Clearing a Roma camp close to Lille, in northern France, in September 2013

A French obsession

Three years after Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s socialist government has in turn been accused by the EU of anti-Roma discrimination. A French journalist explains that the recurrent controversy is prompted by an issue that has become a flashpoint for a range of problems faced by the country.

Published on 26 September 2013 at 16:32
Clearing a Roma camp close to Lille, in northern France, in September 2013

Everyone is predicting — and just because it is regrettable does not make it any less likely — that the question of the Roma is going to take centre stage in the upcoming campaigns [for French municipal elections in March 2014, and European elections in May, 2014]. As it stands, several municipal election candidates have seized on the problem in their bid to win the favour of local populations. According to Interior Ministry estimates, there are only 20,000 Roma in the country. However, no less than 70 per cent of poll respondents say they “are concerned about the Roma presence in France.”

The Roma question persistently re-emerges in public debate because it turns its own particular spotlight on a range of nagging problems in our country. The first of these is the difficulty faced by the state in imposing the rule of law. Unapproved Roma camps are widely condemned. Some 86 per cent of respondents say they would be opposed to an unauthorised camp in their locality, whereas only 44 per cent would be opposed to a legal one.

At the same time, public opinion has been riled by the ineffectiveness of measures: in particular the slow pace of the response from authorities, which have to contend with complex procedures, and the ingenious initiatives of the Roma themselves, before they can dismantle illegal camps.

Not only do the Roma provide a particularly caricatured example of the difficulty faced by France in integrating populations from immigrant backgrounds, but they also turn a crude spotlight on the often suggested link between immigration and crime — a delicate subject marked by heated competition between naive denial and conflation that is cynical in the extreme.

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Involved in crime

In the case of the Roma, there is unfortunately no doubt that a proportion of those who are resident in France — and that is not to say that they are in any way representative of East European Roma in general — are involved in all sorts of crimes, including organised begging, prostitution, and theft in a variety of forms.

The consternation prompted by this reality is all the more acute because mistrust of the “gypsies” is anchored in the popular psyche. Marine Le Pen is well aware of the fact that fear of the Roma, who sometimes set up camp in areas with not much in the way of immigration or crime, can enable her to reach out to wider audience.

The issue of the Roma has also led to a questioning of the role of Europe. There are only two alternatives. [[If Romania — which is the country of origin of most of the Roma in France — does not respect the rights of this minority and demonstrates that it is guilty of anti-Roma discrimination, then what is it doing in a European Union whose values it does not respect?]] And if this is not the case, there is hardly any reason for France to welcome a deprived population that has arrived en masse from another EU country.

Aside from the trafficking that involves travelling to and from France, the presence of large numbers of Roma in the country is indicative of a basic form of economic immigration. Poverty in a rich country offers more opportunities. Here again, European regulations play an important role.

Freedom of movement and freedom to settle are major EU principles. The disappearance, in 2014, of restrictions on these rights for Romanian and Bulgarian citizens is not without risk in a Europe that is to a large extent economically heterogeneous.

Hell is other people

Finally, the sad fate of the Roma highlights a terrible contrast between the fine words used to justify diversity and a rejection of otherness, which is expressed with increasing vehemence in society. The national human rights collective, Romeurope, has its work cut out if intends to combat anti-Roma prejudice with a simple brochure.

Fear of foreigners and their way of life that is so different is necessarily entrenched in a society that is already suffering from the economic crisis, the problems of petty crime and the weak integration of immigrant groups. However, politicians have a duty to remind citizens of all that the Roma have endured since their arrival in Europe from India, beginning in the Middle Ages.

From their persecution in France and Germany in those distant times, to their enslavement in Romania, right up to the Nazi genocide, they have had to contend with all manner of ordeals. These evils have led the Roma to “withdraw from society” a much used expression that is wholly appropriate in this context. Their cultural singularity, which has been preserved in response to this history, has contributed to their isolation.

Furthermore, it goes without saying that a sense of social rejection often paves the way for the development of antisocial behaviour. As to what has to be done, one thing is certain: we can hardly expect the platform of an election campaign to find ways and means to resolve a problem that is as painful as it is complex.

Reaction

Brussels points the finger, Bucharest protests

"Comments by Manuel Valls [the French interior minister], regarding the inability of the Roma to integrate, led the Commission to remind members of the regulations concerning freedom of movement that apply to these populations and also to threaten France with prosecution," reports French daily Liberation. The paper adds that the Commission deplored the lack of "integration programmes" and reminded the French government that

Romania and Bulgaria, the countries from which the bulk of the Roma living in France originate, are also members of the EU (since 2007) thus providing their citizens – even those belonging to a mistreated minority – rights that are guaranteed by treaties.

In Bucharest, reports Romanian daily Evenimentul Zilei, Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta, said –

it is the responsibility of Romania, in collaboration with the EU Commission, to apply an integration policy for the Roma not only in France but throughout Europe. The relationship between the Roma and Schengen does not exist. Everyone knows that Romania is not a member of the Schengen Area, yet the Roma are there.

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