continuing a long european tradition- sarkozy and the roma

by anekdotales

as sarkozy finds himself ever more embroiled in an international polemic, i can’t help but wonder,  what was he expecting when he began forcibly demolishing illegal camps and deporting nearly 1500 roma (eastern european gypsies) to romania and bulgaria in the first place? i’m guessing he was hoping his position wouldn’t be anything new, given that anti-roma sentiments are about as european as the euro itself. from greece to portugal, across europe, throughout history roma communities have suffered the violent manifestations of racism and xenophobia. by the 16th century anti-roma legislation had become common place on the continent. in the france of the louis XIV roma were shaven and branded to distinguish them as a separate race, while in england they were expelled from the island or faced public hanging. in germany, roma were prohibited from trading or seeking shelter. and in what is today romania, hungary and bulgaria they were captured and sold into slavery, a practice that continued up to nearly the end of the 19th century. in 1912 the republican government of france passed a variety of different laws prohibiting vagrancy, but it wasn’t long before it became clear who was the real target of this legislation. the roma were forced to register with the government and received special identity cards defining them as nomads. following the first world war, french roma were herded into “special centers” (internment camps), and some were stripped of their citizenship. the fascist vichy government that followed continued along the same logic, collaborating with the nazis to send thousands of roma to death camps. the nazis had slated the roma for extinction, even before the formal extermination camps were opened. in 1933 the german government began a program of forced sterilization and prohibition of inter-marrying between roma and non-roma. at nuremburg, nazi defendants in quixotic logic justified their crimes against the roma by citing the innate criminal nature of the roma ‘race’. they claimed that the majority of roma sent to the concentration camps were sent there not because of their race but because of their criminal histories- huh?.

since these trials this anti-roma sentiment has remained popular. in the 1990’s the austrian roma community suffered molotov cocktail attacks at the hands of neo-fascists, and the state and law and order institutions responded inadequately by failing to provide much needed protection and not investigating fully possible leads. nearly simultaneously in germany with the re-writing of asylum laws, the roma were specifically tagged for exclusion from legal protection. in the last couple of years the reality is that nothing has changed. since 2000 roma communities in eastern europe have faced renewed anti-roma extremism as right wing political organizations have gained more ground in various national elections. in 2007 a neo fascist paramilitary organization, the hungarian guard, staged a rally in Tiszalok to protest supposed break-ins by roma. the hungarian guard has close ties with the extreme right wing party, Jobbick, which has increasingly won more seats in the hungarian parliament. in 2009 atleast 7 roma were in killed in various firebombing and drive byes targeting roma communities across hungary. authorities suspect military and ex-military personel to be the culprits. in the czech republic police officers were caught on film torturing and playing sex games with roma children they’d detained, and right wing protesters clashed with police in attempts to march through roma neighborhoods. back in western europe, the right wing government of italian prime minister silvio berlusconi declared a state of emergency and began the forced eviction of roma camps in naples, milan, and rome. a law passed in 2007 legalized the deportation of european union citizens if it could be determined they were not able to sustain themselves after 3 months of living in the italian state. berlusconi exploited this law using it to deport thousands of the former residents of the demolished roma camps. the move was a populist response to growing xenophobia as the italian economy continued to struggle with the world’s economic downturn. berlusconi declared the presence of “irregular third-country citizens and nomads” threatened the security of the italian state and therefore justified the heightened measures. in naples a mob razed one roma camp to the ground after rumors that one of the camp’s residents was responsible for the rape and murder of a local italian woman.

so why is sarkozy’s eviction and subsequent deportation of roma any different from what has become a normal treatment of one europe’s most marginalized populations? its not! what sarkozy is doing is no surprise nor nothing new. what’s new is that the european union has responded to the actions with a lot of pulpit-ing and higher than thou responses. eu justice minister viviane reding compared the french government’s actions to those of vichy france- and while its a comparison i personally feel reasonably fair, it goes without saying, i must doubt ms. reding’s motives. doesn’t this sudden and outspoken response by the eu have more to do with institutional ego than the selfless defense of those most in need? ms. reding was nowhere to be seen when the roma were being brutalized in hungary, the czech republic, or italy. and where was the eu when france started evicting and deporting roma years ago. so what’s the real issue?  there are two issues that have made these most recent evictions and deportations such big international news.  to begin with its been almost completely forgotten why sarkozy refocused his repressive fervor against the roma community in the first place. earlier this year in central france two roma men where shot upon by police at a supposed checkpoint, killing the passenger.  i say ‘supposed’ because according to the driver who survived there was no checkpoint. the police had not cut the rite of passage and as the driver made clear in an interview before his surrender to the police, he asked why if there was a checkpoint, why then had the police shot at the passenger. according to police officials the road was blocked in a routine traffic stop, and that the two roma men had intentionally run the checkpoint putting the agent’s lives in danger.  regardless, what happened subsequent to the shooting is what really got national and then international attention- at least for the spectacle.   in protest of the shooting and other anti-roma discrimination, roma community members attacked the local police station.  and from there the destruction spread to the streets where the protesters cut down power lines, and trees with chainsaws, and destroyed cars and local buildings.   the image left was one of a small french village left in pieces.  an image much more interesting for international news and populist political agendas, than the continued situation of economic instability most european roma struggle with. but in the subtitles or perhaps the titles, depending on your point of view, there was another story.  as i explained above discrimination, unfortunately, is nothing new for the roma.  but it seems that for this specific community the frustration and anger had reached a point of no return. enough was enough! and the violent response to the shootings is perhaps the most vivid illustration of this boiling point.  this kind of reaction while not unfamiliar to many marginalized french communities, it is a new phenomena for the roma- normally characterized by their capacity to forget and move on until the next point of conflict.  for the french government, moreover most european governments, the rebellious and confrontational nature of such protest is unacceptable. and even more so when its manifested by a population so popularly stigmatized in the dominant culture as the roma have been.   in other words, the hammer had to come down. and hard!   for a right wing populist like sarkozy any other measure would be political suicide.   and then what happened after is what got him in trouble with the eu.  the french government lied to the eu when they began the evictions and mass-deportations. when sarkozy gave the orders for the dismantling of illegal camps he assured the european union that the actions wouldn’t target specific ethnic, national, or racial groups. however a leaked internal memo from the french government has since made it obvious that sarkozy’s promises to the eu were simply a cover. and when ms. reding discovered that she’d been lied to, that’s when she got her panties all up in a tither. its all a bit ridiculous because the hand writing was on the wall if the eu didn’t know what was happening officially they certainly did extra-officially.   i’m not sure which is more insulting or repugnant- sarkozy’s, and more broadly europe’s, fervent racism, and xenophobia, or the political maneuvering by some eu parliamentarians who use the suffering of the roma to gain international political points. Anti-roma sentiment is one of the wretchedly backwards traditions of europe. so is it that surprising sarkozy, a right wing populist willing to do anything to boost his political profile even if it means exploiting centuries old fears and paranoias and the criminalization of an entire people?…. NOT REALLY!  and is the european union an ineffective, political-beaurucratic institution with almost no real power to hold its members to the union’s original principles and foundations- democracy, solidarity and mutual respect among peoples, and the protection of human rights, etc?   I’M AFRAID SO!

so combatting this kind of right wing bullshit won’t come from the european union. and it certainly won’t come from the individual member states. unfortunately it seems the future for the roma and other marginalized social groups within the european union, is a shaky one at best. especially if the european right continues to grow in strength and numbers.  but one thing we can all be sure of is- guys with chainsaws cutting down lightposts gets attention!  whether your a pacifist or not, you can’t deny it!

power to the people.

check out bury me standing by isabel fonseca for more insight on the roma and their journey through european racism.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: