Workers Vanguard No. 965
24 September 2010
No Deportations! For Full Citizenship Rights!
France: Down With Racist Anti-Roma Campaign!
Since July, the French government has been carrying out a witchhunt against the gens du voyage (literally “traveling people,” the common French name for all Gypsies) and massively deporting Roma. As citizens of the European Union (EU), these Gypsies from Central Europe (coming in particular from Romania and Bulgaria) are supposed to have a legal right to travel and work in any EU country. According to the French minister of the interior, the government has already destroyed 441 Gypsy encampments and expelled at least 1,000 Roma since the end of July. On September 4, at least 100,000 demonstrators rallied throughout France and some other European cities in liberal protests against this racist campaign.
These deportations are an aspect of multi-sided and brutal attacks on the working class and all the oppressed. In the framework of the worldwide economic crisis, capitalist governments throughout Europe are going after the living standards of their own working people in order to improve their competitive position against rival imperialists (see “Economic Crisis and the Capitalist State,” WV Nos. 961 and 963, 2 July and 27 August 2010). At the same time, in every country the rulers offer up immigrants and minorities as scapegoats for rising unemployment, playing the old game of “divide and rule.”
On September 7, three million workers all over France participated in a day of strikes and demonstrations called by trade unions against the dismantling of retirement pensions. This massive turnout showed the proletariat’s will to fight to defend its gains. But the workers are saddled with a treacherous reformist leadership that accepts the reactionary notion of a supposed “common interest” that the working class and the bosses have in safeguarding the profits of French capitalism. Such a leadership is incapable of leading a fight to defend the most oppressed sections of the population against the bourgeoisie and its government.
On September 14, the French parliament passed a law forbidding women to wear the face-covering Muslim niqab or burqa in public, and the next day it passed a law canceling subsidies to immigrant families if their children miss school. Earlier this year, a government official, lashing out at North African and African Muslims, even threatened to strip away the citizenship of any person of “foreign origin” accused of polygamy.
The singling out of the Roma as a specific ethnic group has been met with cynical protests by the United Nations and the EU. In August, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination urged France to “avoid” collective deportations. Meanwhile, the EU’s justice and citizenship commission called the expulsions a “disgrace” and threatened legal action against the French government. But the current deportations of Roma from France are only the most recent, and visible, manifestations of persecution of this minority by capitalist governments throughout Europe.
As recently as April, the German government initiated a plan to deport 10,000 Roma who had been living in the country for the past ten years to Kosovo, where unemployment is currently 45 percent. In July, Denmark summarily expelled a group of persons identified by Copenhagen’s lord mayor as “criminal Roma.” In 2008 in Italy, a wave of roundups and deportations of Roma was launched by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who claimed the country was endangered by “irregular third-country citizens and nomads” (see “Italian Trotskyists Say: Mobilize Labor Power in Defense of Roma, Immigrants!” WV No. 922, 10 October 2008).
What triggered the European commission’s expression of wrath was the recent disclosure that, contrary to government assurances that specific ethnic groups had not been targeted in France, a French Interior Ministry circular had in fact ordered evacuation of camps of Roma “as a priority.” This led EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding to liken the focus on Roma communities to ethnic cleansing and to declare that it was “a situation that I had thought that Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War.”
Comparison of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s deportations of Roma with deportations of Jews and Gypsies from France during World War II raises a touchy subject for the French bourgeoisie, which actively collaborated with the Nazis in the persecution of Jews and Gypsies. In fact, in the “free zone” of France not occupied by German forces, the quisling regime of Marshal Pétain in Vichy organized deportations to the concentration camps with as much zeal as the Nazis, if not more.
In spite of the outcry and a resolution by the European Parliament demanding that France immediately suspend expulsions of Roma to Romania and Bulgaria, Paris is proceeding undeterred and keeps expelling Roma by the planeload. Minister of Immigration Eric Besson, formerly of the Socialist Party, insisted that suspending deportations was “out of the question.” The government even plans to introduce a new draft law allowing expulsions of people guilty of “aggressive begging.”
We print below a slightly adapted translation of an article datelined August 28 that appeared in Le Bolchévik No. 193 (September 2010), newspaper of the Ligue Trotskyste de France, section of the International Communist League.
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On July 18 in Saint-Aignan [in the Loire Valley], Gypsies exploded in anger after cops killed Luigi Duquenet, a youth from their community. The government seized on the opportunity to literally declare open season on the Roma and unleash a racist campaign of unprecedented violence against the entire Gypsy, Roma and traveling population. Detachments of cops have attacked Roma encampments, violently destroying their meager possessions and deporting them massively to Romania. Every day we read of the government’s vaunted successes in “eradicating” more encampments. 9,875 Roma were already deported last year to Romania and Bulgaria (l’Humanité, 29 July), accounting for a third of the deportations carried out in France that year. This year, as of August 25, more than 8,000 people have been deported so far (l’Humanité, 26 August).
The government went after the Roma and all Gypsies because this is the most vulnerable layer of the population, living partly on the margins of urban capitalist society. The workers movement has a direct interest in defending these oppressed people against the government’s racist attacks. To accept these attacks against the Roma would directly open up the workers movement to the attempts to divide the working class itself along ethnic, racial or sexual lines, while also reinforcing the arsenal of police measures that target workers. An injury to one is an injury to all!
French Capitalism, the Reformists and the Gypsy People
The response by the Socialist Party, Communist Party (PCF), Left Party and New Anti-Capitalist Party to the government’s racist campaign was to call (along with the Greens) for a demonstration on September 4. The call for the demonstration in l’Humanité (5 August) seized on the oppression of Roma to praise the French Republic, a capitalist-imperialist republic dripping with blood from Africa and the Near East to Indochina and, today, Afghanistan. The reformists want to refurbish France’s image after the international outcry provoked by the roundup of Roma. The signatories also wanted to reaffirm their support for the capitalist order in the fight against “crime,” implicitly echoing in passing the racist cliché that all Gypsies are thieves.
Lutte Ouvrière (LO) properly refused to sign this appeal, but they are notably close-mouthed about the expulsions carried out by the Communist Party in the towns where LO is part of a municipal majority headed by the PCF. For example, in Bagnolet [outside Paris] in July 2008, the municipal authorities demanded that Bulgarian Roma families send their children back to Bulgaria as the condition for granting housing to the adults.
The call for the September 4 demonstration declared that French president Sarkozy
“is in no way fighting crime, which is reprehensible on the part of any individual regardless of nationality or origin.... It is no longer a matter of having a legitimate debate in a democracy about how to ensure safety in the Republic. Rather, the point is to stigmatize millions of people as dangerous based on their origins or their social situation.... The boundary being crossed makes us worry about the future for all of us—associations, trade unions and supporters of various political organizations—who share an attachment to the fundamental principles of the secular, democratic and social Republic. We forcefully reaffirm that Article 1 of the Constitution ‘ensures the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion’ and that all attempts to violate this fundamental rule of democracy undermine civil peace.... And we call for a mass citizens’ demonstration on the 140th anniversary of the Republic, Saturday, September 4, at the Place de la République in Paris.”
Isn’t this the height of cynicism! Under the Third Republic [1870-1940], a law was passed in 1912 instituting “anthropomorphic identity booklets” for itinerants along with a collective registration booklet [enabling the authorities to keep track of their movements]; their vehicles were assigned special license plates to identify them as belonging to itinerants, the equivalent of the yellow star [that the Nazis forced Jews to wear]. (Fairground caravans and vendors’ wagons were exempted from this requirement if their operators were of French nationality.) The requirement to have one’s identity booklet or vehicle registration booklet stamped four times a year remains in force for Gypsies today.
The Third Republic continually beefed up its arsenal against Gypsies. In April 1940 (before the German occupation), the government decided to place Gypsies under house arrest, in effect interning all itinerant people in small local concentration camps throughout the war. The repression carried out by the Vichy government against Gypsies (who were for the most part French citizens) was in fact based on laws enacted by the Third Republic, which was also the case for most of the measures taken against them by French police in the [German-controlled] Occupied Zone.
After the end of the German occupation of France, the PCF was in the government with the Socialists from 1944 to 1947. But some of the Gypsies had to wait until 1946 to be freed, with the last ones leaving the detention camps only in May 1946, a full year after the war in Europe ended.
Not all itinerants in France are Gypsies and not all Gypsies are itinerants. In the past few weeks, there have been demonstrations of communities of Gypsies carrying French flags to stress that they are French citizens and voters, as opposed to the Roma from East Europe and the Balkans who are the main focus of racist hatred and prejudice. But even French Gypsies who are not itinerant continue to be victims of racist discrimination. In Strasbourg, 200 Gypsy families live in the Polygone neighborhood, in a camp that was set up in 1970 and is still in dismal condition today. An elderly woman commented: “Our children go to school like any other children. But when they start looking for a job, and say that they live on Aeropostale Street, they are systematically rejected.” And a Protestant minister added simply: “We are regarded as less than dogs” (Dernières Nouvelles d’Alsace, 30 July).
Under the capitalist Third Republic, at the time of the Dreyfus Affair, some Jews also looked down on East European Jews fleeing pogroms—French Jews saw them as a threat to their own assimilation as French citizens. As it turned out, the French state sent thousands of Jews—citizens as well as foreigners—to the Nazi death camps under the Vichy regime. One of the overseers was Maurice Papon, who went on to have a long career in the capitalist state apparatus and who also happened to be the CEO of Sud-Aviation during the general strike of May 1968 [the factory where the strike started]. Workers and the oppressed have a vital interest in uniting in common struggle. The ruling class is trying to instill in immigrant workers the false consciousness that Roma threaten their own struggle for legal papers; they want French workers to think the Roma are “criminals.” Fighting this false consciousness is the task of the revolutionary party.
The Roma: A People Without a State
Today 8 to 12 million Gypsies live in Europe; they are either itinerant or settled. Both Jews and Gypsies have a long, shared history of victimization and oppression. The Belgian Trotskyist Abram Leon, who died in Auschwitz in 1944, explained in The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation [published posthumously in 1946] that the Jews were a “people-class.” They survived as a distinct entity, not in spite of their centuries-old oppression but because they were initially a caste filling a specific and necessary economic role. Under feudalism, as money-lenders and traders, they necessarily lived in urbanized communities. Later, with the rise of industrial capitalism, the Jews’ special commercial role came to an end and they assimilated into modern capitalist society. In Europe, the powerful workers movement took up the struggle against anti-Semitism. Many socialists and revolutionaries were of Jewish origin, including Karl Marx.
In the old days, Roma and Gypsies were mainly musicians, horse traders, basket makers or scissors sharpeners. Historically, they were an invaluable source of knowledge in the subsistence agriculture economy. However, as a “people-class” of itinerant craftsmen, their role in society remained more marginal than that of the Jews.
The 1917 Russian Revolution led by Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolsheviks, which established the dictatorship of the proletariat for the first time in history, successfully fought chauvinism and anti-Semitic pogroms based on its truly internationalist character. It also opened the way to the emancipation of the Roma, who were recognized as a minority for the first time. The creation of Romani dictionaries and grammars was promoted along with the Roma people’s culture.
The year 1924 marked the beginning of a political counterrevolution led by the Stalinists, representing a layer of privileged bureaucrats, that would destroy the revolutionary Bolshevik Party. The poison of chauvinism was revived and nationalist tensions were used to break the workers’ internationalist spirit. The Romani language was soon suppressed, followed by Yiddish.
After World War II, the East European Stalinist regimes were able to partly restrain endemic prejudice but were not able to lay the basis for the elimination of chauvinism. In Romania, the particularly brutal Ceaucescu regime forced the Roma to become settled. However, today many Roma miss the Ceaucescu regime because the deformed workers state provided a job and an income for all. Le Parisien (23 August) quoted the typical remarks of an elderly Roma: “Before the 1989 revolution, under Ceaucescu, things were difficult but we managed. We had a place to live and a job, even if it did not pay well. And then, everything changed.”
Twenty years ago, the International Communist League fought against capitalist counterrevolution in the Soviet Union and East Europe, while LO and the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire supported counterrevolutionary forces like Solidarność in Poland. In the struggle against capitalist reunification of Germany in 1989-90, we threw all our resources into fighting for a proletarian political revolution in East Germany to sweep away the Stalinist bureaucracy and establish the rule of workers councils. All the racist prejudices against the Roma resurfaced after the capitalist counterrevolution. There were massive layoffs of Roma, who had to take to the road again to flee poverty and racist terror. Capitalist restoration was so horrible that the Roma came to France in spite of the relentless oppression they face here.
On paper, Roma from Romania and Bulgaria have the right to travel throughout the European Union, including France. Theoretically, they also have the right to work. However, in France only 150 job categories are available to them—low-paying jobs that no one else wants to do. In addition, they have to pay high fees to obtain work permits and wait for weeks, even months, to receive them. The capitalists never want to wait so long to hire workers, so in effect, Roma do not have the right to work. Without an income, they also lose the right to stay in France longer than three months. We demand: Lift all restrictions on employment for all those who have made it here, now! For full citizenship rights!
The Roma’s appalling situation in the European Union exposes the capitalists’ hypocrisy regarding “freedom” and “democracy” for the oppressed in imperialist Europe. In the Czech Republic, according to Amnesty International (13 January), many Roma children are sent to special schools for “slightly mentally disabled children.” In Italy, a so-called “emergency plan for itinerants” was adopted to fight crime, and thousands of Roma live under the threat of being evicted from their encampments and relocated in large, isolated camps. In Hungary, bloody pogroms have been reported. In Ostrovany (Slovakia) and in Tarlungeni (Romania), walls have been built to isolate Roma neighborhoods.
Racist terror is inherent to the capitalist system. The hideous oppression of the Roma people can begin to be solved only within the framework of a Socialist United States of Europe. As Abram Leon wrote in regard to the Jews in the conclusion of The Jewish Question:
“Clearly, the tempo of the solution of the Jewish problem depends upon the general tempo of socialist construction. The opposition between assimilation and the national solution is an entirely relative one, the latter often being nothing but the prelude to the former.... Today, national-cultural and linguistic antagonisms are only manifestations of the economic antagonism created by capitalism. With the disappearance of capitalism, the national problem will lose all its acuteness. If it is premature to speak of a worldwide assimilation of peoples, it is nonetheless clear that a planned economy on a global scale will bring all the peoples of the world much closer to each other. But the hastening of this assimilation by artificial means would hardly seem to be indicated; nothing could do more harm. We still cannot foresee exactly what the ‘offspring’ of present Judaism will be; socialism will take care that the ‘birth’ will take place under the best possible conditions.”