Why Is France Cracking Down on Roma?

A humane response to unrest, or inexcusable racism?

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France has begun its planned repatriation of roughly 800 Roma, following incidents last month involving a police shooting of an allegedly Roma traveler, a riot, and a young Roma group's attack on a police station shortly thereafter. The French government is planning to close 300 "illegal Roma camps in the next three months," according to the BBC, and "the Roma who have volunteered to leave have each been given 300 euros (£246; $384) and 100 euros for each child." Though "the French government says it is a 'decent and humane' policy of removing people from deplorable conditions," reports the BBC, rights groups think differently. It's the latter view that is dominating on the Web.

  • 'I Am Stunned,' writes Marty Peretz, editor of The New Republic, that these plans "have met with so little attention. I know that the analogy with the Nazis and Vichy is not exact," he continues, and that many Roma may be in the country illegally. He even "concede[s]" that many "may steal." Nevertheless, he writes, "it is an index of how atrophied our moral nerves have become that this forced transport of people is going on without more than a wan protest from SOS-Racisme, the old watch guard of France." Peretz also points out, though, that "this harassment of the gypsies is only a substitute for the real ethnic and racial dilemma facing the French people," which involves Muslims and many immigrants from Africa.
  • The Political Background Here "None of this is really all that unusual," notes Foreign Policy's Joshua Keating. " The French government regularly shuts down the camps and expelled 10,000 Roma to Romania and Bulgaria last year alone." The difference this time may be that "Sarkozy has made the expulsions the centerpiece of a larger law-and-order campaign." There's a reason for that:
Sarkozy's popularity ratings have been in the low 30s thanks to a sluggish economy and an ongoing campaign finance scandal. The strategy seems to be working. 79 percent of French voters support dismantling the camps and Sarkozy's ratings are up 2 points this month. And so the cycle continues.
  • No Excuse "This is the first time France has seen protests by Roma youth taking the form of violent disturbances," writes self-described "U.S. Romany woman" Ethel Brooks in The Guardian, commenting on the troubles in Grenoble. "The current rioting was similar in substance, though smaller in scale, to the immigrant-led 2005 riots that broke out across France's suburbs." There was no apology, though, regarding the death of the Roma traveler. To add to her sense of injustice:
This happened despite the fact that the young Romany killed was French and those expelled were citizens of EU member states, who have a right to enter France without passports, staying if they find employment within three months. One wonders how closely paperwork was checked with regard to residency and employment as the camps were being dismantled and EU citizens expelled on chartered flights.
  • Roma Not a Single Group Anthropologist Martin Olivera, writing in French newspaper Le Monde, emphasizes the inadequacy and incorrectness of a single label, "Roma and traveling people," for a distinctly non-homogeneous set of individuals. The term is about as specific as saying "Asians" or "Africans," he argues, pointing out that there are Turkophone Muslim Roma from southern Bulgaria, Saxon Roma from central Transylvania, and Slovene Roma from northern Italy. He suggests it is unhelpful to view the "problem" as a matter of deciding whether the Roma are "victims of the state apparatus and popular racism" or rather "on the contrary, responsible for their own marginality."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.