Louis de Gouyon Matignon, 20, willingly presents himself as an advocate of the Gypsy cause. That's a good thing because he's in his third year of law school and has spent the summer as a parliamentary aide to the conservative UMP Senator Pierre Hérisson, President of the National Consultative Commission on [French] Travellers.

In July, the 100th anniversary of the "circulation notebook" [obligatory for travellers aged more than 16 and on the move for more than six months, gave this "Gypsyofile" a chance to make a name for himself in the media. Originally, the notebook was created to "take a census" of all those people with an itinerant lifestyle in France, explains Gouyon Matignon.

But, according to him, "it comes down to creating an internal passport," for the 350,000 to 500,000 Manouches [French Gypsies], Gypsies or Roma settled in France. The notebook must be stamped every three months in a police station to show, among other things, the town to which they are affiliated.

Pierre Hérisson has proposed a bill which "aims to end discrimination" by eliminating the notebook obligatory for travellers aged more than 16 years old.

Gouyon Matignon, optimistic about the chances of having the bill passed, admits to being "a bit alone" in his struggle. Despite calling for a demonstration on the anniversary of the launch of the circulation notebook, his friends did not take to the streets. "Travellers are not very politicised," he admits with regret. "They are tired of being stigmatised, but they don't fight it."

A fascination for ‛le jazz manouche’

The grandson of a marquis, Gouyon Matignon comes from a wealthy family and was raised in the posh western suburbs of Paris. He got his education at public schools such as the famous Clifton College in Bristol, England. "Public school was not always easy. I suffered from it. I like the way the Gypsies, claim the freedom to go where they please. They are French, but they say 'screw you'." He was 16 when he discovered, by chance, the world of French travellers "thanks to Django Reinhardt". Fascinated by the virtuosity of 'le jazz manouche,' he wanted to know more.

Rather than taking quiet holidays in the posh Atlantic coast resorts of La Baule or Biarritz, he chose instead the bohemian life and dusty caravans. He headed for Alsace in the east or Pau in the southwest. "That's where the most important communities of Gypsies are concentrated," he explains. Pruning trees, working on the markets, ironmongering – for the past three years, he has spent most of his holidays and weekends at their side, in the hope of better understanding their lifestyle ("at €5 for a kilogram of copper, the payoff is not so bad!")

French-Manouche dictionary

In the Gypsy camp, he calls out to an acquaintance driving a small van, "Djala mishto? (How are you, brother?) Not only does he speak Manouche fluently, but his accent is impeccable. "This gadjo [non-Roma], he knows the language better than we do," says an old-timer with admiration, as he slouches in a folding chair. During his trips, Gouyon Matignon wrote down the words he hears in a notebook. The goal was to produce a French-Manouche dictionary that will be published in the autumn by Harmattan. "I'm doing it for them, so they can reappropriate their language. It is true that it is perhaps not my role but I took the liberty," he states. "Fewer and fewer youths speak Manouche today, it comes from becoming sedentary," confirms well-known Gypsy carnival employee Marcel Campion.

Campion, the owner of the Ferris wheel located on Paris' Concorde Square, is also impressed by Gouyon Matignon. The aristocrat's association is based in his bar, La Choppe des Puces, in Saint Ouen, near the Paris Flea Market. "He is really funny, this kid. When he became enamoured with the world of travellers, I tried to discourage him and told him to concentrate on his studies. He really has got the bug," says Campion.

Evangelising the travellers

Apparently the guitar and the holidays in a camper were not enough. Young Louis has also espoused the Manouche religion. Goodbye to the Catholic masses of his youth. Now a missionary for Vie et Lumière [Life and Light] Community, he crosses the Channel each year with two pastors to evangelise Irish travellers.

Asked what the future holds, he replies without hesitation: "I love spending time with them, but I do it to understand their culture. I won't live my life in a caravan." His wish is to become a lawyer, like his father, while continuing to defend the Roma. His friend Franck, who goes to Bible School with him in the Vie et Lumière Community, sums it up this way: "He is the link between us and you, the gadjos."