Some 150 years after the French Revolution, Chairman Mao was asked what he thought of that watershed moment in modern history. Mao is reported to have said, ‘It’s too early to tell’! Mao has been credited with many things, but his sardonic wit has been underestimated. What might he have had in mind? That a revolution devours its own children is something about which Mao would have known a thing or two. Could it be that the promise of the French Revolution had never been fulfilled? Whatever liberties the revolution brought to France, it diminished neither the appetite for colonies among the French nor their bloodthirstiness in suppressing the aspirations for freedom among others. Toussaint Louverture and the Haitians were among the first to be brought to the brutal awareness that ‘liberty, equality, and fraternity’ were intended to enrich the lives of not all humans but only those who pompously declared themselves custodians of civilization.
The French are at it again: when they are not purifying their language, or congratulating themselves for their supposed refinements – from wines and perfumes to lingerie and fashions — they are busy engaging in ethnic cleansing. Their attention has now turned to the Roma. Well might it be said that they scarcely have a monopoly on this exercise, what with Americans flying repeated sorties over the last few decades over Cambodia, Vietnam, Sudan, Iraq, and Afghanistan, to mention only some of the darker nations which have experienced the terror of American bombing, but of course no country has such fanciful ideas about its own ‘civilization’ as do the French. The French have never been short of overweening pride: the law of February 23 2005, before it was repealed by President Jacques Chirac in early 2006, stipulated that ‘school courses should recognise in particular the positive role of the French presence overseas, notably in north Africa.’ Even as the French National Assembly was pushing through this odious piece of legislation, the heavy hand of the state was coming down upon young men of North African origin who are largely viewed as inassimilable to French society.
On Thursday last week, the government of Nicolas Sarkozy expelled 700 Roma – or, in more common parlance, gypsies — from France, and many more expulsions are anticipated in coming weeks. The French police are dismantling what they describe as ‘illegal camps’ and deporting the Roma to Romania and Bulgaria. Some in the French government are describing themselves as surprised by the attention being given to the present round of expulsions, since they claim to have carried out 10,000 such expulsions last year without any publicity. Another predictable argument being furnished in favor of the expulsions is that the Roma are prone to theft and criminal activity, and public safety demands the removal of those who have overstayed their welcome. We might quibble about the word ‘welcome’, since even a modicum of familiarity with the history of the Roma suggests that they have never been welcomed in most parts of Europe. (The Roma, in varying numbers, have been expelled, quite recently, from Italy, Sweden, and Denmark.) Indeed, it is commonly forgotten that Hitler directed a ferocious campaign of extermination against the Roma as much as he did against Jews. But France has struck upon another ingenious method to ward off criticism: in the official version, the departures of the Roma are ‘voluntary’ and the resettlement sum of US $385 that has been given to each Roma is a testimony to the goodwill of the French. This piece of deception serves two purposes: first, it seeks to insulate the French against a legal challenge from human rights activists and, in particular, the European Court of Human Rights. Secondly, since international law specifically prohibits targeting an entire group on the basis of ethnicity, religion, sexual preferences, and so on, France can present the departing Roma as animated by individual choice.
We need not waste time in asking if the French are racist. They are. Their history of barbaric conduct, whether in Indochina or Algeria, provides unimpeachable evidence of their sentiments. The question now raised by their expulsion of the Roma is a different one: just what is it about the Roma, small in numbers and living at the extreme margins of society, that arouses the anxieties of the French and others in Western Europe? Supposing it were true that the Roma are prone to criminal activity, as is commonly argued even if it is far from established, it is also clear that they largely stand charged of insolent behavior, petty theft, and conduct that fills ‘ordinary’ or ‘normal’ people with uneasiness. The Roma seem menacing; that, apparently, is their real crime. We notice how, in the dominant discourse about the Roma, they are always spoken of as a collectivity, so that every Roma stands implicated in criminal activity, something like the ‘criminal tribes’ invented by the British in colonial India. Supposing, again, that they were criminals, their petty crimes pale in comparison to the monstrous atrocities committed by the French in their colonies. So what is it about the Roma that disturbs the placid waters of French self-enchantment?
The history of the modern world has been shaped around the nation-state, and many historians, among them Eugen Weber in his famous Peasants into Frenchmen, have chronicled the bloody process of nation making. People have to be cajoled into constituting themselves as subjects of the nation-state, and the national anthem and the national flag exist to remind those with wavering loyalties that the nation-state is a stern taskmaster. Above all, however, the nation-state is marked by boundaries, generally well-defined and occasionally contested, and the map is enlisted to turn these boundaries into stone. Once the nation-state comes into place, it views its boundaries as sacrosanct and worthy of the highest approbation. The most characteristic feature of the Roma, of course, is the fact their entire mode of living is in defiance of the logic of the nation-state. The Roma represent a time when, in their (from the standpoint of modernity) state of unfreedom, the ancestors of those Europeans who today inhabit the various nations-state of Europe could wander around relatively unhindered. Modernity’s own preferred narrative about itself is to think of modern times as uniquely characterized by extreme mobility, but such mobility is, in fact, highly restricted and bears little relationship to the nomadic sensibility of the Roma. There is, thus, in the activities of the Roma a mix of anxiety and envy that Europeans experience: envy because the Roma, forsaking the protocols of the nation-state and modern bourgeois living, embody an admirable spirit of freedom and lack of self-restraint; and anxiety because their transgressions generate acute uncertainty, a fear that the boundaries placed between the self and the other will collapse. If Europe is not to become even duller than it is, living on its museums, heritage sites, and the various affects of ‘the refined life’, it would do well to learn to live with the Roma.