AT 10 AM ON A COLD DECEMBER MORNING, at a circus compound in the north-west of Paris, the green door of the Romanès family’s caravan home was tightly shut. Six other caravans were parked nearby, and a giant red tent stood off to one side, its entrance flapping in the wind. The compound was quiet and the tent deserted as the members of the circus rested after the previous night’s performance. During the show, the tent had been packed, and the crowd had roared its approval as young men juggled and acrobats swung on the trapeze. Musicians had played soulful tzigane (gypsy) music, accompanied by female singers, some even with their infants on their laps. It seemed a world away from the quiet Parisian street outside.
When I knocked on the caravan door, the circus manager, Delia Romanès, emerged in a pink fleece dressing gown. She invited me to the communal kitchen in another caravan, where her husband, Alexandre, joined us. The couple told me they had been running their family circus, the Cirques Romanès, in Paris since 1994. Delia, a tzigane singer, is originally from Romania but has been a French citizen since 2009. Alexandre belongs to the Bougliones, a French family whose members have been circus performers for over two centuries. He is famous for doing a parody of his father’s daring lion act by pretending to put his head into a goat’s mouth. Alexandre and Delia are both Roma—often called “gypsy” by non-Roma people—part of Europe’s largest and most diverse ethnic minority, which is scattered all over the continent.
The Cirque Romanès made the news in 2010 when, in the aftermath of a crackdown on Roma camps by a centre-right government, officials cancelled the work permits of the circus’s violinist and accordionist, accused the Romanès of underpaying performers, and raised questions about having children working with the troupe. The Romanès decided to protest, and one night in October they held a free show and feast. Thousands of well-wishers showed up to sign a petition. “We’ve had enough, Vichy is over!” they shouted, referring to the killing of Roma in occupied France during the Second World War under the Nazis, who are estimated to have killed over a million Roma across Europe in the Holocaust.