Municipal elections will take place in March 2014 and promise to be, along with European elections in June, a referendum on the Socialists’ first year in power. Opposition politicians, particularly the extreme-right Front National party led by the charismatic Marine Le Pen, have very vocally raised the subject. Even some local Socialist politicians have begun questioning the party’s approach. Whether this is a calculated electoral ploy or another feud between ministers playing out in the public eye, the Roma issue has persistently engulfed the French electorate, not just in recent years, but over the past century.
The controversial comments were made by Interior Minister Manuel Valls, a rising star of the French Left, who has been tipped as a future Presidential candidate.
The Integration Experiment
Partisans of the recently deposed centre-right UMP party are looking on gleefully as Socialist rhetoric on the Roma seems to be doing a complete 180 only a little over a year after the party took the Presidency and a majority in both houses of the legislature. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy made the issue a centre-piece of the later half of his presidency, after a Roma riot broke out in July 2010 when French police shot a young Roma man who drove through a police checkpoint, hitting an officer.
Sarkozy’s government quickly ordered the dismantling of some 300 illegal encampments, saying they were « sources of illegal trafficking, of profoundly shocking living standards, of exploitation of children for begging, of prostitution and crime ». They also stepped up deportations of Roma found to be illegally residing in France. Under special rules, Bulgarian and Romanian citizens (nationalities held by many Roma) must have work or residency permits if they wish to stay longer than three months on French territory.
Sarkozy was strongly criticised by the Socialist Party, his policy even compared to the Vichy government’s deportation of French Jews during the Second World War. The European Roma Rights Centre said Mr Sarkozy’s plan « reinforces discriminatory perceptions about Roma and travellers and inflames public opinion against them ». The European Commission also threatened France with an infringement procedure if it did not begin implementing the 2004 EU Directive on Freedom of Movement, which stipulates rules for deportation cases.
Current President François Hollande came to power promising to adopt a more humane approach to dealing with the Roma that emphasised integration. Shortly after the Socialists entered government in 2012, a ministerial decree was signed that green-lighted the continuing dismantling of illegal and unsanitary Roma encampments, but ordered local prefectures to work with the inhabitants of the camps to identify alternative housing solutions.
For most French, the “Roma question” is purely a hypothetical one, but one that evokes powerful sentiment. According to statistics published by the French Ministry of the Interior, only around 20,000 Roma reside in France, but in towns that have dealt first hand with illegal Roma encampments, locals and politicians have quickly lost all illusions that the issue can be easily resolved with strong-armed tactics or attempts to integrate the Roma.
Roma are also often seen begging in the streets of large French cities, often with children, and are considered a nuisance by many French. The French public has consistently supported a hardline policy by a comfortable majority. Because of the explosive nature of the Roma question, Roma delinquency, although only a small part of crime committed in France, tends to receive disproportionate media attention.
A combination of inflexible bureaucratic procedures and, to be fair, Roma disinterest in government offers have made it clear that integration will be much more difficult than the government hoped. Frustration in the failure of Hollande’s Roma strategy and the political pressure of upcoming elections have led some Socialists to change strategic direction on the Roma issue and to push for the integration component of the government’s current approach to be dropped.
Many Roma live in makeshift camps, like this one in Seine-St. Denis. The French government are dismantling illegal and unsanitary encampments - but are alternative solutions being found for the inhabitants ?
Long history of Roma persecution
The image many in France have of the Roma is infused with the idea of the ‘vagabond’, and they are seen as a mobile population that does not want to integrate. However, the overwhelming majority of Roma in Europe today are sedentary. The waves of Roma migration have largely been driven by external factors such as war, political and economic instability, racism, discrimination or systematic violation of human rights.
Roma have been present in France since the 15th century, when they first arrived in Europe. It was not until the end of the 19th century, however, that they began coming to official notice. It was at this time that Roma recently freed from slavery in Wallachia and Moldavia (present-day Romania and Moldova) arrived in France and the rest of Western Europe. These arrivals were part of a larger migration of Roma from South West Europe, the so-called ‘second migration’, driven by profound social changes, particularly the abolition of slavery and emerging industrialisation.
The Roma joined the already large numbers of itinerant people (seasonal workers, vagabonds, travelling merchants, beggars…) roaming Western Europe in search of a better life. The second migration quickly brought Roma to the attention of the authorities and governments began enacting harsh policies to restrict their movement or get rid of them. Roma were quickly blamed for every conceivable crime, from simple thieving and swindling to child abduction and even for spreading disease. The press was full of stories, real and supposed, which helped to spread an exaggerated sense of insecurity throughout society.
French Republican governments in the early 20th century laid administrative and legal foundations for official discrimination against Roma, passing a slew of laws aimed at ending the itinerant way of life. Roma were specifically targeted with the creation of an identity card for ‘nomads’. In 1940, the first Roma were interned in camps in occupied and unoccupied France, and eventually some 13,000 people were interned in special camps throughout the country, about half of the estimated Roma population in France at the time. Under the Vichy government during the Second World War, French authorities also participated in the systematic deportation of Roma to death camps.
Roma in France today
The most recent migratory movement of Roma to Western Europe has taken place over the second half of the 20th century through to present day. This ‘third migration’ has been caused by a complex combination of circumstances, including war, political upheavals and economic crisis. At the beginning of the 1960s, as Western Europe was struggling to meet the labour demands of the post-war economic boom, many countries began recruiting foreign workers. It was in this way that over a hundred thousand Roma came to Central and Western Europe, particularly to Germany and Austria.
Later in the century, it was the political and economic instability caused by the fall of the Soviet bloc that sent thousands streaming into Western Europe. Post-communist governments exploited and nurtured resentment against the Roma and even promoted racially motivated attacks. In present day Central and Eastern Europe, the Roma face discrimination, economic destitution and human rights violations. In Romania today, the Roma population has a poverty rate three times higher than the national average, lower life expectancy, low literacy rates and up to 100% unemployment in some areas.
The enlargement of the EU and the opening of national borders to the free movement of people has facilitated the movement of Roma throughout Europe. Considered outsiders even in their home countries, Roma are easy targets for increasingly powerful extreme-right parties. It is the success of these parties in exploiting the Roma issue in France that many think drove established parties to take up the question in their political programmes.
Although he has not commented publicly on Valls’ remarks, President Hollande has seemed quietly supportive of his Interior Minister. Valls certainly has the backing of the French public - according to a BVA poll conducted for Le Parisien, a huge 93% of French people believe that Roma « integrate poorly » into French society. Even among supporters of the Front de Gauche and the French Green party EELV, whose leaders have been the most outspoken against Valls, a significant minority does not condemn his statements (40% and 38% respectively), according to the same poll.
Will François Hollande and his government continue with their Roma integration policy, given that the majority of the French electorate would seem to support a more hardline approach ?
Despite implicit support for Valls, Hollande has said that the ministerial decree signed shortly after coming to power is still government policy. It remains to be seen, however, how Socialist policy will evolve as municipal elections approach in March. On October 6th, the extreme-right Front National party, which advocates a hardline policy against Roma, won an astounding 40% of the vote in the first round of special municipal elections in the Var.