The Roma rights dilemma of the French left

On the Roma issue, the French left must choose: whether to align itself with the forces of progress to combat anti-Roma racism and exclusion; or persist with evictions and expulsions, and find itself bedded down with Europe’s forces of reactionary populism.

The ‘Sarkozy approach’ - dawn raids and demolition of Roma camps followed by swift and summary ‘voluntary returns’ to the countries of origin - has been adopted enthusiastically in a distasteful display of bipartisanship by France’s governing left. This course of action may scupper the fragile consensus built around the EU Framework for Roma integration. The French government attempted to stem the summer tide of bad publicity and criticism concerning its treatment of Roma with promises to consider easing employment restrictions, pledging that it would seek court orders for all camp clearances, and requesting that the Cyprus EU presidency put the question of Roma inclusion on the agenda of the October European summit.

Then, just days later, as if to confound such assurances, in a dawn raid that pre-empted a court hearing by 24 hours, police moved in to evacuate and dismantle a Roma camp in the suburb of Evry, south of Paris. This pre-emptive strike was backed by Interior Minister, and former mayor of Evry, Manuel Valls, and followed the next day by similar action by police in Lyon.

France's interior minister Manuel Valls. Flickr/Parti socialiste. Some rights reserved.France's interior minister Manuel Valls. Flickr/Parti socialiste. Some rights reserved.

It is profoundly dispiriting that the pattern, initiated by Sarkozy, of dawn raids and demolition of Roma camps followed by swift and summary voluntary returns to the countries of origin, has been adopted with such enthusiasm by France’s governing left. It is clear that the populist political imperative to get tough on immigration in general, and Roma immigrants in particular, takes precedence over any deliberations about what might make for a sustainable and humane policy on managing the migration of the European Union’s most disenfranchised and impoverished citizens. There is a danger that Valls, who claims to be acting “not just as interior minister, but as a citizen, as a militant member of the left” and consumed with the desire for a quick populist fix, becomes blinded to the obvious: short-term coercive responses make no long-term sense; exclusion is costly and counter-productive.

When Valls visits Romania and Bulgaria later this year, he may encounter the levels of racism and deprivation that drives much of this migration. For in addition to entrenched discrimination, Roma also face constant torrents of hate speech and violence that range from vigilante excesses to wanton bloody murder. What is especially troubling is the indifference and ambivalence of the majority towards Roma victims of hate crime. Worse still, acts of violence often prompt open support from sections of the wider public for those who would mete out rough and ready “justice” and inflict collective punishment on Roma. France, the country whose revolution is seen as the founding moment for modern politics, proclaimed ad nauseam as the country of Droits de l'Homme in the abstract, seems to experience continuing difficulty in dealing with the rights of actual individual men, women and children in the 21st Century.

It must be discomfiting for the inheritors of the proud Republican tradition in France to know that their actions will be applauded by the likes of Hungary’s neo-Nazi Jobbik party and its paramilitary fellow-travellers. Following two violent displays of force and intimidation in August by neo-Nazi groups targeting Roma inhabitants in the Hungarian towns of Devecser and Cegléd, at a far-right rally in Budapest to celebrate the founding of the Hungarian Guard, Jobbik leader Gabor Vona declared: “We need to roll back these hundreds of thousands of Roma outlaws. We must show zero tolerance towards Roma crime and parasitism.” He declared that any Roma who did not conform should leave the country.

It is not just that the far-right will take succour from the actions taken by the honourable militant member of the French left, but there is another danger that actions taken by Valls will scupper the fragile consensus forged by the EU Framework for Roma integration. For if France is seen to take the lead in favouring robust and punitive action against Roma; if the prevailing image emanating from France is rows of policemen armed with batons and shields facing down groups of wide-eyed children and bewildered adults, their meagre possessions piled and strewn on the pavement, there is a real danger that other EU Member States may take this as a signal to heed and to follow what appears to be the bi-partisan French method.

The French left, now in government rather than opposition, faces a choice. It may choose to side with the forces of reaction and ignore last week’s UN appeal to seek solutions “that conform with human rights standards.” Alternatively it could realign itself with the forces of progress at home and abroad, halt camp clearances, and work with the European Commission to provide added and needed substance to the EU Framework for Roma Integration. Putting the question of Roma inclusion high on the agenda of the forthcoming EU summit would be a welcome first step. 

The submission by all 27 member states of National Roma Integration Strategies to the European Commission earlier this year was described somewhat optimistically in May by Vivien Reding as a demonstration of “the strong political will to tackle the challenges of Roma integration.” Precious little of that political will is in evidence. For the most part the strategies were feeble. There’s much practical work to be done to improve and move such strategies from the realm of vague intent to concrete implementation that will bring tangible benefits to Roma; and much to be done to combat the pervasive discrimination and virulent anti-Gypsyism that impedes integration. On current form, there is a real danger that the EU Framework will founder. The October EU Summit is an opportunity for the French government to change tack, and throw its full and formidable weight behind EU efforts to accelerate coordinated actions to eliminate the poverty and desperation that drives so many Roma to migration, and to combat the prejudice that blights the lives of millions of Roma citizens across Europe.

Let it not be a lost opportunity.

About the author

Bernard Rorke is international research and advocacy director for the Open Society Roma Initiatives. He has worked on Roma issues with the Open Society Foundations since 1998. He currently teaches the “Roma Rights” course at the Central European University in Budapest. He is a regular contributor and commentator on Roma issues. His posts on Open Society Voices can be read here.