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France presses Gypsies to settle down

The traditional life of Gypsies in France is under assault amid a law-and-order push and pressure to stop traveling.

By Staff writer / August 12, 2010

The French government has increased pressure on Gypsies like those occupying this illegal camp near Nantes.

Stephane Mahe/Reuters



Traditional Gypsy life – on the road, traveling by caravan from camp to camp, settling by a river for a month – has always kept the group on the far margins of society. Most Gypsies prefer it that way. There is a Gypsy spirit – a deep satisfaction in picking up, moving, living by one's wits day to day.

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Yet legal and economic pressures in Europe are fast eroding the margins that Gypsies have relied on. Leaders of the centuries-old community worry they may have no next generation, at least not in France.

The point is highlighted by a law-and-order push in France targeting Gypsies, often called Roma elsewhere but here termed "traveling people." President Nicolas Sarkozy's explicit linking of Gypsies and crime in July chilled a group publicly stigmatized as tramps and thieves and where memories of roundups and extermination in the Nazi era persist.

"It is getting more difficult for us to travel," says Michel Lambert, the beefy and talkative vice president of a Gypsy association in the Paris suburb of Aubervilliers. "It's something we all worry about. We all discuss it. If we are forced to settle, how will we meet each other? We will be isolated. We already feel this."

'I'm from everywhere'

Mr. Lambert lives in a small camp of a dozen trailers wedged near a town dump that is home to 50 members of his extended family. His office sports a computer, two printers, a fax machine, and an air conditioner. Along one wall is a bank of open plastic files for 600 "clients." It's a post office for Gypsies. His clients pay 30 euros a year for holding mail and for help with social welfare and land mediation.

In another trailer Lambert has a flat-screen TV. "People assume the TV is stolen. It cost me 490 euros that I paid monthly for 10 months. But if you are a Gypsy, no one believes that."

As Lambert talks, a traveler named Coco comes in. Coco is here for his mail. But the first topic is the police crackdown. Coco, dark and of small frame, trades textiles. Thumbing his coat, he offers, "I'm afraid the government will create laws that will prevent our way of life." He now lives near Marseilles in the south. Where is he from? "It is impossible to answer this," he says. "I'm from everywhere."