A grim truce prevails in my commune, in South-West France, between the travellers who live here – ‘gens du voyage’, ‘Tziganes’, ‘Gitans’ – and the indigenous French. The expulsions (none in these parts) have changed little. Like most truces that work, it’s founded on lack of trust and there are any number of assertions doing the rounds. A favourite is that out of fear for their own families, police don’t intervene when crimes are committed by travellers. Last year I was tending the bar at a fundraiser when a fight erupted at the door. A friend was badly injured. As it happened, and it often does, the incident involved travellers. The gendarmes were slow to fetch up but quick, in the weeks that followed, to pursue their suspects.
An unspoken assumption, locally, is that ‘gypsies’ have a GPS-like, predatory sense of the gaja world. Really? As an outsider, I see it another way: for a waning Republican culture that stresses solidarity and civic responsibility, the marked indifference to Republican values on the part of a semi-transient ‘guest’ component – many are in fact French and have been here for years – is the key. My neighbours don’t like what they see as exceptionalism, whether it’s the tax-haven classes or ragged families in white caravans. It doesn’t help that the people they imagine they’re prey to, including the Roma, barely know how to give them the time of day. It must rile them, even though the National Front vote here is low. It riles me and I’m not French.
‘Solidarity’? None for Bulgarian and Romanian travellers, especially if they riot, and they did in the summer. Sarkozy rose to the occasion by several inches and on 30 July, his plan for la rentrée 2010 became a little clearer:
1) Think about Le Pen’s following and triangulate: arrange an early ‘rentrée’ of their own for about 700 Roma. Make sure this is underway by mid-August and trickling on into the autumn to keep up flagging national spirits.
2) Send your immigration minister Eric Besson – like Bernard Kouchner, a defector from the Socialist Party in 2007 – to the European parliament to insist that the expulsions breach no French or European law.
3) Stress that you pay the Roma you expel (300 euros per adult, 100 per child) and upbraid new EU members to the east for ‘dumping’ their social problems in your lap.
4) Resume your loftiest thoughts about ‘security’, divulged in July, and recall that you favoured – did I really? – relieving certain criminal offenders of their French nationality: non-indigenous French, that is, who attack officers of the law.
5) Forget that in the bad old days the Vichy government instructed a commission to strip French people (mostly Jews) of their nationality.
6) Definitely forget that.
Obviously there are questions arising. I’m clear on what will happen if I attack a gendarme: I could lose my nationality if I became French less than ten years before the assault (Vichy simply plumped for a date: 1927). But what if I molest a sapeur-pompier in the course of his duties, or wrestle a magistrate to the floor of the chamber? Or trample an undercover policeman who happens to be blending inconspicuously into the crowd, like, say, he’s wearing THE BURKA? How can you prove I wasn’t making a citizen’s arrest?
The greater strain on Republican values right now is not the encampments of Roma and asylum seekers in France, but the language the administration speaks when it thinks it’s out of earshot. A leaked executive circular to France’s departments putting ‘Roma’ at the top of the list for expulsions gives the game away: at least one NGO has argued that this is a breach of the constitution, since it singles out people in terms of their ethnic minority. ‘Ah but they’re not our fellow citizens,’ the government might have answered. That would have been foolish, given the present mood. They’ve taken the wiser course and had Brice Hortefeux, the minister of the interior, revise the circular.