Tuesday, October 12, 2010

France, Italy, Gypsies

When I was a little kid in France, it was common knowledge that children who were bad would be taken by the Gypsies. I’m not sure what the Gypsies did with all the nasty French kids; maybe it never happened and maybe the Gypsies simply had a bad rep.

Now France and Italy are cracking down on Gypsy camps and expelling thousands from the two countries. It’s wrong, but in a period of high unemployment, failing economies and nationalistic fears, the Gypsies are a perfect target. They’re easy to spot, since they set up camps in dilapidated mobile homes and trailers generally outside large cities; their children are home taught and this lack of schooling is often seen as the root of Gypsy woes; they’re insular and refuse to be integrated with the larger native population, and yes, they’ve been tagged as inveterate criminals. Whether it is sane or not to paint an entire minority in such a manner is beside the point. In Paris and Rome, Gypsies have been credited with running purse-snatching gangs who prey on tourists and native alike, using either fleet-footed children or teen agers on mopeds. In other countries they run used car lots and chop shops; and they’ve been documented as traveling hundreds of miles to run roofing and paving scams.

The Romas have many names. In the UK and the United States, they’re often called Irish Travelers or Pavee. The French call them Romanichels and Tziganes; the Germans Yeniche. To Armenians they are the Lom people and in Asia they’re the Lyuli and Dom.

There are between 10 and 12 million Romas in Europe. Some 200,000 were exterminated by Hitler during World War 2. According to a recent article by the Associated Press, “The European Union has a directive on racial equality, sponsors biannual summits on the Roma's plight and funds aid projects. But critics say there is no continent-wide will to fix the problem, and it took France's crackdown on the Roma — cast as part of the conservative government's fight against crime — to awaken mainstream European concern.

“France, which has its own local Gypsies with deep roots here, also has a very small Roma population of newcomers from Eastern Europe, estimated at up to 15,000.”

France, a mainstay of the EU, considers itself a beacon of human rights, so many Europeans were shocked in July when French President Nicolas Sarkozy's office described camps of Roma newcomers as sources of "illicit trafficking, deeply disgraceful living conditions and the exploitation of children through begging, prostitution and delinquency."

France has a long-standing policy of expelling Roma newcomers, but Sarkozy's attack, and the ensuing expulsion of more than 1,000 Roma back to Bulgaria and Romania, drew new scrutiny. On Sept. 29 the European Commission began proceedings to take France to court over the expulsions.

This is good. Both France and Italy should be taken to task for their actions against the Romas. Intolerance of any stripe does not serve any nation well. Hopefully, other countries, including the US, will step in and make their discontent known. And hopefully the Romas themselves will see that the world has changed. The recession and their blinkered ways do not mix well and the time for Gypsies to be well, gypsies, is over.

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