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.

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

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.

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."

Coco's other worry is Chinese goods: "My margin of profit is smaller. I used to have a 2-to-3-euro profit on sales; now it is 1 euro. We used to buy from the Jews, but now everything comes from Taiwan and China.... Who can compete?"

Battling with the state

The crackdown mainly targets Romanian and Bulgarian Gypsies, who often dwell in slums. But the palace declarations associated all Gypsies with a crime crackdown. Gypsy leaders admit petty-crime problems, but are infuriated by attempts to characterize the community as criminal.

One underlying issue is a new strategy by the travelers to move in larger numbers. Gypsies used to move in small groups, and were easily controlled by police. The Gypsy response now is to show up in larger caravans to spaces they've scouted, settle quickly, and negotiate terms to stay, usually for three to eight months. This creates strains with local police and landowners.

By law, Gypsies must apply for permission to stay on land. But also by law, local townships must give them space. While 42,000 plots were promised by the state, only 13,000 exist.

Desire Veermersch, a Protestant Gypsy leader, told the Monitor that towns ignore the law, even as more camps are shut by police. "We decided to play by the rules," he says. "We sent 900 letters with copies to the Home Ministry, and we received only 15 positive replies. We found that not only do most French municipalities not comply with the law requiring towns of more than 5,000 persons to participate in setting up campsites with water, electricity, and garbage collection, but even towns that will comply do not respond to our written requests."

'A Gypsy with a computer?'

Now, new pressure is roiling a people who are, in fact, French citizens: "The mayor of one town pays the mayor of the next town to take us," Lambert says. "That mayor then contacts the mayor of the next town over. It goes like that. So we never get the approval."

Everywhere are forces of assimilation and modernity. Women now have washing machines. Children don't learn the Romany language, and the idea of walking to towns or local farms for milk, or foraging for firewood, once a duty of youth, is unthinkable. Intermarriage among the four main Gypsy sects, once frowned upon, or with "sedentary people," is common. Among the 400,000 French Gypsies, a third now own land – and French law prohibits the parking of trailer caravans at homes. Increasingly, the community gravitates toward cities as farm jobs disappear.

The cellphone is now indispensable in a community that used to gather across France at selected cafes at 2 p.m. to use the public phone.

"Look at me," says Lambert. "Whoever heard of a Gypsy with a computer? The problem is that by the time today's 18-year-olds are grandparents, there may be no community. Secretly, many of us don't want our own lands, because this means we stay traveling."

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