Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Gypsy exile in Europe mirrors wave of Islamophobia in US

It’s been an intense day of cannon fire shooting back and forth between Brussels and Paris, as the European Commission abruptly broke its silence on France’s deportation of Roma (gypsies) and came out swinging. EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding held a press conference this morning calling the French deportations a “disgrace” and said the EU is now considering taking legal action against France for violating EU law. It was a shockingly strong condemnation that caught the Brussels press corps completely by surprise, considering Brussels is usually loath to criticize anything France does. Reding even thumped the podium as she spoke, comparing the expulsion campaign to the persecution of Jews during World War II.

Within minutes Paris was reeling from the shock. At a hastily organized press conference in Paris, a spokesman for the government said they were “astonished” to learn of Reding’s declarations. He then accused Reding of standing in the way of France’s efforts to "improve the situation" of Roma, which he said was “at the heart of the government’s concern and action”. Later in the day, France's Europe minister showed just how unprecedented EU criticism of France is when he warned, "This is not how you speak to a major power like France."

The issue has been on a low boil since August, when French president Nicolas Sarkozy first took the decision to deport camps of gypsies who are foreign nationals (mostly Romanian but also Bulgarian) back to where they had come from. Only problem is, Romania and Bulgaria are now part of the EU, and as such their citizens have the right to free movement within the union. But for weeks the commission was silent on the issue. That is, until today’s explosion from Reding.

It is possible that Reding’s strong words may have been generated by a feeling that she was deceived by the French government. At her press conference she complained that French ministers had given her assurances that the expulsion of illegal immigrants was not targeting specific ethnic groups. Bit in recent days a leaked interior ministry memo specifically outlined how the authorities were deliberately targeting ethnic Roma. Of course this was obviously the case all along, but it makes a big legal difference that the French government put it in writing internally, because targeting an ethnic group for deportation based on a violation of Schengen procedures is illegal under EU law. "My patience is wearing thin: enough is enough," Reding fumed.

Under EU free movement laws any EU citizen has the right to live and work in any EU member state – but there is a catch. In theory, you must be able to prove that you have the financial means to support yourself if you want to stay in another member state than your own for more than three months. Member states are allowed to deport someone if they cannot demonstrate this, but it must be done on a case-by-case basis. Member states are not allowed to deport an entire community of people on the basis of the financial solvency stipulation. The reality is that this financial solvency stipulation is rarely if ever enforced because, given the fact that the EU countries in the Schengen Zone have no borders between them, if you deport someone to another EU country there’s no stopping them from just walking right back in again.

Europe's casual racism

I have to say, watching the reaction of continental Europeans to this news today has been pretty depressing, even if it was predictable. I posted a news item about this on my Facebook wall, knowing full well I was about to see a deluge of comments about how the gypsies are all thieving, child-snatching criminals who are parasites feeding off society. I’ve lived in continental Europe long enough to know what to expect with this kind of thing. Sure enough, soon came the rants. And soon came the expressions of horror from my American friends who couldn't believe anyone would say such things about a race of people in 2010.

It took me back to my days living in Prague while I was at university. I was just a young pup back then, living outside the United States for the first time. So I was pretty shocked and amazed by everything new I encountered. But one of the things I just couldn’t get used to was the shockingly overt racism displayed by my Czech friends toward Roma people. They literally would describe them as if they were animals – troublesome vermin that needed to be dealt with somehow. Well that was eight years ago and I still can’t get used to these kinds of statements. It’s just something I would never hear from an American person about any ethnic minority, except maybe in the deep deep south. Maybe it’s just a difference in the way we’re taught to talk about these things. But I will never get used to the fact that casual comments such as “they are naturally drawn to theft and vandalism” or “they prey upon society” pass for mainstream discourse here. Americans say a lot of crazy things, but that is something you wouldn’t even hear come out of the mouth of the most right-wing nutter on Fox News.

Of course, those Fox News hosts manage to say the same thing, just using different language. In the end both sides probably have an equal propensity to racism, all people do. So is it really better that Americans have just learned a coded language to express their racism rather than saying it outright like Europeans often do? I'm not sure I have the answer to that question.

Minority persecution in a bad economy, part 658

But though the language being used may be very different, the fact is this same sort of thing is taking place in the US as we speak. Over the past week the American media has been devoted to the subject of the real or perceived increase in Islamophobia that seems to be suddenly spreading across the country. From the anti-mosque hysteria in New York City to the Florida pastor burning korans on the anniversary of 9/11, a trend is emerging. And politicians on the right have been quick to jump on the anti-Islam bandwagon, although they were quick to recoil when the Florida pastor crossed the line by burning korans.

In France, Sarkozy’s political opponents have accused him of pursuing the deportations as a cynical ploy to bring up his poll numbers. But perhaps the better question they should be asking is why this particular strategy is drumming up so much support with the public at this time? And is it a coincidence that across the Atlantic, America is embroiled in its own controversy over minority targeting? Might both instances have something to do with the state of the global economy?

History has shown that in times of economic trouble, people have a tendency to look for scapegoats – and the easiest scapegoat is the person who doesn’t look, talk or act like you. In the past, that scapegoating during times of economic depression has spiraled out of control. Let’s hope that, in Europe or America, history does not repeat itself.


Anonymous said...

Amazing blog post, i hadbn't thought about the connection before. it's scary times we live in. i am frightened for what might come next

Gianfranco said...

France is a joke. They are so used to always getting their way in Brussels and being above criticism while the rest of member states, especially Italy, are always being criticised. They are so arrogant

Adam said...

France has the right to kick out people who are breaking the law, the commission has majorly overstepped its remit by criticising them. France has done nothing illegal, and we should defend thir efforts to protect us from vermin who are a menace to our society

Eurocentric said...

@ Adam

Are you labelling the Roma people as vermin?

France has the legal right to expel people who are illegally on their territory, and to deport criminals of foreign origin under certain legal conditions. Nobody, including the Commission, is disputing that. However, the expulsion of people without checking their cases individually but based on group membership is wrong and illegal, and the French state does not have the right to do so. It is illegal under EU law (Schengen rules) and mass expulsions are contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights.

Where the state has the legal power to act, it should act according to the law. When European law is at issue, the European Commission has the right and duty to stand up for the proper application and following of the law.