They were evil personified. They didn’t work, not regularly anyway. They travelled around in horse-drawn caravans (at the time) and never settled down long enough to send their children to school. They looked dark and dirty. They stole from people. They even stole children, hence the ‘Beware of the gypsies’.
I remember though how happy everybody was whenever Gypsies were going through our village, once the doors and windows and henhouses were secured.
Happy? Yes. Who else but Gypsies would rebottom the chairs with straw? Who else would sharpen knives and scythes this well? Who else would sell those fine and indispensable wicker baskets made by the women so nimble with their fingers? Who else would sell those buttons and ribbons we all were so fond of? Who else would bring and manage the carousel during the village fair?
Happy? Yes. But once all those tasks had been performed, they had to depart. Were there hens missing? Maybe. Children? Never.
We would call them ‘gitans’, ‘bohémiens’ or ‘romanichels’ depending on the area we were living in. Anyway, they were ‘travellers’.
Almost nobody knew that they were French, that they had been French ever since the birth of France.
They embodied all our fears. They did not respect our conventions and we were too narrow minded to realize that they stuck to their own traditions which included laws and conventions just as good as ours. They were different but not lawless.
My first and only experience with Gypsies was when a young girl insisted on coming to school while her family was camping in the outskirts of the village. She was 12 and didn’t read fluently yet. But she wanted so much to go to school. My mother accepted her.
I’m afraid her life among us was not a bed of roses. I’m still wondering what happened to her, this girl who in the late 50s, was claiming her right to learn and study. We weren’t friendly at all. I’m sure this is an understatement.
I remember that she did look dirty even though she probably was wearing her best clothes. But some of the village girls who were going to school weren’t too clean either. Those were times of dire poverty after the war. Running water wasn’t this common if not scarce. Some of the pupils were living in hovels. And my mother would ask them every morning to go wash their hands before school started.
Now that I’m writing about this girl, I remember that she was smelling of wood fire. This was strange. We used coal, you see.
She left and this was the end of my experience with Gypsies (in real life).
I think I started being aware of what could be a Gypsy’s life when I moved down south and went to high school.
One of my history teachers while telling us about Shoah (it was mandatory in France), mentioned that over 400.000 Gypsies had been annihilated by the Nazis. (‘Samudaripen’ means ‘Shoah’ in Romi.)
Since it was so obvious that there were no Gypsies in our high school (at the time, we had a very elitist state education), we asked a lot of questions.
We learnt that Gypsies did not have the right to vote. They had to have special papers with the mention of ‘traveller’ which forbade them to cross borders. The family members had to remain together at all times. School was not mandatory for them which meant no access to regular jobs. But... There is always a ‘but’ in France. The men were all fit for military service. Many of them died while fighting for France, a country that was denying them a lot of fundamental rights. They had one right though : they could stop their caravans and set camp wherever they wanted.
In the 70s, they were refused this freedom of setting camp unless it was in an official area approved by the city halls. Many of them started to settle. No longer ‘travellers’ but still third-rate citizens.
It became more politically correct to call them ‘travellers’ instead of ‘Gypsies’ even though most of them had stopped their travelling around except for family reunions or fairs.
By the end of the XXth century, Brussels (the European Government) accepted some Eastern European countries.
And the ‘Roms’ came from all over Eastern Europe since they were not very well treated in their native countries. They were free to travel because by then, Europe had made it possible for them to cross borders, in all fairness.
And French people, still fearing and distrusting the Gypsies, their fellow citizens, started hating the ‘Roms’ who were essentially coming from Rumania.
Mainly because they were beggars and lived in shanty towns.
Now I do not want to sound righteous.
I’ve witnessed the picking up of women and children who had been begging in the subway by men who were waiting for them in their Mercedes. End of a working day for them. But then, were they ‘Roms’ or were they working for the Romanian or Bulgarian Mafia? Which is another problem in France.
Anyway, the beggars’ constant whining in the subway irritates me. I do not like to hear those ‘ siteplémaaaaam’ while some young girl is tugging at my sleeve. I do not like to see men beg, limping with a crutch and I do not like to see them throw their crutch on their shoulder and walk away, taking long and agile strides when their ‘workday’ is over.
I’m probably and hopelessly part of a system where you have to try to find a job after all. Even basket weaving.
Then why am I suddenly so understanding when the ‘homeless’ men who live under tents close to my son’s appartment come to me and ask for a coin or two?
Am I still very steeped in the prejudices of my parents’ generation? ‘Beware of the Gypsies’, they said all the time.
This summer, a 17 year old young man from a very French settled family was killed by a gendarme. ‘Self-defense,’ the policeman said. Except that the boy was unarmed and was the passenger of, well yes, a stolen car driven by his unarmed cousin.
The whole Gypsy community in the village was so enraged by this murder that people did what’s not to be done. Ever. They took justice in their hands, attacked the Gendarmerie (police station) and burnt it down. Bad, bad, bad. They had their reasons after the life we had forced upon them for generations and generations. You probably don’t really end up trusting your country’s judicial authority.
There were about 80 culprits. Too many to be judged. Besides the fact that all over France, settled Gypsies or ‘travellers’ started to let know quite forcibly that they were getting real mad too since the system was completely rotten, etc., etc.
We then had the perfect guilty party. The ‘Roms’, of course. The foreigners who are begging and stealing and living in unauthorized shanty towns.
‘Let’s deport them to their native country,’ the government said. And they started rounding them up, driving them to the airport in buses... Wait a minute. Rounding them up... Deporting them... Really? In France, the-France-of-the-Declaration-of-the-Rights-of-Man?
Are you sure this is true?
It started at the very beginning of the summer. Flight after flight filled with ‘Roms’. The governement said that they were being sent back with some money, wealth to them. Great!
It was summertime. Usually, France goes to sleep during the summer. Well, not this time, apparently. Well, not this time because we are members of the European Community. Well, not this time because all over Europe and all over the world, voices were heard.
You see, it’s forbidden to send a European citizen back to his country because of the right of free movement throughout Europe.
Our right-wing government who is in a real bad shape right now for many reasons, is trying to keep afloat by winning voters over the main subject that pleases them: Security!
This is a very old far right thesis. The foreigner ie the immigrant is dangerous. Therefore, get rid of the foreigner and you’ll be safe and sound.
Our national anthem claims: ‘Arise you, children of the fatherland... These foreign cohorts... They are coming into your midst To slit the throats of your sons, your wives’. Sweet and friendly words, aren’t they?
The problem is that ‘Roms’ are not immigrants. They are European citizens. The planes chartered by the Ministry of Interior and the Immigration Department are totally unlawful. (It’s too bad they are lawful concerning African or Afghan immigrants.)
Today, France is in a difficult position, very difficult. Shameful. So shameful.
The government won't give in, will never give in. No respect whatsoever for democratic principles and human rights.
Last week, one of our newspapers published a copy of a very official decree from the President to the ‘préfets’ in France (they represent the government in every French ‘département’). This letter orders them to organize quickly and efficiently the deportation of the Roms in their department. The Roms. The ethnic deportation of Roms.
This really stinks.
The European Union authorities are getting really mad.
But our government won’t renege on its promise to potential far right voters.
I have been talking to a lot of people lately. I have yet to find someone biased in favor of this ethnic deportation. Thank goodness. Of course, I’m well aware that the people I am talking to are friends.
What's going on is really tragic but guess what? French people are upset by the fact that the European Commissioner (from Luxemburg) in charge of Justice expressed herself in English and not in French to expose the unlawful actions of the French government.
Beware, English-speaking people living in France right now, it will be your turn pretty soon. Remember the story of Fahed.
In 2008, Emir Kusturica produced the first 'punk opera' at Bastille Opera House in Paris. It was based on his award winning movie: ‘Time of the Gypsies’. Great story and great opera. By the way, all the singers and dancers were 'Roms' from former Yugoslavia. A huge success.
Of course, we all know that our President does not like Opera at all. This may explain that.
My real name is Don Quixote.
*Good Night, and Good Luck*