A Pattern of Persecution
The EU's threatening to take France to court over Sarkozy's forced deportations of Roma. And it should, because the continent has centuries worth of Gypsy discrimination to atone for.
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French President Nicolas Sarkozy may have had domestic considerations in mind this summer when he announced his intention to deport the residents of France’s numerous Roma camps, but the decision has consequences that will reach far beyond his country’s borders. And it may well lead to a fight between l’Elysée and Brussels.
On a legal level, Sarkozy’s policy may be in violation of European laws protecting the freedom of movement of EU citizens; this weekend, reports emerged that the European Commission might be preparing to file a case against the French government at the European Court of Justice.
But it’s not just the Roma — or France’s liberals — who stand to suffer. By inflicting yet more hardships upon Europe’s most benighted minority group, Sarkozy has tarnished the continent’s reputation as a defender of human rights. Europe’s response will be a serious test of its commitment to minority rights and of the strength of its soft power.
Sadly, Europe’s hypocrisy toward the Roma, better known as Gypsies, is nothing new. The recent controversy in France may have thrown the Roma’s plight into unusually stark relief, but its roots are deep and shrouded in ancient prejudice. Having most likely originated in India, the Roma migrated to Europe centuries ago and are now found in every country of the region, where they are estimated to number over 10 million. Their experience has been one of nearly unbroken discrimination. Although sometimes valued for their work as craftsmen and musicians, and later even romanticized for their itinerant lifestyle, Roma have more often than not found themselves despised and marginalized. In Romania, they were enslaved for five centuries; elsewhere in Europe they were persecuted, evicted, or killed. The Nazis tried to exterminate the Gypsies in the countries they occupied and succeeded in killing as many as half a million — though in part because Roma lack a strong written tradition, this holocaust is less well known than the genocide of the Jews.
The postwar communist regimes of Eastern and Central Europe took a different tack, seeking to solve the Gypsy “problem” by absorbing the Roma into the proletariat. In practice, this meant forcibly settling and dispersing Gypsy communities, which sundered community bonds and placed Roma in unfamiliar and often unfriendly environments. It also, however, promoted a degree of integration and stability: under full-employment communism, the newly sedentary Gypsies were guaranteed work in industry or agriculture, even if only at the lowest, least-skilled levels. Some supplemented this work with traditional crafts or semilegal trade, providing otherwise unavailable goods. Some were even able to take advantage of communist promotion of workers, gaining higher education and improving their status.
The fall of communism proved catastrophic for Roma throughout the region. Unprofitable factories and collective farms rapidly closed, leaving them unemployed; Roma rarely benefited from restitution or privatization, as they either had never possessed land or lacked the documents to prove they had. The crafts and trade goods they had once taken risks to supply could now be easily obtained elsewhere. Roma also found themselves competing with their non-Roma neighbors for increasingly scarce welfare benefits.
In this period of wrenching change, ethnic hostilities that had been suppressed under communism reemerged with frightening intensity. In one notorious case in 1993 in the Transylvanian village of Hadareni, following a fight in which an ethnic Romanian was killed, villagers attacked and lynched Roma, burned down their homes, and forced them out of the town. Similar incidents were recorded through the region, from Hungary to Czechoslovakia to Bulgaria. Most occurred with impunity; police sometimes abetted the pogrom-like violence.
According to European stereotypes, Gypsies contribute to their own marginalization, but government neglect ensures they remain in the shadows. Large numbers of Roma throughout Eastern Europe are relegated to ghettos on the edges of cities, where they are denied basic services such as water, electricity, and garbage collection. Schools are often substandard. Because of the pervasive segregation, the majority population is likely only to encounter Roma as beggars, pickpockets, or street cleaners — encounters that only deepen existing prejudices. Government officials and journalists in Eastern Europe frequently share popular stereotypes of Roma as lazy, uneducated, and criminal. A columnist for a major Hungarian paper last year wrote, “A huge number of Gypsies have given up on coexistence and given up on their humanity.”
In the early 1990s, the European Union, together with multiple NGOs, recognized the depths of discrimination faced by Roma in Eastern Europe and began pouring resources into finding solutions. Improvement in the treatment of Roma was made a precondition of Eastern Europe’s entry into the EU club. Even after they joined, Eastern European states have faced pressure from the European Union to continue improvements in the lives of the Roma.
That’s not to say the European Union’s efforts were purely humanitarian: Western Europeans have long been fearful of an influx of Gypsies into their countries. Indeed, when the European Union expanded into Eastern Europe, the Roma, like other Eastern Europeans, were quick to make use of their new rights to travel. Propelled by discrimination and economic hardship, they set their sights on the wealthier regions of Europe — and quickly found that prejudice against Gypsies existed on both sides of the old Iron Curtain. Tens of thousands of Gypsies migrated westward, a fraction of the many Eastern Europeans who did the same. But the Roma produced disproportionate anxiety in their new homes.
In recent years, Roma advocates, foremost among them the European Roma Rights Center in Budapest, Hungary, have initiated legal action on such abuses in Eastern Europe as the failure to prosecute violence against Roma, enforced placement of Roma children into remedial school classes, and discrimination in employment and health care. The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, whose decisions are binding on Council of Europe members, has issued numerous opinions censuring this sort of discriminatory behavior and requiring steps to prevent it, though enforcement has only been intermittent.
That said, European Gypsy populations vary widely, and not all Roma, by far, belong to the underclass. Twenty years of NGO support have produced a pool of educated Roma professionals and an assertive Roma civil society. Roma organizations throughout Europe address the day-to-day problems faced by Roma, advocate for legal and political change, and represent Roma interests at the national and European level. After centuries of enforced victimization, Gypsies now have a hand in shaping their own destiny.
All of which makes the current economic crisis and the subsequent rise of right-wing populist movements, such as those that comprise the newly elected government of Hungary, so tragic: They threaten to reverse many of these hard-fought gains. And it’s in Western Europe that the most damaging reversals might take place, for France’s exploitation of anti-Gypsy sentiment undermines the very legitimacy of EU efforts to curb prejudice in Eastern Europe.
EU officials seem to be aware of the danger. Sarkozy’s populist actions have strengthened Brussels’s resolve on the Roma issue in unprecedented fashion. How Paris responds in the coming weeks might not
only have a lasting effect on the quality of Roma life in Europe, but also on the strength of Europe’s role in the world.
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