We are not scared of the Roms, but of ending up like them
André Gluck, Philosopher and Essayist
Libération, 3rd October, 2013
93% of French people think that the Roma are poorly integrated (according to a BVA- Le Parisien survey). By a large majority, they approve of the dismantlement of their make-do camps and of the Roma being forcibly deported. I make up part of the ultra minority, the 7% that haven’t fallen prey to this general madness. Where does this madness come from? It is not the reserve of the rich, nor the working class, nor the right, nor the left, and neither extremists. And neither France. It was first diagnosed when the fall of communism meant that uncontrolled surveys could be carried out all over the country. In 1990, the Los Angeles Times asked Europeans the following question: Which ethnicity do you dislike the most? The Czechs, Polish and Hungarians, etc by 80% indicated that Gypsies and the Roma were their worst enemy.
In France today, 60 million French, whether originally of French descent or not, stigmatise a collection of about 20,000 unfortunate people. Mayors from all parties are calling for the dismantlement of illegal Roma camps. Their appeal is unctuous, fawning, supposedly as much for the good of the campers as the locals. On the news, mechanical diggers flatten cabins made of planks and plastic shelters, bulldozers have no mercy on smashed up old cars, broken parts of dolls and dirtied pages from school books are strewn about in the mud. The newly homeless contemplate the sacking of their meagre possessions without saying a word. Beyond tears, they leave. They carry vital essentials on their backs, pulling rudely wakened children by the hand, with a dignity that I cannot guarantee that I would be capable of reproducing.
Given that there are no plans to re-house them, they occupy other non-specific areas, crammed on top of each other in camps that are just as illegal as the last ones and, reminiscent of Sisyphus, they haphazardly recreate the same shacks. Some, exhausted, camp on our pavements and, when night falls, watch over their children in old, disused telephone boxes. It is for this reason that our town councillors, national political parties and their humble citizens have started to wage an absurd campaign against the barefooted Roma that disfigure our cities. Dirty, hairy, in one way or another physically and mentally contagious, they can’t grasp our concept of integration, so they have no place here with us. They are shown the door.
In the old days, the Republican school system taught students about Esmeralda’s exploits and Gavroche’s stubbornness. The poor and the Roma aren’t objects of scorn in Victor Hugo’s work, even though it’s a national treasure. Did the Panthéon snuff out his voice? In a country that has, for more than a century, seen an influx of Italian, Polish, Spanish, Portuguese, North African, African and Jewish immigration, the Roma that haunt our streets are a mere drop in the ocean, a demographic joke, a cruel pretext, an ideological argument. That so many pointless opinion surveys can be constructed around such a bizarre context says a lot about the mental illness that has grasped hold of this population, which is supposedly one of the most tolerant in the world.
To maltreat and expulse is to not to imprison and gas in death camps. Here, the Roma are not destined to share the fate of the Jews. This does not diminish the fact that they smell, they beg, they are of an unpleasant disposition, they steal, they are lazy, that they don’t wash, take care of themselves, or send their children to school. To sum up, they are not like you and me, and we are how we should be, we know what we are doing with our lives. But, tell me this: who is this being, constantly pointed at, rejected, without a roof over his head, without water, without electricity, without the right to work, without, without, without…yet capable of achieving miracles. We severely note that only 30% of Roma children go to school, using this to reinforce their stubborn refusal to educate themselves. Yet I am admiring, because how do these 30% of children manage to go to school, whilst being constantly shunted around from one part of France to the other? Because of their systematic exclusion, we’ve invented the concept of the ‘Roma’ as an example of almost non-human. They are proof that there are beings who more or less look like humans, but will never be hygienic and educated like us, or at least able to be educated; do they not prefer mud to soap and begging to learning? And, in rare favourable circumstances, even when some manage to integrate and adapt dutifully into school to in some cases come out top of the class, they still live in a tribe like fashion and show solidarity with the luckless thieves with whom they share their origins.
93%! Stop the press! Could it be that the Roma don’t only carry pollution everywhere on their person, but that they also posses the gift of ubiquity? Even though there are not a lot of them, they are everywhere and wherever they are to be found they disturb the harmonious course of our existence. In the metro, in our museums, in our suburbs, our cities, and our countryside. If not that, how else can such a unanimous presence be explained? It doesn’t matter whether you’ve met one or not, how is it possible to be so sure of something like that? Only from rumour, as ethnical statistics are forbidden in France. From ordinary racism, of which no-one is blameless. From rejection of the ‘foreigner,’ and, amongst these foreigners, the weakest of them all. Does La loi du dernier, (Boukovsky) prevail in gentle France? In other words, how the weak make themselves feel stronger by stamping on those beneath them.
I’ve been to Romania and the Roma villages and the poor neighbourhoods. The fate of the Roma there is worse than those in Western Europe. There are people who survive by living off rubbish, others, more rarely, who succeed in breaking through social and racial (xenophobic) boundaries. Even though there are some who have more or less normal jobs, Romania is still a very poor country. There are some who spend six months looking for a job abroad, there are fistfuls who successfully follow through the stages of adaption to modernity financed by George Soros and break out of the vicious circle of exclusion. Many who would simply prefer to have a better quality of life where they are (the majority, it would seem). Some who prefer to wander about Europe (which is totally their right). I’ve met some who have been enthusiastic about their trips in East Asia. I’ve questioned mafia, those who have been exploited, and free beings.
In sum, they are, like all members of this planet, not only different from others, but different amongst themselves, some respectful of their customs, others enamoured with new, radical ones, or in some cases, both. Of the 10 million European Gypsies, 1850 000 can be found in Romania, 750 000 in Bulgaria, the same amount in Hungary, and the rest dispersed all over the continent. No reason then, to be afraid of the 20 000 who come to France to exasperate 65 million French.
Let’s make the effort once again to be Republicans: decent temporary housing and sanitary camping sites which would better illustrate the merit of Villon’s country, of the Republic des sans-culotttes, the vague memories that rest of Christian charity, solidarity towards the weak, notions on which our democracy was founded. We are afraid, aided by the spectres of unemployment and ignorance, not of the Roma, but of ending up like them, whether today or tomorrow. Not so long ago, my grandfather scavenged rags from Vienna’s bins in order to survive. A reading, or re-reading of Les Misérables is in order for reasons of public health.