A historical depiction of Romani life in Europe by Antoni Kozakiewicz, 1884. Wikimedia. PD.On 7 May 2017, French people elected their new president after a challenging race between the independent pro-capitalist candidate Emmanuel Macron and the far-right candidate and member of the European Parliament Marine Le Pen. As French citizens, Roma nationals may participate in the elections and elect the future president of the Republic according to their preferences and political orientation.
If French citizens enjoy such rights fully, for Roma nationals political rights might be an issue for many reasons. Being part of a specific administrative category called “Travellers” (Gens de voyage), targeted by specific legislation and living in segregated areas, Roma nationals have been isolated for years from the rest of the society; this has had a direct impact on their rights and participation in the political life in France.
What are these communities and what is their place in the French society?
The term “Roma” poses a question to the French legislation, as France does not recognise any ethnic or religious minorities. Art.8 of the Data, Files and Freedom act prohibits the collection and treatment of personal data that shows in any direct or indirect way the ethnic or “racial origin, political, religious or philosophic opinion [...]”.
The lack of disaggregated data means we can’t know the exact number of Roma in France, let alone provide any studies about this population, especially when it comes to access to political rights and participation. However, an estimation of the Romani population living in France might be found by analysing the historical background of this ethnic group, as well as the national legislation targeting these communities.
Royal acts and decrees dating from the sixteenth century provide information about a population called “Bohemians” coming to France at the end of fifteenth century. Since their arrival in France these Roma groups were subject to discriminatory treatment, having consequences on their social, political and economic development.
The marginalisation of these communities significantly increased under the ruling of Louis IV, when male individuals were forced to work in galleries and their children were placed in institutions. It was then that many of the “Bohemians” started to move within the country to escape mistreatment and adopted a nomadic lifestyle.
In 1895 the government produced a census designating 25,000 people as “nomads” travelling in groups in caravans which indirectly refers to Roma communities. This census led to the adoption of a law in 1912 aiming to identify itinerants and track their movements through an anthropometric record card, which facilitated the ethnic profiling of Roma and Gypsies under the category of “nomads” used later by the authorities to intern them in camps as well as to deport some of them to Nazi concentration camps.
Moreover, the circular n° 75 adopted on 27 April 1940 clearly labeled these “nomads” as a “major threat” to National Defence and subjected them to “close police surveillance” by forcing them to live in places indicated by the authorities. Article III of the circular advised authorities to avert gathering the “nomads” in one place in order to prevent the “grouping of bands”. This circular clearly shows that Roma nationals were perceived as a danger to national security and designated as potential enemies of the state in time of war.
After WWII Roma continued to experience institutional racism, which has had a negative impact on their political participation and rights in France. Roma, so-called “nomads”, were kept in internment camps until 1946 where living conditions were not very different to those in concentration camps.
This part of the Roma history in France is still largely unknown by society due to the lack of measures for building collective memory, and an indifference towards the suffering of the Roma community. Bad treatment and institutions’ negligence led to mistrust on the side of these communities towards the French authorities. Only seventy years after the closure of the largest internment camp France was able to recognise the responsibility of the Republic in the interment of the “nomads”, without mentioning Roma holocaust.
Art.8 of the law of 1969 stipulates that the number of Travellers (Gens de voyage) assigned to a municipality must not exceed 3% of its population according to the most recent census.
Three decades after WWII, the term “nomads” was replaced with “Travellers” (Gens de voyage), an administrative category created by the law of 6 July 1969 concerning itinerant professional activities and people living in mobile homes or caravans, targeting the same population as the law of 1912.
It should be noted that although this administrative category does not mention any Roma communities, it is commonly known that Gitans, Manouches, Sinti and Kale are part of this specific category because of their trade activities which require movement within the country, as well as living in caravans which is now commonly accepted as a lifestyle. According to estimations the number of Travellers may vary from 400,000 to 500,000.
People belonging to this administrative category have been subjected to unequal treatment for decades, affecting their social and political rights. The law establishes an obligation for Travellers to be assigned in a municipality as residents in order to access their rights as French citizens.
Nevertheless the art.8 of the law of 1969 stipulates that the number of Travellers (Gens de voyage) assigned to a municipality must not exceed 3% of its population according to the most recent census. Local authorities may refuse to grant township to Travellers when the quota is completed. In this case, Travellers need to refer to another municipality which may in some cases be far from their living place, which creates unique obstacles to their participation during elections.
According to Jérôme Weinhard, part of the legal unit of FNASAT, “this regulation is beneficial for the local authorities in time of voting”. Controlling the number of Travellers in a municipality/department allows to limit the impact that Travellers may have on local elections and local policies.
In practice, the rule of 3% quota limits the voting rights of Travellers as in some cases they need to travel hundreds of kilometres to vote in the municipality to which they are attached. Dispersing these communities in different departments and regions prevent them from strengthening their civil and political rights on local level, as well as from participating actively in the political life in France.
With this 3% quota for hosting Travellers the law seems to follow the same logic as art. III of the circular of 1940: prevent Travellers from assembling in the territory of the one municipality. This rule allows to limit the number and freedom of assembly of a population which has long been perceived as a public enemy. Even if the terms had changed with the time we can see that the same population is intentionally kept out of social and political life on local, regional and national level.
On the other hand, the 3% quota can be explained with the limited capacity of local authorities to provide suitable lands for halting sites for Travellers. However, the so-called Besson law, adopted in 2000, establishes a legal obligation for some municipalities and departments to increase the number of halting sites and improve the living conditions in the current Travellers living places, as well as a two-year deadline for creating halting areas in municipalities where there is not such living space.
A recent report published in 2017 by Abbé Pierre Foundation on substandard housing shows that this “deadline has been regularly modified by the legislator” and Travellers continue to experience lack of places in halting sites, forcing them to move within the country.
In general, the lack of places in halting sites for Travellers might be counterbalanced by buying the so-called “family lands” (terrains familiaux) by Travellers’ families where they can live in their caravans. This may facilitate their participation in political and social life on local level. However, many of the Travellers interviewed in Gien for this article reported experiencing stigmatization and prejudice because of their ethnic origin and lifestyle when they attempt to buy land owned by a private person.
They reported that on many occasions the property deal could not be finalised because the neighbours did not like having Roma in the neighbourhood and often put pressure on the seller, who finally refused to sell his land. Two Gitan women (37 and 51 years) reported feeling disadvantaged because their mailing addresses indicate that they are Travellers.
Thus, Roma nationals may be subjected to direct discrimination based on their living area and indirect discrimination because it is commonly known that Gitans, Manoushes and other Roma communities in France live in caravans and are part of the administrative category “Travellers”.
A halting area for travellers in Gien, taken 3 May 2017. Photo used with permission of Radost Zaharieva.“Baba”, a sixty-year-old community leader and pastor, said they rarely refer to the court to defend their rights and try to find a solution by negotiating with the local authorities through Travellers grassroots NGOs. Once again, this serves as an indication of the profound mistrust harboured by Roma towards officials and legal institutions, putting Roma nationals in a different category.
Forced to move because of lack of places in halting areas, Roma nationals are separated from the municipality to which they are attached, which it is is highly important in time of voting. The French newspaper Le Figaro highlighted the difficulty for Travellers to exercise their right to vote because are sometimes granted township in a municipality “where they have never lived”.
Moreover “getting a voter registration card might be a real challenge for those who do not have a mailing address” according to “Baba”, which is “quite frequent for Travellers when accredited bodies refuse to provide them with a mailing address” required for access to political, civil and economic rights.
In addition, art. 10 of the Law of 7 July 1969 established an obligation for Travellers to prove three years' residency in a municipality to be allowed to vote, compared to six months for any other citizens, a measure which was repealed by the Constitutional Council (Conseil Constitutionnel) in 2012 because of contradiction with the French constitution.
Political orientation of Travellers
Subjected to specific measures and rules for decades, Travellers have been separated from French political life on the national and local levels. Today there is no information about any Roma nationals being part of political parties or being involved in any political movement.
They rarely participate in public meetings organised by municipalities, except meetings between informal community leaders and local authorities’ representatives about a specific issue affecting Travellers or a concrete halting site located in that municipality. Travellers do not participate in public sessions of the Municipal council because of “lack of interest,” according to an informal community leader in Colombes (92th department).
A 19-year-old Traveller man from Colombes, voting for the first time, said he intended to vote for Le Pen, as the independent candidate Macron, “wants to repeal the RSA (revenue de solidarité active)”.
According to Mr Charpentier, a Roma community leader in Drancy acting with the grassroots NGO SOS-Gens de voyage, Roma nationals do not have any political orientation but vote according to the candidate’s program. They escape the common political divide between right and left and vote for the candidate who may improve their situation or at least will not worsen it. This community leader is convinced that Roma nationals are disappointed by the policies implemented by both left and right-wing parties as they have not been able to propose efficient measures to “resolve the high unemployment rate” affecting different categories of the French population, including Travellers.
However Mr. Charpentier claimed they became aware of the challenges presented by the last presidential election and the consequences of electing a far-right candidate. “This is why the Roma communities in Drancy have not abstained from voting. We experience racism every day, so we can imagine the consequences of having a far-right president. Travellers have not voted for the National Front (Front national)” says the community leader, but raises the issue of a lack of knowledge about political life and emphasizes the need for intensive work with Roma nationals to raise awareness about their political rights, voting challenges, but also the role of civil society in that process.
One 65-year-old-man, member of the Traveller community interviewed in Gien, stated that he usually votes for the candidate whose program might affect Travellers in a positive way. He found Macron’s campaign challenging for the community because of his financial plan aiming to reorganise the social security system in France.
At the same time he became aware of the potential danger of the far-right candidate. In this sense old people keeping memories from internment camps seem to understand well the danger of the populism promoted by the Front National in the last presidential election. Interviewed by Al Jazeera, Raymond Gureme, a Romani survivor of the Second World War and French internment camps, alerts society about the danger of giving power to far-right parties. For Gureme, having a far-right president “will lead to a civil war”. “A lot of people don't understand that,” he adds.
Young people, victims of the high unemployment rate in the country, seem to have followed a different logic during the recent election. Unemployed or ambulant traders with low incomes Traveller youth seem to be directly concerned by Macron’s program and its changes in the system of financial assistance and allowances. In this case Le Pen appears to be a “good choice” for young people giving them false hope with a populist message.
A 19-year-old Traveller man from Colombes, voting for the first time, said he intended to vote for Le Pen, as the independent candidate Macron, “wants to repeal the RSA (revenue de solidarité active)”. The young unemployed man, beneficiary of this type of aid, was ready to vote for the far-right candidate because he had not followed the candidates’ campaign and did not have enough information about the strategies proposed by each candidate.
The lack of disaggregated data collection does not allow us to know how many Travellers voted in the presidential elections on 7 May and if they follow the same logic as this young man. Another issue that has risen is the lack of knowledge about the French administrative system and Travellers’ rights, in particular. Johana, a Roma woman living on a halting site in Montreuil said she was able to get her voter registration card and could vote because she knew about the impact of the Constitutional council’s decision about the Travellers’ vote and she was informed about the documents required for making a formal request for her card. Johana said she had got this information by employees in the city hall of Montreuil and she was able to provide the requested documents.
She decided to keep secret her preferred candidate in the second round, but said she had voted according to the candidate’s program which seems to be more beneficial for the Travellers. This 37-year-old woman stated that only a few inhabitants of her halting area were able to get their voter registration cards because some of them did not know that they needed to make a formal request for them. This confusion was observed also in Colombes, where another Traveller woman said she couldn’t vote because “she did not have a voter registration card” and she did not know how to get it.
Being isolated for years from other citizens, Roma nationals still cannot find their place in mainstream society in France and become an integral part of French political life. Lack of knowledge about the political parties and candidates in the presidential elections is still observed in 2017. Living in halting areas isolated from other citizens, often far from French neighbourhoods, Travellers have limited social contacts with other populations.
In the beginning of 2017 a new legislation was adopted abrogating the law of 6 July 1969. As a consequence the law n° 2017-86 relative on equality and citizenship makes significant changes in the administrative situation of Travellers. This law repeals the “Travellers booklet” and gives them more freedom by removing the discriminatory obligation to present themselves at a Police office at least once per year. According Stéfano Réga, legal officer working for Travellers’ grassroots organisation ASAV this law is a step forward for Travellers to access their rights as any other French citizens.
However, this new legislation does not bring any significant changes to facilitate the inclusion of Travellers in the French society, nor does it challenge the stereotypical perception of Roma communities, still kept on the bottom of the social ladder.