Wednesday, September 22, 2010

On Sarkozy and Gypsies - The French Problem

Is this a Jewish joke or a Gypsy joke?

What do you get when a Jew and a Gypsy go into business together? A chain of empty stores.

About fifteen years ago, a friend of mine opened a shop selling fabrics and other household staples in a Tuscan town. She was English, beautiful and an innocent in the world of commerce. The other shopkeepers adored her, because she and her daughters charmed them and brought a lot of trade to the cobbled main street. Whenever Gypsy caravans camped outside the town walls, Roma women in brightly colored gowns would stroll casually from shop to shop. Keeping wary eyes on them were robust Tuscan women shopkeepers. When the Gypsy matrons went into my friend’s shop, the other lady shopkeepers followed them inside and guarded my friend’s stock until the women left. No one said anything. It was clear the Italians protected her because they suspected she was not canny enough to prevent the transfer of baubles into bags without money changing hands. If the assumption was that the Gypsy women would shoplift if given a chance, they did not get the chance.

My friend’s husband hired some Gypsy laborers from Romania a few years later to do some building work on his house. The workers lived with him for months, worked hard and never stole anything. They loved beer, but were not drunkards, and spent most of their money on telephone calls to their families. When the job was complete, they took enough pay back to Romania to restore their own houses (which had no electricity, part of Romania’s official neglect of them) and perhaps open a small business. I have never seen a British builder work as hard or with as much good will as they did.

Berlusconi praised “Franco-Italian convergence” on what he called “the Roma problem.” The Roma problem? Is that like the “Jewish problem” of 1930s Germany?

My old friend, the late Anthony Sampson, wrote a biography of his paternal grandfather who led a second, secret life as a Gypsy. The Scholar Gypsy: The Quest for a Family Secret tells the story of John Sampson, a respected philologist who died in 1931 when Anthony was five. The elder Sampson wrote the definitive dictionary of the Romani language as spoken in Wales in the late 19th century, The Dialect of the Gypsies of Wales. While living as a respectable late Victorian gentleman with his wife and three children (one of them Anthony’s father), he had a secret Gypsy wife named Gladys Imlach. She gave him a Gypsy daughter, whom he adored and whom Anthony knew as Aunt Mary. The Gypsies called him the Rai, meaning a “gentleman Gypsy.” His grandson, who wrote best-selling books on corporate malfeasance in the global economy, was regarded by his colleagues as the “gentleman journalist.”

Clover Stroud, an engaging and popular British reporter, wrote recently in the Spectator of her lifelong love affair with the Gypsies who roam the English countryside. Her envy of Gypsy children’s freedom began in her school days. While regretting English “Gypsy-bashing,” she observed that “there’s a part of us that will always hunger for a caravan and camp, for the lyrical romance of the open road.”

The lyricism of the open road, however, has eluded French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy nearly went to war with the European Union last week in defense of his decision to deport Gypsies en masse to Romania and Bulgaria. The EU justice commissioner, Viviane Reding, had threatened him with prosecution under EU laws forbidding the punishment of people based on their ethnicity. Mme. Reding reminded Sarkozy that Europe had turned its back on mass deportations of racial minorities after the Second World War. Sarkozy went to an EU summit last Thursday to scream about what he called “an insult, a humiliation, an outrage.” His language echoed then-mayor of Chicago Richard J. Daley’s indignation against the press forty years ago: “They have vilified me. They have crucified me. They have even criticized me!”

The EU was not alone in daring to criticize Sarkozy and his interior minister for actions that, as stated in a French government directive to local prefects, was a clearly racist policy of collective punishment. Among those condemning the practice of herding people onto planes without indicting any of them for criminal offenses are the United States and the Vatican, neither of which is without sins of it own, the United Nations, every human rights group in the western world and most of the world’s press.

Lining up with Sarkozy, inevitably, is Silvio Berlusconi of Italy. The former crooner’s latter day brownshirts burned a Gypsy encampment in October 2007 and expelled its inhabitants, following the murder of an Italian woman. The culprit, whether a Gypsy or an Italian or someone else, was never caught. If there was any evidence, it disappeared in the police conflagration that reminded some people of fascist destruction of Europe’s Jewish ghettos two generations back. Berlusconi praised “Franco-Italian convergence” on what he called “the Roma problem.” The Roma problem? Is that like the “Jewish problem” of 1930s Germany? Or the “Negro problem” of 1960s America? Or the “Indian problem” of America in the 19th century? Or, indeed, Russia’s “Chechen problem” in our time?

The problem is not the Roma, who have been abused and mistreated throughout Europe for centuries. European Union money earmarked for improving their lives in Romania, so that they would not have to emigrate to find work and live in houses without rats, disappeared into the post-Ceaucescu kleptocratic pockets. Gypsy life in Bulgaria, the other EU member state to which Sarkozy is deporting them, is little better. The problem in Europe was never the Jews or the Gypsies. It was the Europeans who were suspicious of the Other in their societies. The Negro and Indian “problems” in America can be defined as the “white problem” for people whose lives were marginalized and were uppity enough to demand fair treatment. Russia has no Chechen “problem.” There is a Russian problem in Chechnya, whose population demanded independence from the post-Soviet empire.

Mme. Reding is right. Sarkozy’s squalid selection of Gypsies for special, collective treatment is beneath contempt. It is a populist measure designed, as a few French officials have admitted and as leaked documents have shown, to divert attention from the Bettancourt scandal. That sorry tale involved post-prandial passing of white envelopes stuffed with Euro notes for Sarkozy’s party regulars. Sarkozy may stem the dive in his popularity with attacks on defenseless Gypsies that are proving popular with much of his electorate. Then again, Maréchal Pétain’s policy of turning Jews and Gypsies over to the Germans was popular among his supporters in Vichy. Mayor Daley, who distracted voters from corruption alegations with swipes at African-Americans who demanded their rights, would have been proud.