On the morning of July 17, 2010, the residents of the French commune of Saint-Aignan awoke to the sound of rioting, though few in the picturesque Loire Valley village could have guessed the reason for all the tumult. The previous night, a Traveler and robbery suspect by the name of Luigi Duquenet had barreled through a police checkpoint in his car, injuring a gendarme in the process, and was accelerating towards a second checkpoint before he was shot and killed. Within hours, dozens of incensed fellow gens du voyage, armed with hatchets and crowbars, were rampaging through the medieval streets of Saint-Aignan, chopping down trees, setting cars alight, pillaging stores, and storming the village police station. “It was,” as Mayor Jean-Michel Billon put it, “a settling of scores between the travelers and the gendarmerie.” The coming weeks would provide ample evidence that the clashes had in no wise settled any scores.
By the next day three hundred soldiers were patrolling the streets of Saint-Aignan, and soon thereafter France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy was vowing that the rioters would be “severely punished,” and that the “the problems created by the behavior of certain Travelers and Roma” would be addressed once and for all. The ensuing measures, Sarkozy continued, would be part of the “implacable struggle the government is leading against crime” and the “veritable war” being waged against those “delinquents” threatening France’s ordre publique. Pierre Lellouche, France’s Minister for Europe, concurred: “we are faced with a real problem and the time has come to deal with it.” It was not long before French ministers were considering corrective measures ranging from the tightening of immigration controls to the systematic evacuation and dismantling of illegal encampments, the better to deal with the “sources of illegal trafficking, of profoundly shocking living standards, of exploitation of children for begging, of prostitution and of crime.”
Such rhetoric in reaction to the events in Saint-Aignan was altogether predictable, given the emphasis placed on matters of law and order by France’s governing Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (with Sarkozy himself having made international headlines with his 2005 comments about the need to “hose down” lawless estates and root out criminal “scum”), but in this case it cannot be said that the French government was engaging in mere posturing for popular consumption. Some three hundred Roma camps were quickly targeted for demolition, and on August 12, Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux announced that some 850 Roma would be systematically deported to Romania and Bulgaria (albeit each with 300 euros in hand). The first repatriations followed two weeks later, with more planned for the month of September. A lawyer for the Roma leadership, Henri Braun, cautioned that the government was “preparing to open a blighted page in the history of France,” but Sarkozy’s administration may in fact be setting a continental precedent. On August 21, the Italian Interior Minister, Roberto Maroni, told the daily Corriere della Sera that “if anything, it’s time to go a step further,” calling for outright “expulsions just like those for illegal immigrants, not assisted or voluntary repatriations.”
For the various itinerant communities of France — the tsiganes, the manouches, the gitanes, the Roma, and the Sinti — the ongoing crackdown occurring in France, and now threatened elsewhere, is only the most recent chapter in a centuries-old story of tribulation and alienation. The zhalvini gilyi, or dirges, of the Roma folk tradition invariably stress the pitfalls of a peripatetic life on the lungo drom, the “long road.” “Oh Lord,” bemoaned Bronisława Wajs, the mid-twentieth century Polish-Romani poet, “Where can I go? What can I do?” now that “time of the wandering Gypsies has long passed.” A Transylvanian dirge laments: “God, oh God! How you have thrashed me,/Perhaps nobody more than me,” before concluding “Oh, what can I do, all alone?” The dislocation and unfocused nostalgia that are part and parcel of the itinerant lifestyle, coupled with centuries of persecution, in turn led to widespread fatalism, with one Serbian Gypsy song resignedly foreseeing that “The crack of Doom/is coming soon./Let it come,/it doesn’t matter.”
For the Roma and other Travelers, the “crack of Doom” has indeed sounded out with some frequency over the years, as European anti-ziganism is of considerable vintage. Anti-Gypsy sentiment, long a feature of the European social landscape, was first institutionalized in early modern Central Europe, with the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I outlawing the community in 1500, and with Ferdinand I expelling the scapegoated Roma from Prague after an unexplained 1541 fire. By 1548 the Diet of Augsburg had declared that “whosoever kills a Gypsy, shall be guilty of no murder,” and by 1710 the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph I would go a step further, demanding “that all adult [Roma] males were to be hanged without trial, whereas women and young males were to be flogged and banished forever.” Thirty-nine years later the Spanish monarch Philip V was still taking aim at “this multitude of infamous and noxious people” that needed to be “contained and corrected”; round-ups occurred in Spain and France up through the Napoleonic period. The situation for the Roma, Sinti, and Lalleri was even worse in the east, and it would not be until 1856 that the outright enslavement of Gypsies was abolished in Moldavia and Wallachia.
The 20th century would bring no respite, with the coming of the Holocaust (known in Romani as the Samudaripen, “the murder of all,” or the Pharrajimos, “the devouring”). During those berša bibahtale, those “unhappy years,” in Hitler’s Germany, Pavelić’s Croatia, and King Michael I’s Romania, hundreds of thousands of Roma would lose their lives in concentration camps, in hastily dug ditches, and in the laboratories of Josef Mengele. As Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi official who organized the transport of Gypsies to the various death camps of the east, later testified: “intervention on behalf of the Gypsies was impossible from any side at all. Obviously, the prejudice against this group was the strongest.” That the grounds of the Lety concentration camp (in the modern Czech Republic), constructed seventy years ago for the Nazi internment of Romani men, women, and children, now hosts an industrial pig farm provides some evidence of the extent to which the Pharrajimos has yet to adequately penetrate the modern European psyche.
Even the end of Nazi rule would bring no end to the suffering of the Roma, again particularly in the east, for, as Florinda Lucero and Jill Collum have observed, under Communist rule “a chilling ‘solution’ to the proliferation of the Roma came about: the uninformed and non-consenting sterilization of Roma women, often under the guise of caesarean sections and abortions, and under pressure from social workers who would get their uninformed consent with promises of cash and tangible goods.” (Instances of coercive sterilization of Romani women in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary have also occurred in the post-socialist era, indeed as recently as 2008.) Today, discrimination against this marginalized community is routine in central and southeastern Europe, with racially motivated assaults on the rise, Roma communities routinely denied access to sufficient electricity and water, and, in the Czech Republic, to take one example, fully two-thirds of Roma children placed into remedial programs for dysfunctional students. Anti-Roma violence has been on display in Italy, where in May of 2008 a Gypsy settlement outside of Naples was burned to the ground while crowds gathered to cheer, and in Hungary, where anti-Roma demonstrations in 2009 prompted then-Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány to warn that “we have to act while we can, not wait until the prejudices and the urge to vigilantism distill into unmanageable social phenomena.” Such outbreaks of overt anti-ziganism have led János Ladanyi of Budapest’s Center for Social, Regional and Ethnic Conflicts to further caution that “this road is a dead end. It leads to the Balkans.“
YET THE ROAD THE GYPSIES of Europe are on is not itself at a dead end, as is appropriate for a people historically accustomed to looking at the lungo drom. There have been occasional victories in European courts, including a 2003 ruling in the United Kingdom’s House of Lords (Wrexham County Borough Council v. Berr), which held that zoning regulations should not “impose an excessive burden on the individual whose private interests — here the gypsy’s private life and the retention of his ethnic identity — are at stake,” as well as a 2010 European Court of Human Rights decision finding that Croatia had erred in placing Roma students in Roma-only classrooms. A 2005 photographic exhibit entitled “Lety Detention Camp: History of Unmentioned Genocide” was prominently featured in the European Parliament, and later was displayed in foyer of the Czech Senate in Prague, prompting President Václav Klaus to acknowledge that “of course it is necessary to appropriately commemorate this place.” Meanwhile, in Romania, a Comisia pentru Studierea Robiei Romilor, or “Commission for the Study of Roma Slavery,” was established in 2007, and consists of Roma and Romanian historians and social scientists investigating the deep history of southeastern European anti-ziganism. EU Roma summits have taken place in 2008 and 2010, and by August 2, 2010, the Council of Europe had declared a day of remembrance of the genocide against the Roma, and pledged support for the promotion of Samudaripen education, given that the Roma genocide “is nowhere to be found in European educational materials but should in fact be an integral part of national education curricula.” It seemed a distinct possibility that attitudes towards the Roma might be changing, and that the “Gypsy question” might some day be answered.
Yet the expulsions from France, which by the end of August had resulted in 151 obligatory (“de manière contrainte“) and 828 voluntary (“de manière volontaire“) repatriations to Bulgaria and Romania, have overshadowed such progress. Concerns voiced by Roma groups, certain Bulgarian and Romanian politicians, the United Nations, and the European Union have only prompted France to double down on its method of controlling the gens du voyage and their perceived “menace à l’ordre public.” France’s Immigration Minister, Eric Bresson, has hinted at further measures to crack down on the clandestine immigration of Roma, particular at the French border, while Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux continues to insist that “the objective announced by the president of the republic, that half our country’s illegal camps will be dismantled in three months, will be met.”
The French government has roundly rejected any suggestion that these expulsions in any way resemble the infamous rafles, or round-ups, of the Second World War. Deputy Jean-Pierre Grand responded to critics (including Catholic archbishops and opposition politicians) thusly: “Persons are arrested, their identities are verified, and they are offered money to return to their homeland; I would like for someone to explain the connection to the roundups of the Second World War [Les personnes sont interpellées, leur identité est vérifiée, on leur propose de l’argent pour retourner dans leur pays d’origine: j’aimerais bien qu’on m’explique quel est le lien avec les rafles de la seconde guerre mondiale].” Pierre Lellouche has proven more defiant still, insisting that the expulsions were designed to guarantee the “first of human rights, which is the right to safety.”
While a French court in Lille recently rejected the notion that illegal Roma camps are by their very nature threats to public order, the government has pressed on, planning amendments to French national law that will make “repeated theft or aggressive begging” grounds for expulsion. With crimes committed by Romanians (many of whom are Roma) reported to have increased by 259 percent in Paris over the last eighteen months, with some one in five Parisian thefts perpetrated by a Romanian, and with constant strains on the welfare system exacerbated by the presence of illegal aliens, it was inevitable that the French government would step up measures against unlawfully-present Roma and their camps, brooking no opposition in the process. And it is no coincidence that the crackdown has occurred alongside an overall government-led “debate on national identity” that has been taking place in France over recent months. (That the Roma are paying something of a price for Gallic resentment of other immigrant communities that have likewise yet to fully assimilate cannot be discounted either.) The French government has even raised the possibility of contesting Romanian and Bulgarian entry into the Schengen (border-free) European zone in March of 2011 due to the regular egress of Roma from those countries. Thus the Roma controversy in France figures to have more than merely domestic political ramifications.
In 1993, Václav Havel famously proposed that the treatment of the Roma was a “litmus test” of European civil society. The results of that ongoing test are not yet in, but it is clear that the French body politic is increasingly inclined to favor public order, national identity, and self-determination over softer, universalistic values. As the immigration debate takes center stage in Europe, with countries like Italy, Spain, and France adopting increasingly stringent, and politically popular, push-back measures, the treatment of the various Roma communities scattered about the continent will serve as a bellwether of national and pan-European attitudes. And the Roma — those all too often “poor and plotless” travelers “from a distant land” (as the poet Leksa Manuš put it) — will continue to be borne along by the tides of history.