In France, they are called Gitans and to the outside world: Gypsies, Gitanos, Romani or simply Roma, a nomadic ethnic minority dispersed principally in Europe whose true origins baffled historians for centuries. Originally thought to have come from Egypt, the Romani were once called Gyptians, hence the word Gypsies, until linguistic and genetic evidence established they originated from the Indian subcontinent. Widely misunderstood and reviled because of their peculiar way of life, which many Europeans consider anti-social, another preconceived notion of cultural superiority, the Romani are probably the only ethnic minority whose persecution is state-sanctioned in today’s Europe which prides itself as a beacon for human rights and dignity.
What differentiates the Romani people from Europe’s other ethnic groups is understandably their attachment to their ancient way of life that remains at odds with modern European culture. Though a small minority manages to assimilate within larger European societies, the vast majority subsists as itinerant beggars and fortune tellers and, some maintain, petty criminals. In the U.S where they are mostly assimilated, it is not unusual to see Romani women with children in tow begging on street corners. What makes such sights memorable is that they occur in African-American neighborhoods. Not surprisingly, the Romani experienced forced assimilation, sterilization, and extermination attempt during the Nazi’s occupation of much of the European landmass (1939-45), but strangely enough their persecution never elicited sympathies from the outside world.
For the past month, they are the subject of a controversy pitting France, a nation which sees itself as a gift to humanity because of a twisted belief in the superiority of its culture, and the civilized world. The controversy is about France’s ongoing deportation of Romani to Bulgaria and Romania, which paradoxically are members of the European Union. Surprisingly, the French seem outraged over the condemnations emanating from all corners of the globe, including its European partners. The EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding equated France’s actions to persecutions in Nazi-occupied France. “This is a situation I had thought Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War”, she was quoted as having said. Nonetheless the French would not budge on the issue, preferring instead to play the quintessential victim of smear, misunderstanding and political malevolence on the part of others. Has Nicolas Sarkozy warped himself around the Jeffersonian mantra “National interests transcend any philosophical consistency” or is France simply morally bankrupt?
Whichever way one sees the policy, France is establishing a dangerous precedent that may reawaken Europe’s deep-rooted fascination with ethnic cleansing which remains dangerously close to the surface despite its attempt at political integration. Based on their experience during their struggle for self-determination (1991-97), the Bosnian Muslims and Kosovo Albanians can attest to that. Next it could be the turn of Germans of Turkish descent, North African Muslims and Sub-Saharan Africans whom many on the Continent consider a serious threat to the preservation or survival of Europe’s cultural heritage. The French government’s view that the shantytowns inhabited by the Roma will not be tolerated in France could also apply to African immigrants who have yet to find their footing in that country.
On November 9-10 of 1938, the nights of Kristallnacht, when the Jews of Germany were systematically persecuted by order of the Nazi regime (1933-45), no one then anticipated that it would lead to something more sinister: a comprehensive attempt at exterminating the entire Jewish population of the Old Continent. This episode shows that whenever a powerful nation, answerable to no one, engages in this unorthodox type of behavior, it can set off a chain of events with dire consequences for humanity as a whole. As a permanent member of the U.N Security Council, the body entrusted with peace and security in the world, France’s behavior is unacceptable and constitutes a danger to peace and security in our world.
Returning from an E.U Summit in Brussels last week, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, through her spokesman, had to deny Nicolas Sarkozy’s allegation he had discussed the issue with her and that she assured him that Germany intends to follow France’s policy in dismantling Roma camps in her country. The proverbial he said, she said. In times of economic uncertainties, pandering to fear has always been the preferred method of crafty politicians, therefore what transpired between the two leading European leaders remains a mystery for now. This misunderstanding or calculated attempt at manipulating public opinion, depending on one’s perspective, came on the heels of the Thilo Sarrazin’s scandal, the board member of Germany’s Central Bank (Bundersbank) who was forced to resign his post after making disparaging comments about Muslims and Jews. Despite the fact that Germany’s political establishment reacted disapprovingly to Thilo Sarrazin’s unwarranted comments, it would be wrong for the outside world to think that they do not represent the views of the larger German population.
Again, as history never failed to repeat itself, will those in charge learn the lessons of the past and make an honest effort at embracing a higher moral standing rooted in the religious principles they claim to cherish? Or rather will they continue down the path of systematic elimination of those deemed “others’, i.e. Amerindians, Africans, Armenians, Gypsies, Jews, Muslim Bosnians and Kosovo Albanians? Unfortunately, those precedents and France’s ongoing deportation of Romani are indicative that the powers that be remain predisposed to persecute, marginalize, humiliate or eliminate those they perceive as” the others.”
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