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.

12 comments:

Starman said...

I don#t mind the begging, so much as the persistance after you tell them 'no'.

Genie said...

Anne, thank you for your on-site account of what we only receive in "official statements" through one reporting source. It will be a challenge for Paris and will have a ripple effect regardless of the actions taken. Merci, for the insight.

Anonymous said...

My reading of all of this in the news has been strongly colored by an exchange I had on a flight home from working on a project in Romania in the mid 90s:

{after a banal conversation about who-knows-what:}

ME: No, I wasn't visiting Amsterdam, I'm on my way home from Romania.

[French] seat-mate: Oh, my sister married a Romanian several years ago.

ME, intrigued because before the revolution there's a story whenever a Romanian wasn't in Romania: Oh, how long had he been in France?

Seat-mate: Oh, he was born in France! I think it was his great-grandfather, no it must have been his great-great-grandfather, who moved to France as a young man.

ME: {speechless...wondering how long it takes to become "French", especially if you start from someplace like Romania. When we lived in London, I noticed that people were described as Anglo-Italian, etc. compared to our Italian-American and it occurred to me that Europeans seem to hold on to a notion of country of origin in a way that is quite different from Americans}

debbie in toronto said...

Hard to know what to say...it bothers me too to see little kids begging...

on a lighter note...nice to see you're back Starman!

Rosabell said...

They will return to france as soon as they finish the money :) I must say we are very worried here in Romania because since they left the country for better places, we have been living a mucch better life....Unlike in other countries , the communist policy was to "integrate " the gypsies in normal working or even middle class areas where they had been given free housing. Imagine the street where you live and now imagine that right in the middle of thet street, maybe in the biggest house the mayor decides to move a gypsy family( a mother+a fother, 11 kids,one horse and a dog). Its like living in hell- loud music, lice, dejections, noises, smells everithing one would put in a list with a "horrible" label. Ofcourse, they don't want to dress normally, go to school, wash themselves and stop bullying people around, they say this is our tring to keep them apart of their traditions. For the last 7 years, since most of the gypsies living in my area left for Italy and France , the neighborhood has become well-mannered ,clean and no cars broken. Before, when friends were passing by , in 5 mintes their cars were "opened". So, to summarise, they will return to France because they say there everybody gives them everything and because I guess there is no law to keep them away as long as they don't commit any particular crime. In Romania everybody is angry with the media and people are bothered, because we don't consider them Romanians, they are gypsies and should be referred to as being gypsies, no "Roma' ,no nothing. It was a historical accident they were born here and that is their only connection to the real Romanian people / country. They've never bothered to integrate here or elsewhere ,they are nomads and they are very proud to be not-integrated so, I see no hope about this situations. I just hope and pray they will not come back.

Paris Paul said...

A friend of mine asked what would happen in the States if Obama suddenly said one of his priorities was to send the illegals back to their countries of origin...

Genie said...

Anne, sorry to post again, but I read a blog story before Christmas last year about sans-papiers from Afghanistan that might be of interest -- There are no simple answers and it seems that all of the world is struggling with similar issues.

http://emiliejohnson.blogspot.com/2009/12/if-you-are-looking-down-why-dont-you.html

Anonymous said...

Paris Paul:

While we obviously have a lot to sort out on the immigration front in the US, I think the issue for France and other European countries is different when it involves movement of citizens of EU countries, don't you think?

risamay said...

The current developments are disturbing, if you ask me. Romania clearly isn't interested in truly helping these/their people, and neither is France, nor any other EU country/nation in which there are large (or small) numbers of Roma.

I don't pretend to know what the solution is, but I do know that repatriating any number of Roma to Romania or Bulgaria (or elsewhere) is not the solution and will not solve the root of the problem.

Patricia said...

I currently live in Budapest and there is a small Roma population in Hungary (about 2% I believe). I know that there are international groups working to improve conditions for the Roma people - including encouraging education for the children. Here in Budapest our international school hosted a concert by a world-renowned Roma music group. This group (Kalyi Jag) has been going for over 30 years and sponsors 3 schools in Hungary. Some of us were invited to the graduation ceremony for the school in Budapest - it was really interesting. I believe that the students go there for the last years of high school and the emphasis is on Roma culture and language, especially the music and dancing. I believe that the Roma in Hungary are not nomadic so have been here for many generations. I was very impressed with this group's efforts to help their young people get an education. Hopefully this will go some way towards ameliorating some of the problems.

Anne said...

Thanks everyone for the comments; I don't agreed with everything that's been sad but no one was virtually screaming. That counts for a lot.

Anonymous said...

My roommate was trying to explain this situation to me the other day (I just got to Paris last Sunday) so I'm glad I got a more in depth account from you.
It's upsetting that something done by "the few" is being interpreted as "the many," but your comparison to the actions of the Nazis puts a whole new perspective on it. It's obviously not exactly the same, but I hope the French will listen to those signs on the elementary schools and not be complacent about what's happening.

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