It is always a tricky thing to build sustainable policy in the heat of the moment after dramatic incidents. In the wake of the violence in Saint-Aignan [prompted by the death of a young gypsy who was shot by police on the night of 16-17 July when the car in which he was a passenger forced its way through a checkpoint], is it appropriate to convene a meeting at the Elysée to discuss "itinerant groups and Roms” and "the problem posed by the behaviour of some elements" in those communities?

Some pause for thought?

There has been no shortage of criticism of Nicolas Sarkozy’s decision, but how would we have responded if the trouble in Saint-Aignan had simply been ignored by the head of state and his government? Now that a meeting has been scheduled, the only important issue is the impact it will have on future policy. And to form an opinion on that question we will have to wait for the conclusions of today’s debate.

Would some pause for thought between an announcement made in the heat of the moment and the taking of long-term decisions have served to clarify the agenda for this meeting? Would it have helped distinguish between facts and prejudices about the Rom community? In the interest of accuracy, should more efforts have been made to define what is at issue and who will be concerned by today’s decisions? The Travellers, an administrative category that is preferred to the ethnic label of Roms of French origin, or the Roms who for the most part have recently arrived in France from Eastern Europe?

A policy of dialogue

The questions posed by these two communities which are characterised by different aspirations are not the same. And a blanket response will almost certainly prove to be inadequate. Policies that force non-French Roms, who were sedentary in their countries’ of origin, to move from one shanty town to the next, and which impose increasingly strict urban regulations that prevent French Roms from travelling in search of seasonal employment, are unlikely to yield positive results.

The long history of anti-Rom stigmatisation and discrimination in Europe can only be addressed by a policy of dialogue. And this policy should be established with preconditions on both sides: the Rom community must respect the law, and the state must ensure that the law — and in particular the Besson law on halting sites — is correctly applied. In such a context, we may be finally establish satisfactory answers to a question which has been a divisive issue in Europe for more than eight centuries. After 800 years of wandering policy, which has often resulted in tragedy, we should seize this opportunity to make definite progress.