the Middle Ages and were sedentarized in the 19th century, notably in the South Central regions of Auvergne and Perigord. Other groups came either from Central and Eastern Europe or Spain in the late 19th century and the early 20th century. Less than 300 000 French Romas still engage in wandering : they are known as Gens du Voyage (« Travelling People »).
Evidently, French Romas were subjected for centuries to prejudice, discrimination and persecution. Louis XIV, the Sun King (and the tormentor of the Protestants), sentenced them en masse to the galleys. Napoleon drafted them for slave labor. A law passed in 1912, under the otherwise impeccably democratic Third Republic, compelled wandering Romas to carry an humiliating « anthropometric passport » wherever they went. During WW1 and in the first months of WW2, many Romas were detained in concentration camps. Under the German occupation and the Vichy regime, a few thousand French Romas were detained in camps again. And about three hundred of them were actually sent to death camps, including Auschwitz.
On the other hand, Romas were also seen as Romantic figures, and a such elicited an amount of popular or literary sympathy. Roma music, either traditional or mixed with jazz – the so called « jazz manouche » of Django Reinhart – was and still is held in high esteem. The annual Roma pilgrimage to Saintes-Maries de la Mer near Marseilles was one century ago turned into a national festival. After WW2, explicit anti-Roma racism became unacceptable. While most of the anciently sedentarized Romas have by now joined the mainstream population, a new law passed in 1969 recognizes the Gens du Voyage special way of life – every borough in France is supposed to set apart and sanitize a piece of land to accomodate them - and attempts have been made to portray the Romas as a whole a legitimate part of the French nation and society.
There are still some difficulties, especially among the more recently sedentarized Romas in the Toulouse or Perpignan areas in Southern France, who tend to be undereducated and to live under the poverty line ; it is perhaps not a mere coincidence if the more integrated « old Romas » are Catholic, while the less integrated « new Romas » find solace in semi-cultic Evangelical churches. But all in all, French Romas as such are not seen as an « issue » any more.
What is at stake today is a very different community : the 6 or 7 million East European Romas who, as citizens of the European Union for most of them, are entitled to free visits to the West European countries, and who are attempting, once they reach these countries, to stay permanently, either legally or illegally.
Clearly, East European Romas are seen or treated as an alien and dangerous underclass in their home countries (the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Kosovo, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and above all Rumania). As a result, they have developed defiant if not deviant behaviors, which they tend unfortunately to keep even when moving to the much more liberal and open minded West European countries. Such behaviors range from contempt for local sanitary regulations to petty criminality to organized theft ; they include a systematic use of children and teenagers for delinquent activities, as in the case of young Darius in Pierrefitte, or more mundanely for begging. And while they are eager to collect whatever social benefits they may be entitled to, they disregard many social obligations, like sending their children to school, even on a temporary basis. « The Romas are Europe biggest societal problem », the London Economist averred in 2012 (http://www.economist.com/blogs/easternapproaches/2012/05/europe%E2%80%99s-biggest-societal-problem).
Under the conservative Sarkozy administration (2007-2012), East European Roma visitors or illegal immigrants (who are estimated to be 50 000 at least in France) were subjected to increasingly harsh measures, including forced repatriation, which the European Union censured as human rights violations. Mayors routinely refused to grant them benefit of the 1969 law in terms of accommodation. Manuel Valls, who serves now as the prime minister of France, bluntly observed in 2013, as a socialist Interior minister, that it was « a fallacy to believe that the Roma populations problem could be solved by humanitarian ways only ».The French public opinion strongly supports this line. 74 % of the citizens approved Vass, last October, for ordering the Dibrani family, Kosovan Roma illegal immigrants, to be forcibly repatriated. Even among his socialist constituency, he garnered a clear cut majority : 65 %. Among conservatives, he scored a stunning 89 % (http://www.leparisien.fr/politique/sondage-65-des-francais-opposes-au-retour-de-leonarda-18-10-2013). On the contrary, support for president Hollande plummeted to from 32 % to 26 % when he offered one of the Dibrani children, Leonarda, to stay as a student (http://www.huffingtonpost.fr/2013/10/28/popularite-francois-hollande-effondrement-affaire-leonarda_n_4170648.html). Although they know the present anti-Roma wave in West European countries is essentially directed at an hitherto relatively small number of problematic East European Roma visitors or immigrants, churches and moral authorities are concerned that it may spill over the entire Roma community and ultimately fuel other forms of racism. So does the Jewish community. There are differences in scope, lethality and ideological centrality between the Holocaust and the Nazi anti-Roma policies : still, many or most of Romas were ultimately slated for exclusion and genocide in WW2, just like Jews. The more hatred for even a small part of the Roma people is taken for granted now, the more one may overlook the gravity and criminal character of the Nazi anti-Roma persecution and genocide some eighty years ago. And this may lead, in turn, to a very negative reassessment of the entire ethical narrative about Nazi racism genocide, including the Holocaust.
© Michel Gurfinkiel, 2014
Michel Gurfinkiel is the Founder and President of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute, a conservative think-thank in France, and a Shillman/Ginsburg Fellow at Middle East Forum.
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