The Background of the “Roma Issue” in France and Europe

As a people, a nation, or a transnational minority they embody destitution, exclusion, and are the face of those who were never able or willing to integrate. In debates and programs over the last twenty years, the European institutions, the states, and NGO’s have puzzled over the question of how “the Roma” could be integrated into the social majority. The dominant essentialist view has led to the across-the-board categorization of these family groups as eternal victims or culprits. But the reality is that fortunately the Roma societies are far more complex. In the Balkan countries, as in other places, the Roma are represented at all levels of society, also among the artists and intellectuals. Not all Roma in the Balkans are poor, and not all the poor in these countries are Roma.
Nevertheless, the Roma seem to be predestined, more than any other minority, to be the victims of exclusion and destitution. These conditions, which are easy to observe and certainly very real for those persons affected, who experience them on a daily basis, are supposedly the consequence of a way of life that is outmoded. Gypsy life, as attractive as it may be with its big celebrations, virtuosic musicians, and exotic dances, supposedly contains not only the genius, but also the tragedy, of a whole people, which thus condemns itself to a pariah existence.

But if some of the Roma in the Balkans live under extremely precarious circumstances, the causes do not necessarily lie in the fabrications of various cultural traditions, but rather in the upheavals by which the region is marked in the present day. The Roma of Kosovo, who during the time of the former Yugoslavia sometimes had excellent work opportunities, were treated like forgotten step-children by the international community when it came to the conflicts around independence. The concentration on the Kosovo Serbs and Albanians forced the Roma who lived there into exile, to Serbia, Macedonia, and Germany. As for Romania, the slums and squats that have emerged on the outskirts of Italian and French metropolises are not the result of traditional nomadism but rather of abrupt political and economic changes. The liquidation of the state agricultural cooperatives after the end of communism left many Roma who lived off of the land without work or income. In contrast to their Romanian neighbors, the majority of them were excluded from the redistribution of land. As a reaction to this situation, or just to “adapt,” a small minority of them – about ten percent – decided to emigrate to Western Europe, where depending on the various immigration laws they settled in temporary housing, squats, or sublets.
The arrival of these migrants seems to have prompted the European Union and the European Council to formulate guidelines for the “inclusion” of the Roma, to be followed by the member states. Behind the official statement of the intent to secure equal rights for this admittedly very special minority, there was a quite obvious objective to sedentarize these population groups in order to prevent their supposedly natural tendency to flood all of Western Europe. The individual countries, above all the Eastern European ones, committed themselves to fighting the discrimination against the Roma and to provide for local “inclusion.” Even as these measures to some degree showed progress, in the end they served the goal of keeping the Roma in their countries of origin. They should stay home, to prevent them from coming to us in masses. When Romania and Bulgaria became members of the European Union in 2007, these policies then conflicted with the principle of freedom of movement; this principle was therefore redefined through certain limitations. The main Western European countries extended the transitional period, which limits access to the job market, for the immigrants from both of these countries to the seven-year maximum stipulated by the EU. The Netherlands, Great Britain, and Germany even appealed, though without success, to the Commission for a lengthening of this maximum period. For a comparison: in the previous EU expansion phase, which pertained to ten countries, and thus a far greater number of workers, these measures – in spite of all the propaganda, especially in France where the fear of the “Polish plumber” was encouraged – were used in the Western European countries for no longer than two years at the most.
In France, the Romanian Roma (who comprised the majority of the Roma who migrated after 1990) served as political alibis for an artificial restoration of state authority, whenever it was called into question. In my research, I noticed that during the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, whenever the media criticized the failure of the police in the fight against narcotic trafficking, the Roma issue would be brought up, together with unverifiable statistics on the delinquency of Romanians in the region of Paris.[1] These population groups were also subjected to special administrative measures in accordance with a certain official terminology. The most recent example, this time occasioned by the socialist government, is the circular released on August 26, 2012, which designated the temporary housing for poor Eastern Europeans – of which the majority but by no means all are Roma – as “illegal camps,” thus explicitly linking them to nomadism and marginality. Such ideas are reflected in administrative actions that make sure that these groups are constantly being resettled and in this way receive no health care or social services. These policies, which have become harsher under the current administration (the Left), contradict the principle of mandatory schooling, which after all is a basic right. According to a study by the Collectif Romeurope,[2] of the school age Roma children living in France not even half are registered in school. The main reason is not that the parents are against it, but that many communities, regardless of their political bent, refuse to allow the registration of these children in order to prevent the permanent settlement of Roma in their towns.

The stance of French society toward Roma migrants rests on the belief that the Roma culture is a hindrance to any degree of “integration.” But what do we really know about the development of this migration in France?
The first Roma, who came between 1990 and 2000 from the Banat or Transylvania, assimilated relatively well. Through the arrival of less qualified Roma from less developed regions, this group started to become more visible. Since the latter did not find work, they fell back upon occupations such as selling flowers, begging, and so on. Because of the lack of access to the regular or illegal job market and to housing, middlemen were able to make money by renting out space on property which they did not even own, by loaning money at extortionist interest rates, and so forth. Cases of exploitation of women and children occurred among the Roma and non-Roma alike. The Roma’s “integration” problems are less due to their supposed cultural fate as “wandering gypsies” that damns them to remain forever the pariahs of society, than to the bureaucratic difficulties of becoming assimilated into the job and housing market. Indeed, in Spain, which took up over 60,000 Roma (three times as many as France), there were neither housing barracks nor political vote catching at the cost of these population groups. The reason for this lies in a bilateral agreement with Romania after 1996 that gave Spanish employers, especially in the agricultural sector, the possibility to hire Romanian workers seasonally. Out of this seasonal shuttle there gradually evolved medium-term businesses, but unlike in France the majority of the persons involved were already assimilated in the job market. These less educated workers thus were not noticeable as a particular problem group.

Instead of searching for imagined cultural grounds for the problems, it would be better if we asked ourselves: why is the “Roma issue” cropping up again right now? Apart from the economic and social difficulties that a part of this minority is confronted with, the Roma have involuntarily become an indicator for more deep-seated problems that affect the countries of Europe.
Does the fact that in the Balkan countries it is almost impossible for Roma to receive treatment in the public hospitals have to do with their rejection? Is this not far more an advance warning of the privatization of health care for this society in general? The same applies to the educational system – the discrimination of the Roma in almost all of Europe leads to questions here as well. Is this not an expression of the need for a scapegoat in order to distract from political failures in respect to the lower classes? Does it reflect an ever more massive rejection of the idea of a multi-ethnic society?
If we want to together determine the future of our society, then we will have to shatter the mirror of the Roma issue.

[1] These statistics referred to complaints, not to convictions. It is also impossible to know how high the number of repeated crimes is, whether these were cases of serial offenses or single-time offensive that were committed by different people.
[2] Accessible at