Monday, August 23, 2010
Crackdown Raises Questions
So the big news here in France (during what is ordinarily a slow time of year for news) is the government's decision to clamp down on gypsies. It's a two-pronged approach focused on both illegal immigration by Romanians and Bulgarians and illegal campsites set up by both these individuals and gypsies who have legal status in France. It's a pretty complicated issue but I'll do my best to explain. That being said, I'm cringing in advance about the comments this might draw.
So who are all these people anyway? The broad brush is that many hundreds of years ago, a group of people emigrated from India into Europe. They never fully integrated into the countries where they landed, retaining their own culture and a nomadic lifestyle. Others thought they were from Egypt, hence the term "gypsy" but the preferred term is actually Roma. What's complicated in understanding the current situation in France is that the term "Roma" is often used to label both those who've arrived relatively recently (and often illegally) from Romania and Bulgaria. and those who hold French citizenship and legal permits to move freely around the country (known as gens du voyage.)
So you've got two problems: illegal immigration and growing numbers of illegal campsites, sometimes in open fields, but often in abandoned buildings. And then a match lights the tinder: in mid July, a 22 year old Roma was shot by police in central France and a riot erupts, resulting in destruction of a police station and other government property. President Sarkozy speaks out against the behavior, meets with his advisors, and then announces the crackdown, all in the name of law and order. He scores points with the slice of the public who are anti-immigrant but draws criticism from the UN and human rights group for being racist and xenophobic, and concerns from the rest of the EU about how one country's approach to a nomadic community will play out in a Europe with relatively porous borders. But the effort is moving forward. On Thursday, the first flights of the deported touched down in Bucharest. And Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux has made it clear that he intends to eliminate half of the illegal campsites within three months.
There's a lot of tension here: unease with how to deal with a people who choose to live off the grid; a general assumption that most Roma are dishonest, acting as petty criminals individually or as part of larger organized crime syndicates. But there's also a concern that tarring all of these folks with one giant brush is just what the Germans did when they rounded up the Jews in 1942. (And of course, Roma communities suffered mightily under Nazi rule.) And if you round them up and send the illegals back to countries where there's no work, what's to keep them from coming right back? Not to mention lack of compliance by many municipalities with the French law requiring them to provide space and even electricity hookups for gens du voyage.
You do see these folks everywhere in Paris, often begging for money or less obviously, smoothly picking the pockets on the Métro and the Champs-Élysées. And it does bother me when I see children who ought to be in school out panhandling. But I don't know enough about the situation broadly to say whether the government's current crackdown is the answer. Yes for heaven's sake punish the criminals but I'm just hoping that there's real evidence of crime by specific individuals before meting out punishment on people who do nothing more than fail to live up to other people's expectations that a good life requires a steady job and a fixed place of residence.
And with that, let the commenting begin.