*The Expulsion of the Roma: France & the Anxieties of Transgression

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   The French have never been short of overweening pride:  the law of February 23 2005, before it was repealed by President Jacques Chirac in early 2006, stipulated that ‘school courses should recognise in particular the positive role of the French presence overseas,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.

22 thoughts on “*The Expulsion of the Roma: France & the Anxieties of Transgression

  1. OUTSTANDING piece. Your writing is better than a baquette, brie, and Bordeaux combined.
    Wow. I really appreciate your style and effort. Brilliant. Will be reposting on my blog.
    Please continue.

    Bigotry is alive and well. It is not limited to color, no. But I find it telling that America et al, yes, et al, find such discomfort around those who do not feel the need to OWN land, and CHOOSE to roam. Same with the indigenous here. My father, with whom I shared a great pragmatism, could not get past the brainwashing of his rearing to see that natives or “non-civilized’ (ha!) people did not build skyscrapers not because they couldn’t.
    I miss tepees.

    La Zingaro means The Gypsy. I heart the Roma. Wanderlust is a gift not a burden.


  2. Pingback: The GYPSYs under attack. Please read: The Expulsion of the Roma by Vinay Lal « The Gypsy Tells It

  3. Thanks for another thought-provoking piece, Vinay. Malrux, 50 years ago, was right — Europe is a graveyard. How else to fathom what’s being done in the name of liberty, equality, fraternity to the Roma in the nation that taught the world how to make insurrection a hallowed and everlasting feature of the political imagination.

    You have to wonder how the Roma might have been treated in the U.S., where a latter-day John Muir would be instantly locked up and deported if he were unlucky enough to be “illegal”. So much for the West’s obsession with the individual, that lover of “freedom” whose ambitions begin and end with himself. And as you point out, the Roma are not seen as individuals but as something of a pre-modern collective, the antithesis of the petit bourgeois.

    The Mao anecdote was amusing. (I’ve heard the exact same comment attributed to Zhou Enlai!)


  4. Superb piece Vinay (even if, in some respects, Francophilia is hard to give up for me). I highly recommend (to allreaders of this post who haven’t already read it) Isabel Fonseca’s “Bury Me Standing”, a vivid and evocative look at the Roma…


    • I quite understand how it may be difficult giving up on one’s Francophilia, at least in some respects. I have my
      favorite French films and writers; but I can say the same for Iranian, Chinese, or Indian films, or Russian or
      British writers, and so on. Fonseca’s “Bury Me Standing” has long been recognized as furnishing one kind of
      insight into the lives of the Roma, but a good body of scholarly work on them is also emerging in recent years.


      • Speaking of which, since Ishtiaq has gone down the “significant other” route, I only realized recently that Fonseca was married to the (morally obtuse) Martin Amis, which was pretty depressing.

        On Francophilia: I was speaking somewhat in jest: certainly the food/wine/language is part of the “official” culture, but the 20th century philosphers and thinkers I esteem the most are, of course, the least reducible to the sort of nationalistic discourse that remains far too current in France. In fact, many of the ones I am thinking of are — perhaps precisely due to the structure of the French state/society/education system — far more reknowned outside France than within it…I guess one could nevertheless speak of “Francophilia” (i.e. without the specter of the state) by invoking some kind of cultural essentialism or (better yet) inheritance. As long as one doesn’t take that sort of essentialism too seriously, I have a great weakness for the “type” of the French “sage” (Montaigne; Proust) as well as that of the post-structuralist/post-modern thinker — and a great loathing of the humorlessness of the “type” of the “public intellectual” (BHL)…


      • PS — to clarify, any slight to Zola/the j’accuse moment is unintentional. My point (which I didn’t articulate well at all) is that although the self-image has become tied up with Zola’s shining moment, the reality of the “public intellectual” in our own times is best encapsulated, not by the moral lucidity of a Zola; or even the naivete of a Sartre or Kristeva (on the Communist countries); or an oracular sort of ambiguity — but by the blowhard, steeped-in-celebrity-culture figure of a BHL…


  5. 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.

    Wasn’t it Zhou-En Lai who is meant to have said this? Excellent article though!


    • Yes, I’ve heard the same remark which I credit to Mao attributed to Zhou Enlai. I’m prepared even to accept that the
      remark is apocryphal; at any rate, I don’t have a direct source for it. But, as Conrad recognizes, it doesn’t alter anything
      in the argument of my piece. Vinay


    • Hello Ishtiaq,
      I wasn’t aware that my blog pieces would give me the credentials to act as a matchmaker!
      “Delicious” followed by “girlfriend” suggests many things: as you know, sex and food have long
      had an association. Of course, what any of this has to do with my blog remains obscure to me,
      and I’m sure to most readers. French wines are good, no doubt, but we can also try to
      understand the political mileage the French get out of their ‘achievements’.


      • Re: “…we can also try to understand the political mileage the French get out of their ‘achievements’.”

        Good point. Everyone talks about “American soft-power”, but, given that the US has and deploys a lot of very HARD power, it is precisely countries like France, Italy, and some others that one should study with great interest to examine the workings and implications of “soft” power, as they are purer examples of it…the contrast in the “soft” power of France/Italy vis-a-vis (e.g.) Germany is striking.


  6. As the West begins its path from decline to collapse and bankruptcy, we are beginning to see the signs of things to come. When one reverts back to the history of the end of empires and dominating civilizations, one can undoubtedly forecast the post apocalyptic West where chaos, lack of human rights and breakup of nations is to ensue.

    Scapegoating is a sign of civilizational inferiority-something that characterizes the undeveloped world.

    The West has become a hollow economy and all that remains is memories of a glorious past much like the Islamic world today.

    The US is beginning to witness aspects of it with the scapegoating of Muslims instead of assuming personal responsibility for failure.

    As the economy falters so will signs of higher civility. Expect worse to come in the near future and it will happen throughout the Western world.

    Empires and civilizations fall from within and not because of the conspiracy of an insignificant small group of thugs or ethnics.


  7. Pingback: *The Politics of Culture and Knowledge after Postcolonialism: Nine Theses (and a Prologue) « Lal Salaam: A Blog by Vinay Lal

  8. The French may be racist – but you have to remember that this action of their government has a lot of popular support.

    To be fair, the French have not embarked upon a
    wholesale policy of expelling _all_ Roma, but only those
    who live in filthy camps with no proper sanitation and
    drains and sewage emptying out in open air.

    Those camps are an eyesore and nuisance to the people
    who live close by. What if you had a Roma encampment in
    your own backyard ? Would you be so tolerant of these
    very things then ? Romanticizing the nomadic way of life
    is one thing; but living right next to such a group (or in fact,
    living right next to a trailer park which does not have ethnic
    Roma) is not a pleasant experience by any means.
    What would you do if you were in this situation ?

    Regardless of what you feel about the “unfree” state
    of society, how can we forget that the current system
    makes it possible for people (like us) to survive – and for
    you to write this blog and for me to read it and have stimulating discussion about it.

    Presumably Roma that are well-integrated into French
    society are not being expelled. Methinks the human
    rights groups protest too much.


    • Mr. Prasad,
      I understand your views but cannot share your outlook. Some policies are indefensible, and support
      of the Roma should not be construed as “romanticizing” them. This is a common enough criticism, indeed
      I would describe it as the default position — whenever anyone takes up causes of groups such as Roma, they
      are accused of “romanticizing” them. Assuming your argument, namely that only those Roma have
      been expelled who lived in filthy camps have been expelled, was true (which is not the case), then what?
      Should we not think about the fact that the ‘Other’ always seems filthy and unclean to us?
      On the other point, I fail to understand why we should feel grateful to the system because it supposedly allows us
      a modicum of dissent. Having lived in the US for more than two decades, I have heard the argument often
      enough — immigrants should feel grateful that they are allowed to express themselves. We won’t bother to
      ask what kind of dissent the US allows and what are the limits of such dissent. I think I have blogged often
      enough on this question. The supposition that it is for states to confer rights on individuals is a peculiar one,
      and that individuals should be grateful for such rights as the state might feel to bestowed upon them,
      is one that cannot be defended as is it is a warrant for state to exercise totalitarian powers on one pretext or


  9. Dear Dr. Lal,

    You did not address the question of the NIMBY issue. It is well and good to pontificate about the French, but what if you are faced with the same issue in your own backyard ? For example would you willingly purchase a home in the neighborhood of a trailer park ? What would do that
    to property values, and would it be an experience you
    would want to go through ?

    That the “other” is often perceived in terms of negative
    attributes like threatening, filthy, immoral etc. is not particularly unsurprising. It is the result of how human brains are organically hard-wired because of our
    hunter-gatherer past. It takes cultural training and
    conscious effort to overcome these instinctive reactions.

    I was not making a value judgement about whether
    one should feel grateful for the freedoms of speech and
    expression that we enjoy or not. It was merely an observation I made of the fact that the institutionalization
    of these freedoms, such as we have in the country, has made it possible for people like us to express our opinions
    without fear or favor. But I will readily admit that I do feel
    a certain gratitude towards society – which is not an
    unusual or uncommon reaction.

    I believe that in the American experience,
    as in other modern states, it is not as though a
    “State” – which sounds like a faceless organism that confers/takes away freedoms at its pleasure – came
    into being from without. But rather it was the people
    who came together and formed the state – giving up some freedoms and agreeing to be governed by law for benefit
    of all – which is our social contract. The system of checks
    and balances provides protection from any branch
    of the state from becoming all powerful and totalitarian.
    But I am digressing here ..

    At the end of the day, the expulsion of the non-French
    Roma was an unpalatable decision certainly, but a
    popular one – one that the French state took to address
    the concerns of its citizens. Likewise if the settlement and integration of Roma who are French citizens is not
    being doing currently, then one should insist that it
    be done.



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