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Ethnic Discrimination: they dared to do it!

category france / belgium / luxemburg | migration / racism | news report author Wednesday September 29, 2010 06:13author by Alternative libertaire - Alternative libertaire (France) Report this post to the editors

This summer, Sarkozy and his guard-dogs are picking on the Roma and Gypsy communities, taking very smelly shortcuts to do so, and heap yet more abuse on a population that has undergone every persecution in History.

Ethnic Discrimination: they dared to do it!

To avoid falling in the usual trap of confusion Sarkozy & Co have sprung to mix up the French public opinion, let us stick to the question of the "Travelling people" (1), the French administrative term, and leave out, for the while being the Roma (see Glossary below). The two issues are actually completely different. In the first case – the Travellers – the question is that of a social, economic, and cultural discrimination. The second case – the Eastern Roma, though obviously faced with the same discriminations – closer to the problem of the "paperless workers" as it occurs in France.

A history of State stigmatisation

The Travellers in France are the result of a discriminatory regulation that hails back to the 19th century, barely reformed in the ’70s. At the beginning of the last century Clémenceau decided to create an anthropometric passport presenting the anthropometric – therefore racial – features of its holder. These passports were destined to the nomads and Travellers, to be stamped in every town they happened to cross. They enabled the creation of a huge databank making it all the easier, during the Vichy government to launch systematic arrests among the Gypsy population. Several such passports already existed, discriminating not only racially, but also socially: the lower the social status, the more debasing and disqualifying the type of passport. In this manner, a travelling merchant or a fairground worker detained a different document than a « simple nomad », the nature of whose economic resources were more difficult to grasp. Nomads were peddlers, seasonal workers, ill-identified petty craftsmen (wicker-workers and basket- makers), artists… In the ‘60s, ethnologists had described some 150 different trades and crafts among the "Gypsy" population.

In 1969, the anthropometric passport is abolished, but the new legislation is still discriminating, more essentially on social criteria this time. But when you are familiar with Travellers’ economic usages, you cannot fail to see that all of France’s social classes are represented. But these passports, depending on status, are still more or less constraining and disqualifying. The "Traveller’s" pass, still needs to be validated every 3 months. So they are still considered as second-rank citizens, set apart, and closer to the way teh law considers the homeless people.

The major part of the Travellers’ economy is made up of micro-trades – small handicrafts, seasonal jobs, part-time, and precarious workers, or more aptly put : “flexible” workers. What brings Travellers and many working class people in France is precisely this flexibility, this capacity to "make do", multiple activities covered in the run of a year (stringing construction-work, with neighbourhood services, flea markets…)

Travellers as flexible workers

The Travellers’ community is the one that demonstrates the problem of flexibility in the most precise way, echoing all the other “flexible work” situations in France. An example: a family of Traveller is working the country markets in the summer, will finish the season by working in the vineyards and will winter it out on its favourite territory to connect with its usual markets and customers. Economically, their strength is in the possibility to rely on a very wide family solidarity : to buy the newly-weds’ trailer or car, uncles, cousins and brothers will all put their hand to their pocket. Somebody’s car is broken down? Everybody collects what they have to get it repaired… in this society in a crisis, what upsets finger-pointers the most finally, is the Travellers’ capacity to adapt thanks to massive solidarity, a notion that has become so scarce indeed among the "Gadjé", that they can barely imagine how it works in practice.

However, a small part of the Travellers sometimes fall victim to a double exclusion, excluded from family ties, and from the mainstream society’s social systems, taken up in underground economy and cornered by the law, taken in a vicious circle, nourishing such a feeling of humiliation that it discourages any will to "get out of it", these groups of people – a minority – tend to feed the negative image of the “Gypsy” as a delinquent.

Travellers are usually less fashionable among militants than the Roma. Yet, as Sarkozy has recently reminded us, they continue to be considered as the village witch, the one the village is going to burn so the community’s problems will disappear. The Prefects this summer have received strange charts to fill in. These flowcharts present two ranks: Roma and Travellers, and two columns: legally stationed, illegally stationed. This type of reporting is multiplying these days. Without any attention to detail and specifics, the scapegoat is designated. Sarko and Hortefeux (Minister of Interior – Police), his thirty-year buddy, forsake any complex sociological consideration, the better to construct the social representation of an easy-to-stigmatise community. Easier still considering how widely minds share the negative prejudice against Gypsies.

A dignity to be respected

All the politicians and associations that have expressed themselves on the occasion of this June’s infamous declarations have rightfully pointed out the merging of a racially-based neo-fascism (today one would say “ethnically”- or community”- based). But contrary to the ‘40s Travellers today have organisations, intellectuals, representatives, and have learned to defend themselves. European law makes it mandatory for municipalities to have grounds fit for welcoming travellers, only 30% of French Mayors respect this. All the rest are therefore outside the law. What is the State waiting for to apply sanctions ?

The order of priority is therefore : firstly to force municipalities to welcome Travellers under decent and humane conditions. Second, to abolish the circulation passport. Finally, to conduct a deeper reflection on what brings all flexible/precarious workers toether on the question of the dignity of their social status: Travellers, paperless, sedentary… all alike.

The Gadjo

1. "Travellers" in French translates by “the people of the Voyage”: gens du voyage, and is the legal expression under which the various communities and tribes of the Gypsy people, with the addition of other professionally migrant trades (fair-workers) come, regardless of their cultural differences (see below).


Hungarian, Gypsies, Tsiganes: a generic term attributed to all Romani populations, by the "Gadjé".
Roma, Romani: population originating from India, that took off on the roads in the 9th century for unknown reasons. They arrive in Europe during the 12th century and in France during the 15th. The Roma from middle and Eastern Europe join the masses of paperless that live in misery for the majority. Regularly enduring forced returns to their home countries, numbers among them undergo persecutions, violences,even pogroms in their respective countries (Hungary, Romania, and the countries of Ex-Yugoslavia).
Gadjé: All non-Roma, or non-Gypsy.
Manush: of Roma origin, this autonym (self designation), to distinguish among the various cultures inside the Romani family. Manush are present in France, Belgium, Germany.
Sinti: another autonym. Mostly present in Italy. The Manush consider themselves very close to the Sinti.
Gitans (Spanish gypsies: autonym). Mostly present in Spain and the south of France. Their customs are different from the Manush (marriage for example).
Yenish: Not of Roma origin. Essentially present in the East of France and sprung from a Gemanic migration.

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