France Interview

The 'devastating' stigmatisation of the Roma in France

In the summer of 2010, the French government launched a crackdown on Gypsy immigrants in France,with the demolition of hundreds of Roma camps and mass expulsions, mainly to Romania. In an interview with Mediapart, French sociologist Jean-Pierre Liégeois, one of Europe's leading experts on the Gypsy community, traces the history of the Roma and slams the campaign of stigmatisation against them as "economically costly and humanly devastating".

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In the summer of 2010, the French government launched a crackdown on Gypsy immigrants in France, causing outrage at home and abroad. The demolition of hundreds of Roma camps and mass expulsions, mainly to Romania, of their inhabitants met with sharp condemnation from the European Union Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, Viviane Redding. She compared the programme akin to the deportation of Gypsies during the World War II collaborationist Vichy government of German-occupied France. More than 8,000 Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants found to be living in illegal conditions have been expelled since January 1st, according to official figures.

This is the final report in our five-part series which has focussed on projects by some local councils in the Greater Paris region which, in stark contrast to the government's expulsion policies, have tried to re-integrate Roma into stable living conditions.

For a conclusion, we turned to French sociologist Jean-Pierre Liégeois, one of Europe's leading experts on Gypsy history, culture and the conditions and trends of modern Gypsy communities. He has contributed to studies on Gypsy affairs for the European Commission and the Council of Europe and is the author of several books, including the European Council's 2007 publication 'Roma in Europe'. He was also the founder in 1979 of the Centre for Gypsy Research at the Paris René Descartes University (Paris 5), and was its director until 2003.

In this exchange with Mediapart's Louise Fessard, he brushes a portrait of the Roma community in France and slams the campaign of stigmatisation launched against them by President Nicolas Sarkozy in July. "It's not by offering a handful of euros that you can change migratory dynamics that are a synonym for survival," he says.


Mediapart: After first treating the Roma and Travellers1 as a single entity, the government chose to target the Roma from Romania and Bulgaria. Who are these Roma immigrants deported to Romania and Bulgaria? How long have they been in France?

Jean-Pierre Liégeois: "First let's go back to the fact that the government implies that all Roma are foreigners. This is false, but it undoubtedly facilitates a move to deport them, and to do so en masse. It creates an all-embracing entity that can easily be explained and manipulated, just like the expression 'travelling people', which is an arbitrary administrative classification. Focusing the position on Romania and Bulgaria is also a politically expedient short cut, but based on falsehood.

Illustration 1
Jean-Pierre Liégeois. © DR.

In reality, many Roma have had French nationality for generations: when Roma were freed from slavery in Moldavia and Wallachia in the 19th century many families took to the road, and some of them settled in France. Bilateral agreements between France and the former Yugoslavia in the 1970s brought a new wave of Roma families to France, where they have since settled, in large numbers but invisible, living in apartments, getting qualified work, particularly in the building trade. Conflicts where Roma were caught in the crossfire also brought forced migrations: for example, before the Russian Revolution of 1917 large numbers of families came to France and settled here. Then there was the war in Kosovo. Less than 10% of the original 120,000 Roma who lived there stayed; the others left to seek refuge in various countries, but rarely France, or stayed in refugee camps. Add the fact that the first Gypsy families arrived in France in the 15th century, and you can see that their migrations form part of several centuries of history, and that many Roma are citizens of countries where they have lived for longer than a large number of other citizens.

This should therefore be seen in the context of several centuries of a history of negation, going from rejection to assimilation via the use of their workforce, as galley slaves to populate the colonies, from England to Australia, from Portugal to Brazil or Angola, etc., or in other forms of forced labour. And since Romania and Bulgaria joined the European Union there has not been an invasion at all. There are 12 to 15,000 foreign-born Roma in France, which is a very small percentage of the total number of foreigners in France and has hardly any impact on the migration figures. [Interior minister] Brice Hortefeux himself indicated the number of Roma was ‘around 8,500 on our territory' when he appeared on the national evening news on July 27th. The Roma targeted by Brice Hortefeux are among those most recently arrived, because they are the more visible.


1: 'Gens du voyage' in French.

Mediapart: How many are there in France and in Europe? Are we talking about immigrants who settle or people who come and go?

J-P.L.: The Roma and the Travellers represent ten to twelve million people in Europe and around 400,000 in France. Their existence and their linguistic and cultural originality, after a thousand years of difficult history, negation and dispersion, are the proof of the strength of their culture, which is composed of far more than what is generally said. They are ready, if you give them the opportunity, to contribute to the economic, political and cultural dynamism of a Europe that is today distinguished by the diversity of its populations.

Illustration 2
Roma reinsertion camp in Montreuil, near Paris. © E. Berthaud

The majority of families have tended to settle in one place. We have to distance ourselves from the nomad image that has attached itself to them, and, when it is appropriate, speak of mobility rather than nomadism, because often this mobility is only adapting to the living conditions that they have been given. These families didn't ask to be evicted several times a month, but they have to adapt. They didn't ask to be sent back to the border for centuries, but the wish to settle in better living conditions, or simply to survive, has led them to return to the place from which they were deported.

That said, history has dispersed families over several states, and their wish to travel comes from a desire to stay in contact through visits. This illustrates the situation that is developing today in Europe, which is marked both by an increase in mobility for various reasons - economic, family, retirement to a warmer climate - and by the emergence of minorities. These two facts are united in the Roma, who perfectly embody today's European ideal and who lived it before the European Union was even formed. Despite this, they find themselves in a paradoxical situation, as the most frequently rejected of all European populations.

Mediapart: What awaits them when they return to Romania and Bulgaria?

Illustration 3
Roma woman searching bins in Marseille. © L.F.

J-P.L.: A difficult economic situation, which only exacerbates a latent rejection that is quick to manifest itself. This makes it difficult to find work because discrimination is very active there. In these states and elsewhere, the Roma easily become scapegoats in every domain because they are in a weak position. All the more so since the families that have come to France, in the difficult conditions we know of, were in their country of origin among the poorest, the worst housed and the worst employed when there was any employment [...] What's more, in November 2008 the Senate Finance Commission was already worried about the cost of sending them back across the border. Sending them back works out at 20,970 euros per person. The cost of sending back 100 people, which works out at two million euros, could therefore have been used to start a positive policy of sustainable integration in France.

Illustration 4
Visite de Médecins du Monde chez une famille rom à Strasbourg, octobre 2007 © LF

Mediapart: And in France, what discrimination are they subject to?

J-P.L.: It is important to highlight that the authorities that have sanctioned France for its violation of international conventions are neither motivated by a partisan political view, nor a charity standpoint. Take the Council of Europe's European Committee of Social Rights, take the reports by the European Commissioner for Human Rights or the Council of Europe's European Commission against Racism and Intolerance.

The European Committee of Social Rights, which monitors compliance with the European Social Charter, mentions in its decision, for example, failure to comply with the right to housing which leads to social exclusion as well as ‘a racial discrimination', living conditions that don't comply with minimal standards, the absence of measures to relieve the ‘deplorable living conditions of Roma migrants'.

The decision concludes that seven points on the charter have been violated. Even in France, the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights has called the government into question on this discriminatory treatment, and the HALDE1 has asked the government to modify discriminatory texts, such as the 1969 law that governs the status of ‘travelling people' and makes them carry circulation documents and records. Up till now, these questions have not been followed up. The access to social rights remains complex and compromised in most domains: education, health, employment, training, the exercise of civil rights.

Mediapart: Has France put policies in place to assimilate these Roma migrants?

J-P.L.: In terms of policies the answer is no. A few isolated initiatives have been put in place, mainly led by local authorities who have had the courage to be more welcoming. But despite the value of such initiatives we're still talking about the isolated and the short term. It would be useful therefore to evaluate them and to let people know about them so that, if they bring together different partners, they can inspire more structured and organised long-term initiatives. It would also be useful if the government's attitude moved in this direction to make such initiatives possible.

Mediapart: What has been the result of the provision of repatriation aid? The government has announced the introduction of the Oscar biometric file, supposed to stop foreigners sent back to their country from claiming several times over the repatriation aid granted by the French State. Will this change anything?

J-P.L.: As far as I know, no assessment of the result has been made. The public powers should calculate this, in consultation with the Roma organisations in France and in other states, and that all of the things it can teach us are learnt. The Oscar file introduces yet another means of control and documentation, which won't reassure either the Roma or citizens as a whole. The Roma have lived through centuries of this, when they were branded on the shoulder during deportations, so any that returned could be recognised. They were also tattooed with of Z for ‘Ziguener' under the Nazi regime, and intensively documented.

Thirty years ago, I published an article entitled 'The speech on law and order'2 and taking the Roma as an example. I pointed out that the digital records, which were beginning then, wouldn't change anything about the way they were treated and since then it's transparency that has caused imprisonment, through the traceability made possible by the digital handling of files. In addition, the repatriation aid, which in reality is an aid for leaving, makes me think of French practices in previous centuries, of the droit de passade , a right by which local authorities offered a handful of coins to encourage the predecessors of these Roma to go away and try their luck with neighbouring districts. It's not by offering a handful of euros, or by forcing it on people to buy yourself a good conscience, that you can change migratory dynamics that are a synonym for survival.


1: Haute Authorité de Lutte contre les Discriminations et pour l'Egalité (High Authority for the Fight against Discrimination and for Equality).

2: Original title ‘Le discours de l'ordre'.

Mediapart: The French government rejects any responsibility for Romania and its lack of a policy of integration for the Roma, while the Romanian authorities argue that ‘the Roma problem' is now a European issue. How can we resolve this debate?

J-P.L.: It's true that there are more than two million Roma in Romania, which shows that it's a question of scale. Ten percent of the Romanian population is Roma. It's as if there were more than six million Roma in France and the government said it didn't want 10,000 of them. It's true that they have encountered difficulties in Romania, for economic reasons as well as discrimination. But it's a mistake to raise a hue and cry against Romania, to blame it for all ills. It has its share of responsibility but not all the responsibility. It is developing several initiatives in favour of the Roma, and it's the first state in Europe to have innovated in several domains, such as instigating a network of education inspectors, Roma health and education mediators, distance learning for Roma teachers, development of specific teaching materials, and so on.

Illustration 5
Romanian Rom in Montreuil reinsertion camp. © E. Berthaud

It recognises the Roma as a minority, unlike France. It has signed and ratified the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, both fundamental texts in this field, unlike France. The debate is thus skewed: how can a state that doesn't recognise the Roma or any other minority begin to reproach another state that has put in place several initiatives for minorities? It's true that funds are limited, that the political and administrative management leaves a lot to be desired, that the level of discrimination is very high, that the extreme right nationalist political parties are growing stronger, which is also the case in Bulgaria, Hungary and elsewhere, that the police and judicial authorities are not very active in pursuing sometimes violent acts committed against the Roma. All this is a major impediment to putting reforms in place to improve the situation.

Mediapart: Is it then the European Union's job to resolve this question?

J-P.L.: The Romanian authorities' stance of sending back the ‘Roma problem' to Europe, shared by France and other countries, is a mistake. The Roma population, which is larger than the population of half of the states in Europe, amounts to less than 10 to 12 million people. It does not have the support of a state behind it in terms of, for example, providing educational material in its language, while other minorities can simply borrow from another state. For example, the German minority in Slovakia can borrow from Germany, the Romanian minority in Hungary from Romania, and so on. The European institutions therefore have a role and a responsibility to support the Roma, and work has been underway in this field for 40 years.

But above all it's about respecting the international conventions adopted by the member states, respecting the rights that go with them, launching pilot projects that could inspire national initiatives, making connections work so as to pass good practice from one state to another, to stimulate thought and exchange between national players and across frontiers, without appropriating the role of states. Citizenship is a legal bond that links an individual and the state of which he is a citizen, and it is thus a mutual responsibility.

In addition, this sudden wish to transfer expertise and responsibility from a state to a European organisation goes against the states' wish to protect their prerogatives, and it's hard to see how this can be suddenly and uniquely abandoned for their Roma citizens. These are states that have always insisted on the principle known as subsidiarity, and they have often defended it. This principle stipulates that decisions and actions must remain as local as possible.

The Roma concern all the European states. They are present across Europe, and embodied Europe before it was even politically formed. I've highlighted that Europe is today distinguished by an increased mobility of populations, for several reasons, and by the emergence of minorities.

All states must learn to operate in the intercultural and multicultural approach that is developing. In this perspective, the Roma take on the character of a paradigm. The initiatives that concern them open up pathways of thought and action that have consequences for all the other minorities and for all populations. In the context of the free movement that they desire, all states must together consider how to set cooperative and lasting projects in motion, must take action to put structured measures in place, rather than reacting once again with short-term propositions that are ill-adapted and have no future, as well as being economically costly and humanly devastating, responding to immediate facts manipulated for political ends.


English version: Alison Culliford

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