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Between assimilation and tradition

Romy Strassenburg / cmkSeptember 19, 2013

France's various Roma ethnic groups can be traced back to the 15th century. Today, they are still fighting against discrimination. They have condemned the crackdown on the new Roma immigrants from Eastern Europe.

Django Reinhardt and family, archive photo, Copyright privat
Image: privat

The black and white photo shows a small group of people. Children sit on the sandy ground next to a cast-iron oven, staring into the camera. Dark-haired men and women are grouped around two guitar players; a caravan can be glimpsed in the background.

Baro, 36, has circled his grandfather's face in white. He also points out one of the guitar players with a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth: Django Reinhardt, the great European jazz guitarist and member of a large Belgian-French Manouche family, an ethnic group that has been in Western Europe since the 15th century.

Like Reinhardt, Baro grew up in the eastern Paris suburb of Montreuil. A few years ago he got to know Kake. Only later did they come to realize that Kake's grandfather was also in the old photo. The two men are hip-hop musicians, mixing beats with the strains of guitar and violin. Their lyrics speak of the pride in their ancestry and the anger over the daily discrimination they continue to experience, in particular since former President Nicolas Sarkozy publicly called for the closure of dozens of Roma camps in France in 2010.

"Under Sarkozy, people began to feel it was permissible to say 'dirty Gypsy.' When the president says, 'Gypsies, they're all just thieves, we'll lock them all away, they begin stealing as children,' then people say to themselves, well, if the president says it, it must be true."

Second-class Frenchmen

French police officers stand guard while a group of Romanian gypsies line up at the check in desk at Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport, near Paris , Friday, Aug. 20, 2010. France has expelled nearly 139 Gypsy or Roma, from Paris's airport to their native Romania as part of a very public effort by conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy to dismantle Roma camps and sweep them out of the country. (ddp images/AP Photo/Michel Euler)
Romanian Roma were deported under Sarkozy's orders in August 2010Image: AP

The name Sarkozy has left behind a bitter aftertaste for France's Roma population, and not just the roughly 20,000 migrants from Romania and Bulgaria who have been repeatedly evicted from their makeshift camps by the police over the last few years.

Life hasn't been easy for people like Baro and Kake, either, even though their families have lived in France for decades or even centuries. They are French citizens, yet have increasingly felt like second-class citizens.

"My children go to school and don't let people know that they're Manouche. Not because we're ashamed, but because we don't want them to be teased [because of their heritage]," explains Baro.

"It's the same with work; if you tell them you're a Gypsy or a Manouche, then they don't hire you. Or we're monitored and the second something goes missing, it's clear who gets the blame," adds Kake.

Roma, Tzigane, Manouche, Sinit, Traveller? To get your head around the many different names, it helps to visit the national organization for "gypsies and travelling people" FNASAT, the office of which is hidden in a courtyard in Paris' 19th arrondissement.

Like Baro and Kake, many people known simply as Roma believe it's important to differentiate between the individual ethnic groups. Gabi Jimenez, an artist, fears that the negative image that has been ascribed to the Romanian and Bulgarian migrants could rub off on Roma descendants of various ethnicities.

"If you call us all Roma, then that is influenced by European political strategy," he says. "It's as if you're throwing us all in the same pot, acting as if we're all the same."

An example of a Roma carnet de circulation. Copyright privat
The obligatroy "carnet de circulation" carried by artist Gabi JimenezImage: privat

Vibrant culture

Jimenez has been living in a caravan for 30 years,. He knows how difficult it is to find a suitable parking place for his home on wheels. Across Europe, "modern nomads" like him are only really found in France, Belgium and the UK.

In France, that number is estimated to be around 250,000, a fifth of them being Roma. According to French law, every commune with more than 5,000 inhabitants is obliged to provide a site for caravans, but only about half actually do, even if the residents pay for the space.

Since the beginning of the 19th century, travelers have been forced to carry a "carnet de circulation" ("notebook of circulation") with them at all times and prove their current place of residence with police stamps every three months. It was only in 2012 that this discriminating regulation was somewhat tempered. Today, the notebook must only be shown to the authorities once a year. "This is conscious judicial supervision, and very discriminatory," says Jimenez.

Sociologist Olivier Peyroux has been studying the unequal treatment of the Roma and the individualities of the various ethnicities for years. In France, he has seen the younger generation attempt to adapt and assimilate into the common culture, while at the same time he has witnessed the continued survival of family traditions.

Camp for Sinti and Roma in front of the gates of Paris: couple with child. - Photo, c.1957/58. Archive
The Roma have a long history in FranceImage: picture alliance/akg-images

"Marriage with a "gadgé," a French person without a Roma heritage, isn't always approved of," says Peyroux, giving an example. He says the special genius common to all Roma groups is their talent of taking the local culture and, with a pinch of virtuosity, turning it into their own.

Baro and Kake also want to pass on the values and life lessons learned from their ancestors to their children, but with an eye to 2013. "A culture should remain vibrant," says Baro. Laughing, he continues: "Guitars, long dresses, campfires, the small caravan with the horse out front - that's no longer us, that's done." In spite of all the discrimination, the heirs of Django Reinhardt continue to seek out their own, not entirely predictable, path.