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Who Are Gypsies, and Why Is France Deporting Them?

4 minute read
Claire Suddath

It’s like something out of a bad Cher song. French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative government continued its planned deportation of 700 Roma — otherwise known as Gypsies — on Aug. 26 by sending two additional airplanes full of them back to Romania. Police have been dismantling Roma camps and offering 300 euros ($382) to anyone willing to leave voluntarily. French polls show that the nation is divided by the expulsion tactics, while both human rights groups and religious leaders, including Pope Benedict XVI, have spoken out against the move. But who are these Gypsies? And why does everyone seem to hate them?

(Read “Anger as Sarkozy Targets Roma in Crime Crackdown.”)

The term Gypsy is short for Egyptian, although ethnically, Gypsies actually originally came from India. They left their homeland sometime during the 11th century, probably as a result of Muslim invasions, and have never returned. By the 14th century, they’d entered Eastern Europe, whose residents somehow got the impression that they came from Egypt (hence the nickname). Although they rarely show up on official censuses, today’s Gypsy population is estimated to be between 2 million and 5 million. Most of them live in Slavic-speaking countries such as the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Romania. Yet despite centuries of Gypsy presence, Europe has never accepted this oft nomadic ethnic group and has enacted systematic purges of varying severity since they first arrived on the continent. Evidence of discrimination can be found just by looking at our language: when we cheat someone out of money, we “gyp” them. Gypsy moths are parasitic, and gypsy cabs operate illegally. And though many Roma still use the slang term — Britain’s Gypsy Council is a self-organized association of so-called travelers — others regard gypsy as an insult despite its wide use and prefer Roma, or sometimes Romani.

Because Gypsies bounced around from country to country, they found it difficult to build permanent settlements or find jobs. So they traveled in caravans and made livings as entertainers and seasonal workers and by selling merchandise from faraway lands. Some of them told fortunes. Gypsies are also very good dancers; they developed the flamenco. Over the years, the itinerant lifestyle came to be part of the Gypsy culture, and though it is easy to romanticize (camaraderie! freedom! hoop earrings!), the true Gypsy experience is one of poverty, distrust and the ever nagging feeling of not belonging. Their continued persecution fostered a strong us.-vs.-them mentality, and they have strict laws against marrying “gadje” (nongypsies).

European laws against Gypsies can be traced back to the early 1400s, when cities such as Lucerne in Switzerland and Freiburg in Germany began systematically removing them. Gypsies have endured almost every form of discrimination. During World War II, Nazis murdered roughly 400,000 Gypsies alongside Jews, homosexuals and other minorities. Some were rounded up and shot in their own villages, while others were shipped off to concentration camps.

While relations between France and its Roma population have always been tense — last year, 10,000 Roma were shipped “home” to Romania and Bulgaria, according to the French government — this recent crackdown comes on the heels of a July 16 scuffle in which 22-year-old Luigi Duquenet, a Gypsy, was shot by police after he drove through a roadblock and allegedly hit an officer. Duquenet’s death sparked a small riot in the town of Saint-Aignan, which in turn prompted a government spokesman to call Gypsies “sources of illegal trafficking, of profoundly shocking living standards, of exploitation of children for begging, of prostitution and crime.” On July 28, Sarkozy announced that Roma encampments would be dismantled and their inhabitants “systematically evacuated.”

Aside from drawing allegations of racism and bigotry, Sarkozy’s actions border on the illegal: most of France’s Gypsies arrived by way of Romania or Bulgaria, both of which are now members of the European Union. E.U. citizens are allowed to move freely through other E.U. countries, although French law limits their stay to three months unless they find employment. And while it’s true that most Gypsies are in the country unlawfully, France can’t prove that it’s expelling the right people unless it checks the paperwork of every single person it deports. The Aug. 26 exodus brings the number of Roma kicked out of France this year to 8,300 (80% of whom took the 300 euros and left voluntarily). Of course, many of them will probably come right back.

See pictures of immigration in Europe.

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