France and the Gypsies, Then and Now

Many commentators and activists have reacted with fury to the French government’s expulsion of hundreds of Roma, or Gypsies, to Bulgaria and Romania. Many critics liken these expulsions to the deportations of Jews organized by France’s Vichy regime during World War II. It’s hard to know what is more outrageous: the policies practiced by President Nicolas Sarkozy or the analogies proffered by his critics.

Yet in the history of modern France, the wartime Vichy regime has no monopoly on xenophobic reflexes and exclusionary policies. Over the course of the 20th century, it was French republican governments that laid the administrative and legal foundations for official discrimination against Gypsies.

In 1912, the republican government passed a battery of laws ostensibly aimed at vagrancy. Yet the government revealed its hand when it created an identity card that specifically targeted Gypsies. The French law used the term “nomads,” and did not specify “Gypsies,” but the instructions to local officials lent themselves to racial identification. (This is being repeated in Arizona’s proposed anti-immigrant law.)

The identity cards allowed authorities to track the movements of Gypsies during the first World War, but they were rarely interned in camps. That changed by the mid-1930s. With the great influx into France of political and religious refugees from Central and Eastern Europe, France created a new kind of identity card that, as the historian Pierre Piazza noted, sought “to delimit more rigorously the contours [of the national community] and to better locate those who did not make up part of it.”

With relentless logic, there followed the creation of dozens of “special centers” — soon to become concentration camps — for refugees recently arrived on French soil. At the same time, France passed a law empowering officials to strip recently naturalized citizens of French nationality. Finally, shortly before the German invasion in the summer of 1940, the French government ordered local officials to herd “nomads” into assigned areas. In justifying its action, the government declared: “Wandering individuals generally without a home, a homeland, or an actual profession, constitute a danger for national security ... that must be removed.”

When the Vichy regime came into existence a few months later, it built upon policies and structures introduced by the now-defunct republic. The popular view of Vichy — as four years that had nothing in common with what went before or what followed — cedes to a more accurate rendering, which shows important and unsettling continuities between democratic governments and authoritarian regimes in France.

Of course, the republic would never have applied a racist policy toward Gypsies and Jews as Vichy did, much less participate in the systematic deportation of these groups to the death camps. In this respect, Vichy and the republic have nothing in common.

Nonetheless, the continuities between democratic and authoritarian phases in French history lead to a more general observation, often overlooked: Democracies are as likely as authoritarian states to practice xenophobic or racist politics.

Thinkers from Plato to Tocqueville have commented on the dangers inherent in the rule of the majority — especially when the majority is swayed by the passionate actions and speeches of the few. The lot of Gypsies in contemporary France and Romania is a case in point. While these states do not subject their Roma populations to the punitive policies pursued by Pétain’s France or Ceausescu’s Romania, they do relegate them to the margins of their societies.

In present-day Romania, the Roma population has a poverty rate three times higher than the national average, with low life expectancy, low rates of literacy and 100 percent unemployment in some areas. Since joining the European Union, the Romanian government has reluctantly designed initiatives aimed at facilitating integration of the Roma. Affirmative action programs and the appointment of local-level educational and health mediators have been the most publicized. But the effectiveness of these programs has been at best limited, and anti-Roma sentiments persist in the public and among policy makers.

Romanians now see the French expulsions as proof that integration of the Roma into any European society is mere utopia. So the actions of the French government are undermining the already frail attempts at implementing policies that would target Roma discrimination in Romania.

As for France, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, leader of the European Green Party, says that Sarkozy has “taken the French for fools” in pursuing his anti-Roma policy. Perhaps. But recent polls reveal a nation evenly divided over the issue, so Cohn-Bendit’s claim means that nearly half the French population are fools.

We need only consider earlier French laws aimed at the Gypsies, passed in 1912, 1938 and 1940, to see that xenophobia flared at those moments when France faced the threat of war. Moreover, on the eve of both the first and second World Wars, France was awash in fears over the nation’s declining birthrate and its capacity to maintain its historical legacy as a dominant economic, cultural, political and military power.

While the French republic doesn’t now face the prospect of war, it does face other crises: economic stagnation, decaying inner cities and a top-heavy state staggering under the increasingly unrealistic expectations of the public. It must also wrestle with perplexing questions of national identity and national security provoked by an E.U. that continues to extend its writ.

Here’s the rub for Sarkozy, and blessing for the Roma: The E.U., long criticized for its “democratic deficit,” may now become the defender of last resort for Europe’s last stateless people.

Olivia Miljanic, a lecturer at the University of Houston and Robert Zaretsky, professor of history at the Honors College, University of Houston, and with Alice Conklin and Sarah Fishman, author of France and Its Empire Since 1870.