I HAD JUST been to France when les émeutes de banlieues, in the Fall of 2005, rendered it impossible to ignore what some would characterize a failure of integration, and others a failure to keep out the undesirables. The May 2007 assumption of President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose father had for decades been a “stateless person,” having left Hungary under the advisement of his mother to escape military service, formalized the ascendance of the “keep out the undesirables” side of the argument and prepared the way for fresh campaigns against the Travellers, Gypsies, and Romani.
The “riots in the suburbs,” as the phrase above may be translated, were a shock and a difficult-to-absorb contrast to the pre-rentrée Paris still vivid in my memory. Characterized as an uprising of Muslim youth, which is not entirely accurate, the violence was an indication of longstanding (which is to say pre-9/11) issues. In the case of the Romani, recent sweeps and deportations recall the time of Louis XII and events of one-half a millennium ago.
The 2010 expulsions, unconvincingly claimed by the French Government to be voluntary (“if you please” being for the Romani a quite unprecedented way of putting these things), are the endgame of twenty-two year-old Luigi Duquenet’s death by police bullet. French officials claim the Roma man impacted a gendarme while driving through a checkpoint, adding that he was suspected also of committing burglary. President Sarkozy’s reaction to this incident has been, in the words of Amnesty International’s David Diaz-Joeix, “to target the Roma and Travellers in general and to perpetuate the negative stereotypes of which they are victim.” Some words, concerning both the Roma and the substance of this matter of the victim, are in order.
Almost immediately following their fifteenth-century arrival to Europe and the Iberian peninsula, the Romani — inferred by the English to be of Egyptian derivation, hence the Gypsy misnomer — were regarded sinister outsiders and subjected to slavery, forced labour, and ethnic cleansing. Perhaps the most succinct way to make the point is to recall England’s 1530 Egyptians Act, crafted (unsuccessfully as it happens) to expel the “outlandish people calling themselves Egyptians” and to counteract their “devlish and naughty practices and devices” by subjecting them to a death penalty added in a 1554 amendment. The term for these anti-Roma attitudes is “antiziganism,” which in Nazi Germany took the literal form of a Zigeunerfrage, or “Gypsy Question,” settled in 1936 along the unambiguous lines of the Final Solution.
The result was a wartime Romani and Sinti genocide today generally known by the term Porajmos (or baro xaimos, Great Devouring). The killing of Romani though widespread was especially vicious in Germany, Romania, and the Baltics. Worst of all however was the hateful bloodthirst of Nazi Germany’s proxy regime, the Croatian Ustasha. With the support and cheering of the Vatican, Croatian fascists murdered at Jasenovac an estimated 20,000-50,000 Roma and Sinti, the gold stolen from their teeth eventually being used to fund Nazi post-war flights from justice and the remainder to this day sitting in the Vatican Bank. (For this reason one gags on the rich pontification directed by Rome at the Sarkozy government.)
If this sounds familiar, it will then come as no surprise to you that long before the Second World War the Romani had been blamed for the plague, and that more recently they had been formally denied entry into several of the world’s nations (among them the United States) and into the remainder admitted only to be consigned to the margins and called upon as scapegoats in times of crisis. In 2008, the Italian government declared an Emergenza Nomadi following a murder in Rome, establishing a segregated camp at Castel di Decima, south of the city. The same old same old, and certain to do nothing beyond perhaps scratch a scabby itch at an opportune moment in the election cycle.
In 2007 the controversial and much-beleagured Romanian President Traian Basescu apologized for his country’s role in the Porajmos, having apologized only five months earlier for calling journalist Andreea Pana a stinking Gypsy during an encounter in a Bucharest supermarket, recorded by Pana and broadcast on Romanian television. I’m not able to characterize the relationship of these two events, but it does seem to me that Romania has at least taken some steps in the right direction. Anywhere one today finds the Romani, the words below (from an April 2010 Amnesty International publication “Stop Forced Evictions of Roma in Europe”) will apply:
EU leaders must adopt a concrete plan of action to address the human rights abuses faced by Romani communities. They must speak up against racist attacks and hate speech and provide concrete measures to end discrimination in access to housing, education, health and employment.
In 2009 Turkey’s Prime Minister Rejeb Erdogan acknowledged, in a non-specific manner, that “many things were done in this country for years. People from different ethnic backgrounds were expelled. This was the result of a fascist approach.” There is at present no reason to conclude this sort of thing will not continue for another half-millenium. France is only one of many countries today employing history’s discredited policies in service of history’s ugliest features. The Roma, Sinti, Kale, Romanichal, and other related peoples are very well overdue for formal recognition of their suffering, practical acknowledgement of their human rights, and forward-looking government initiatives which depart from the bankrupt conventions of scapegoating and race hatred.