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In France, an Evangelical Gypsy group shakes up the immigration debate

In France, a movement from within the Gypsy community could temper what have been bad relations with European governments amid a hot immigration debate.

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“These Gypsies created an organization with spokesmen.... They speak with [the] authorities, something new in France,” says Marie Bidet, a former Interior Ministry employee whose doctoral thesis is on Gypsy-state relations. “They are serious, respectable; they vote, they don’t want to burn cars, they want everyone living in peace. That’s opposite from the traditional image … it can be underlined that they succeed in their approach.”

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There's a difference between French Gypsies and Roma

French Gypsies are known here as “travelers,” whereas Gypsies targeted for deportation come mainly from Romania and Bulgaria, and are known as “Roma.” Gypsy leaders and others critical of the policy, say the crackdowns on Roma tend to amalgamate them into a single negative public image. Last year France quietly deported more than 7,000 Gypsies. But this summer’s roundup of more than 8,000 were part of a get-tough-on-crime media campaign by the French government.

At the Chaumont gathering, deportation talk takes second fiddle to faith-talk. It is rare in secular France to hear open discussion of spiritual belief. But Gypsies are frank about why they gather: “Our faith unites us. What God has put in our heart – that’s why we are here. We are here to share experiences,” says Tino, a small tank of a man who wears a suit and open pink shirt as he tends a barbecue. His comments were repeated often.

Most believers speak in rich detail about being “touched” – how they went from a “bad” life of unbelief or woe into a new life they attribute to an active Holy Spirit. They quote the Bible avidly, and speak of healings or “cures” they have seen. A few “churches on wheels” in the 1960s have grown to some 240 fixed churches today. “I have four uncles, and each is pastor of our church for two months,” said a volunteer. “We are on the road the rest of the time.”

“Most Gypsies have a hard life, stealing, family problems. The Gospel has changed the mentality of many Gypsies,” says Rene Zanellato, a prominent prayer leader here who speaks six languages and led Gypsy missions in Russia. “The idea of 26,000 Gypsies coming together in peace and order used to be a dream. There was fighting and drugs … it was inconceivable to get together without problems.”

Much of “Light and Life” centers on family. The “caravans” sport satellite TV and computers. Gypsy women still cook stews of hens or hedgehogs, a Gypsy delicacy. “But we also like McDonald’s,” says a smiling matron. Indeed, the evangelical caravans regularly accept among them nonbelievers, Gypsies who are ambiguous about their belief, but travel along because they feel safe and there are programs to educate not only kids, but adults, according to Ms. Bidet.

'We are more French than Sarkozy'

French Gypsy leaders in Chaumont are “disappointed” in Sarkozy’s policy, implemented by interior minister Brice Hortefeux. In July, Mr. Sarkozy cracked down on some 128 foreign camps – home to 15,000 Gypsies from Romania and Bulgaria – after a riot spurred by the shooting of a young French Gypsy, not a foreign born Roma.