Rounding Up the Roma

Expelling India’s Oldest Diaspora Will Not Solve France’s Immigration Problems

Authorities storm a Roma camp, putting ‘the travelling people’ back on the road. PHILIPPE LAURENSON /REUTERS
01 September, 2010

INDIA IS NOT THE ONLY COUNTRY rounding up undesirables. France is too. The irony is that in France the undesirables trace their roots back to India.

In the early hours of 16 July 1942, the government of France, at the behest of the Gestapo, began a surprise raid across Paris, rounding up Jews, especially foreign Jews from Eastern Europe. Thousands of men, women and children were held at the sweltering Vél d’Hiver bicycle-racing stadium before being transferred to internment camps on French soil and ultimately to Nazi concentration camps where most were exterminated. Families were torn apart.  The men were taken away first, then the women were separated from their children. The French administration then surpassed Nazi expectations by sending the children, now cumbersome orphans, off to the death camps as well. Near the entrance to every public school in Paris, there is a plaque in remembrance of the school children who were sent by the French state to be murdered during World War II. (Hundreds of thousands of Roma were also killed in the Holocaust.)

This is why the raids on the Roma, aka gypsies, carried out simultaneously across France in August by the right-wing government of French president Nicolas Sarkozy, have struck such a nerve. In late July, Sarkozy pledged to remove all the “illegal camps” where thousands of itinerant Roma have made their homes and deport all non-French citizens who did not meet residency requirements, including those from other European Union countries. In mid-August, law and order forces moved in to make good on the pledge. The tactics employed have been so egregious that condemnations have rained down not only from the United Nations, from human rights groups, and from France’s left opposition but also from members of Sarkozy’s own government and politicians on France’s centre right. François Goulard, a former minister in the government of Jacques Chirac and a member of Sarkozy’s UMP party, called the procedures “shocking.” Indeed, the images of people torn from their beds and rounded up by security forces, of men separated from their families, of crying children and terrified adults in holding pens awaiting deportation was just a tad too déjà vu for many to stomach.

So far, the Sarkozy government has only one regret, that its showing in the polls on the issue on which it has staked its path to re-election in 2012, that of ‘security,’ remains abysmally low. The ‘shock and awe’ of the raids on the Roma is not sufficiently awe-inspiring, it seems, to achieve its real goal: rallying France’s far-right voters from their allegiance to the fascist National Front party to support Sarkozy instead. Without their votes, the president cannot hope for a second term. This is the real source of the government’s relentless discourse on ‘national identity’ (a bit too redolent of that older discourse on ‘racial purity’) and ‘security.’ The nation will not be safe, Sarkozy insists, until it expels from the body of the state alien opportunists on whose relatively swarthy backs have been heaped all the woes of France—economic stagnation, unemployment, the crumbling of the social welfare system, eroding purchasing power.

The Roma are an easy target for a government that has made the abomination of all residents of France deemed ‘other’—especially immigrants from or citizens of non-European countries and Muslims of any stripe—the lynchpin of its hold on power.  Between 300,000 to 500,000 Roma, called ‘the travelling people,’ are citizens of France and are more or less settled. As with the roundup of Jews in Paris in 1942, it is not the French Roma who are officially targeted, it is the 10,000 to 15,000 Roma who have come to France in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union, fleeing dire poverty and severe prejudice in Romania. These are the Roma one sees begging, often with their little children in tow, in the Metro or on the streets. They beg because they have precious few other skills, are illiterate and do not speak French. They beg because whatever they make is far more than they can make in Romania where they are severely persecuted. In France their children can, if they choose to send them, go to school.

The Roma live in basti-style encampments on abandoned stretches of land along the highways and railroad tracks or in abandoned buildings. They live in these pitiful conditions because French municipal governments have failed to provide legal camps equipped with sanitation and running water per laws dating to 1990. (The fact that local budgets have been cut to the quick by the national government is partly to blame.) The Roma are a daily reminder of the failure of the French state to integrate immigrants and other marginalised people, and to provide for their basic human rights under French, European Union and international laws. They are also a reminder of the larger failure of a global system which is propelling millions of people from the darker and poorer nations to seek refuge and survival in Europe, a wave of misfortune with which the European Union manifestly cannot cope.

France has been buffeted by an alarming disintegration of civility and order in recent years. Armed robberies, murders, and firings on police have become almost commonplace in a country where they were not so long ago extreme rarities. Rather than tackle the likeliest cause of these woes--a broken public education system, incipient racism, a stark reduction in cops on the beat—the Sarkozy government has chosen the time-worn diversion of the scapegoat. Like the poor in Commonwealth Games Delhi, the spectacle of Roma poverty and marginalisation is simply too unsightly a reminder of the failings of the state. If the eyesore is removed from view, perhaps the ills it represents will magically disappear as well.

The Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs dates the beginning of the Indian diaspora to 1830, the year the British inaugurated the Coolie system of exporting indentured labour to the far-flung plantations of the empire. The ministry’s timeline is off by at least 800 years. The Roma are, in fact, the oldest Indian diaspora population, beginning their outbound journey as early as the 11th century. They trace their origins—as Indira Gandhi herself pointed out in her welcoming address to the 1983 International Roma Festival in Chandigharh—to Punjab. There is genetic and linguistic evidence to back this up, and the Roma Festival continues to be held in Chandigarh under the auspices of the Indo-Roma Center in Belgrade, among other organisations. From India, the Roma made their way to and across Europe but they never melted into the populations among which they came to live. They preserved a unique cultural identity, including their language, and developed their own musical and dance traditions—traditions that produced everything from Flamenco to the swing jazz of that most famous Roma, Django Reinhardt.

There is an important lesson in the plight of the Roma: cultural diversity enriches the fabric of nations far more than it threatens it, and those societies that welcome diversity will always be more secure than those that refuse it.  But divide and rule in its current avatar of us versus them is the coin of power for the national security state. This includes, alas, the French state of Nicolas Sarkozy. It is a sad pass for the nation that gave the world the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the motto “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”