The Roma’s Dilemma in France

Two Roma boys posing for a documentary filmmaker. 2010. (Marc Swenker/Wikimedia Commons).

With the value of the euro at a 12-year low, Europe’s immigration issues are in the spotlight as tourists flock there to take advantage of the cheap currency. While visitors expect to see the famous buildings, historical plazas and pretty canals, they may not expect to see dilapidated shantytowns lining the roads from the airport, or masses of impoverished immigrants on Europe’s cobblestone streets. While managing migrants is a Europe-wide challenge, nowhere is the immigration issue more evident than in France, where the accession of new member states into the EU has put the country face-to-face with the “Roma problem.”

Exercising their right to free movement, migratory Roma (often called gypsies) are motivated to move to France and other Western member states by the extreme poverty they face in their home countries, largely Romania and Bulgaria. But Roma in France suffer from a disproportionately high rate of poverty, and are often forced to live in shantytowns without running water, heat or electricity. Additionally, many Roma resort to begging due to a lack of education and poor French, only to face charges under the French law claiming “exploitation of begging and illegal land occupation” as grounds for deportation, even of EU citizens.

And while many of the migratory Roma’s children are born in France, they too suffer from social stigmatization and consequently encounter challenges such as enrolling in and attending school, learning French, and gaining the skills and knowledge needed to become productive French citizens.

As is, the Roma face considerable challenges, but France’s 1978 data collection law complicates the matter further. The law states in Article 8 that it is illegal to collect data of any kind that reveals the “racial or ethnic origins… of persons.” Though meant to protect against the discrimination of certain groups, in this case it has had the opposite effect, allowing for the continued stigmatization of the Roma.

Article 8 of this law makes it illegal to collect data that would classify the Roma as Roma—even if collected in an effort to help alleviate their suffering. For example, when NGOs try to implement solutions to the immigration problem, they are unable to properly classify the Roma as an ethnic group, leading to an inability to present policy proposals aimed specifically towards them.

This is, however, an ethnic problem – whether legally dubbed one or not – divided along cultural lines and filled with racist undertones. A report by the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) lists instances of violence by French against the Roma, including an instance where perpetrators beat a 17-year-old Roma boy to unconsciousness, stuffed him into a shopping trolley and left him on the roadside. While this is one of the most extreme examples, an estimated one in five Roma in the EU has experienced racist violence (French-specific numbers are not available because unlike anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim hate crimes, crimes against Roma are not kept as “disaggregated data”). The ERRC report also includes instances of public hate speech against the Roma, many voiced by well-known and popular politicians. But perhaps France’s most infamous treatment of the Roma is the practice of forced evictions.

Systematic forced evictions, or the illegal removal of individuals without notice or provisions of alternate housing options, were at the center of former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2010 media scandal. Sarkozy targeted migrant camps, calling them “sources of illegal trafficking, of profoundly shocking living standards, of exploitation of children for begging, of prostitution and crime.” And while his defense rested on the notion that the evictions did not specifically target Roma, they nonetheless resulted in an estimated removal of tens of thousands of Roma from France. But while many blame Sarkozy for France’s bad press in regards to immigration, President Francois Hollande (who in 2012 pledged to move away from Sarkozy’s strict policies) continues to reinforce eviction practices today. The same ERRC report estimates that an average of three Roma slums are evicted each week, totaling in 2014 to 13,483 Roma forced to leave their dwellings, many deported shortly after.  

The EU has recognized this illegal practice – prohibited under the EU’s human rights laws to which France agreed to follow – as blatant discrimination, condemned as such by Viviane Reding, Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship. In a press briefing, she spoke of the illegality of the French eviction policies, calling them an outright “disgrace”:

I personally have been appalled by a situation which gave the impression that people are being removed from a Member State of the European Union just because they belong to a certain ethnic minority. This is a situation I had thought Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War.

So herein lies the dilemma: France’s law prohibits the singling out of groups based on ethnicity and race in the effort to combat discrimination. However the eviction policies of the past five years provide clear evidence that discrimination against the Roma occurs nonetheless. But to stop that discrimination, groups cannot create or advocate policy aimed at specifically helping the Roma. So what are they left to do?

France should be motivated to improve conditions for the Roma, pressured by the EU’s call for the country to better commit itself to the Community’s integration initiatives—not to mention the nearly 16 billion euros allocated from the EU to the nation partially for that purpose. France is also surrounded by other EU member states that have found better solutions to the “Roma problem.” From Roma political participation in Macedonia, to perhaps the most well-known case of Spain and its successes in integrating the Roma through education and access to social services, EU countries are leaving the once progressive France far behind.

Maybe the greatest hope for integration comes from the shifting attitudes of French citizens in regards to the Roma. The 2008 Eurobarometer report that provides statistical data about the perceived levels of discrimination in EU countries reveals that 48% of French people would be comfortable having Roma as neighbors. The 2012 report says that 55% of the French are critical of the effectiveness of the government’s Roma integration policies, 91% acknowledge that Roma are at risk of discrimination and 59% believe that Roma integration would benefit society overall.

Nevertheless, these hopes have yet to be met with any effective action, and the Roma face continued stigmatization in France. Even though NGOs want to help the Roma – and increasingly more and more French citizens too – France’s data collection law prevents any collective action that intends to benefit this specific ethnic group. So until France embraces more integrative measures, tourists will continue to bear witness to Europe’s pressing immigration challenge.  

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff, editors, or governors.


Jamie Kwong

Jamie Kwong is an International Relations major at the University of Southern California. In 2015, she studied France’s role in the EU at the American University of Paris while conducting field research on French immigration, climate change and business. In addition to pursuing these studies, she is a research assistant to Patrick James on his Near Crises in World Politics project. Jamie’s other areas of interest include US-China relations, European Security and Foreign Policy, and Sino-French relations in the former French West Africa. At USC, she received the First Year Experience Award in recognition of her active leadership as president of the Alpha Lambda Delta Honors Society, Executive Vice President of the Panhellenic Council, co-founder and vice president of Hapa SC and director of membership events of Society 53. Jamie joined Glimpse from the Globe as assistant editor in May 2015.