Op-Ed: Romani – An Enemy Among Us?

Photo courtesy of flickr.com/Serge Melki

This week’s news was dominated by the presentation of the Government’s new budget plans. But while the nation was debating the pros and cons of austerity, a small event should have caught the attention of all political analysts. In the difficult northern suburbs of Marseille, a group of local inhabitants formed a militia and expelled a Romani camp. After chasing the people living in the informal buildings, they put fire to the camp and left. Despite its minor treatment in the French media, this event reveals the rising problem of the integration of the Romani people in the country and our responsibility to respond.

The issue is complex. Of course, the situation of the Romani in France is completely unacceptable, but the State is also in a difficult position to come up with some sort of policy. Because they cannot afford a stable place to live, they are nomadic, making them very difficult to control by the State. Most of them live in a disastrous level of poverty with the health, education, and security issues that go hand-in-hand. Most of their revenue comes from the underground economy and from social benefits, though this last point is much debated. To make a long story short, their way of living makes it impossible for them to get integrated in the French society.

It has been a few years now since the Romani people have become a political issue. It was raised by the previous government as a way to show its toughness on security. Interior Minister Claude Guéant authorized bulldozers that came to demolish the make-shift camps. The intention was to show respect to the law: the camps were built on private properties and their inhabitants had no rights to settle there. But of course, it did not solve the problem. Camps were re-built in other places only to be destroyed later. The situation continued until Viviane Reding, the European Commissioner in charge of Fundamental Rights, published a note criticizing the action of France against the Romani. The then Left opposition took up the opportunity and made this issue a recurrent one in the Presidential campaign.

But now the Socialist Party is in power and its Interior Minister Manuel Valls has not changed the policy at all. But how could he? The demolitions of Romani camps are still sanctioned by judges for violation of private property. But the Socialist Party has been unable to correct its Human Rights policy regarding the Romani, and France is still criticized by the EU for it. Many municipalities are required to build developed camping zone for nomadic people but most prefer to ignore the law as it is very unpopular. Additionally, these camping zones are disputed among the different nomadic groups in France and the Romani do not use them much anyway.

But this will not be enough. There exists a deeper problem and it seems impossible to resolve. Even in this very article, the Romani, though they live in France, are not seen as French. They are a “them”, different increasingly seen as incompatible with “us.” In this period of mass unemployment and massive debts, any inclusive approach is highly criticized. Contrastingly, the Romani are seen as a nuisance, one more problem to solve. They are becoming our scapegoats in this global crisis. Recently, the evening news of the public channel France 2 aired a program on Romani children living of thefts in the street.

Like the Spaniards or the Italians in the 1930’s, the Jews in the 1940’s or the Arabs since the 1970’s, every time a crisis strikes in France, we try to find an escape and make immigrants our scapegoats. But contrary of those, the Romani People are not on their way towards integration. The assimilative ideology of the French society is incompatible with the Roms way of living, and there is hardly any solution in sight. But until a solution can be found or they start making a place for themselves in French society, there is one thing we should do: respect them. Because our French identity should always be about defending Human Rights.

The following opinion article is written by LJP French editorialist, Hugo Argenton. The views expressed in it are his own. Please feel free to discuss in the comment section below.

For more information on this topic, check out “French Policy on Romani: A Divisive Issue


  1. […] the Romani population and the right to vote for foreigners. She argues that the expulsions of the Romani people under Sarkozy will most likely continue, and that the right to vote for foreigners will probably […]

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