France | Here to Stay

Europe's Roma say the continent must address racist discrimination

01 April 2014
Delia Romanès sings during a 2010 demonstration at the Circque Romanès, which was threatened by the cancellation of several workers’ permits.

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.

Though the circus survived after a legal wrangle, Delia told me that “2010 is when things started getting particularly bad,” and that the situation of the Roma in France has “been going downhill ever since.” Successive French governments, both from the centre right and the left, have adopted hard-line policies against Roma migrants, who have become easy targets for a xenophobia exacerbated by Europe’s ongoing financial difficulties. Attention has focused particularly on the estimated 17,000 Roma migrants, mostly from the Balkans, who live in makeshift, unauthorised camps across the country. Stereotypes of the “rogue Roma” prevail, portraying them as outsiders and security threats, who don’t work, don’t integrate into French society, and only come to France to tap into social assistance schemes. And, though the camp dwellers form only a small minority of the 400,000 French Roma living as “integrated” citizens across the country, the same stigma is often indiscriminately applied to the Roma as a whole. In September 2013, French interior minister Manuel Valls publicly said the majority of Roma could not integrate and “should return to their countries.” A subsequent opinion poll estimated that 77 percent of French people agreed.

Alexandre responded to Valls’s statement with indignation. “How can I give up my culture to fit into someone else’s idea of what it means to fit into society?” he said. The Roma’s marginalisation, he told me, was in large part due to the deep discrimination they face, which very few politicians acknowledge. He said his youngest daughter, Rose, had dropped out of school in 2013 and now studied at home with a private teacher because she had “found the taunts of her classmates unbearable.” Once, during a swimming class, “some kids put her head under water and she nearly drowned.” Alexandre also said that the pervasive myth of the carefree, nomadic Roma lifestyle was rooted in a misunderstanding of Roma history. “Most people refuse to acknowledge that nomadism was an escape from the persecution which my people have faced for centuries in Europe,” he said.

That persecution continues across Europe today. In Bosnia, Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania—countries with relatively high Roma populations—Roma children are often relegated to Roma-only schools or classes. Access to housing is poor and unemployment runs high. In Romania, according to the human rights group Amnesty International, 75 percent of Roma live in poverty, compared to 24 percent of the total population. The European Union recognises that the Roma face large-scale exclusion and deprivation in their home countries and across the continent. A recent EU study found that over 70 percent of the continent’s Roma are unemployed, and more than 60 percent are unaware of laws that forbid ethnic discrimination. But official recognition of these problems has not stemmed marginalisation. When Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, giving their citizens the right to move freely across Europe, fears of an influx of migrants, including Roma, led several western European states to impose special work-permit restrictions. Some governments forcibly isolate Roma in camps far from residential areas, limiting their access to schools and jobs. Italy did so during a “Nomad Emergency” campaign in 2008, and though that drive was officially stopped after the courts found it to constitute unlawful ethnic profiling, the segregation of Roma in camps continues in the country today. Such anti-Roma policies undermine EU directives defending freedom of movement and the rights of evicted people, and also those opposing racial discrimination in housing, employment and education.

In France too, after forced evictions from unauthorised slums, Roma are being put up in mobile homes in fenced camps managed by municipal authorities. In December, with the temperature already at minus two degrees Celsius, I visited one such camp in Saint-Ouen, a northern suburb of Paris, where nine displaced families were moved in 2008 after the interior ministry ordered the destruction of a slum of 600 people. Most residents of the slum were deported, and the remaining families only qualified to stay on as they had jobs, children in school, or family members seeking healthcare. Four years later, only seven families remained. They told me the locals didn’t want them in the neighbourhood, and that the city council had cut off their electricity to force them out. Darius Covaci, a twenty-four-year-old father, told me in broken French that he was worried about the resulting lack of heating, and that some winters ago his wife had miscarried after she fell ill in the bitter cold. Covaci told me he worked sporadically, as a mechanic and repairman. “The bosses promise to give us proper jobs, but keep going back on their word,” he said. But he hadn’t given up on building a better life in France, and said he wanted “to prove to the French and to all of Europe that we are capable of working.” His eyes lit up when I asked him about his children. “I am so proud of my three-year-old daughter. She goes to school, and you should hear her speak French.”

Covaci’s desire to remain in France to work and raise his family defies the notion of the Roma as an inherently nomadic people. According to estimates from the Council of Europe, more than 80 percent of European Roma are not itinerant but sedentary, and have lived in their respective countries for several generations, speaking local languages and often one of the many dialects of Romani—the linguistic study of which traces Roma origins back to India about 1,000 years ago. Many scholars now consider “gypsy” a pejorative term when applied to all Roma since its connotations propagate the myth of a nomadic identity, which they feel perpetuates social exclusion and racist discrimination.

One of them is the historian Sarah Carmona, a French-Spanish Roma who is among the first in her community to get a doctorate and is now working to set up a Roma Studies department at the University of Lyon. Speaking over over video chat in January from Tunisia, where she currently teaches, she told me she believes some Roma have internalised the negative beliefs propagated about them and their habits—a corollary of what psychologists call the Pygmalion effect. She spoke of an urgent need to redefine Roma identity and rise above the “dolorist, lachrymose narrative” of their history. “My daughter is nine years old and my deep wish is to see her fully proud of who she is and where she comes from,” she said. Carmona told me she found it shocking that children’s textbooks in Europe never mentioned Roma history. For her, the most important aspect of the “real” Roma story was that they are a hugely diverse people with a common origin, though they are not united by nationality, religion or territorial claims. Carmona said the Roma defy conventional societal models, and many find that hard to accept. She also complained that non-Roma people receive most of their knowledge of the community from authorities that rarely allow Roma to speak for themselves.

Saimir Mile, an Albanian Roma and founder of La voix des Rroms (“The voice of the Roma”), an organisation that helps marginalised Roma with housing and legal guidance, shared similar opinions. I met Mile at Bobigny, another northern suburb of Paris, where he was attending a court hearing on the eviction of a group of Roma from a temporary municipal camp. Mile told me the European media reinforced anti-Roma bias, readily playing up public fear vis-à-vis Roma people but rarely showing the plight of thousands of Roma who are European citizens that no one wants to employ. “Why doesn’t anyone ever talk about who the Roma really are?” he said. “Why do they not reveal the human rights abuse happening in their own countries?” Mile told me that EU policy towards the Roma suffered from a similar distraction. “The Roma are not to blame for their situation,” he said. “Stop putting the onus on the Roma and saying they need to integrate, and ask the [European nations] to stop their racism.”

Keywords: Europe financial crisis France slum racism identity migration Roma citizenship