Roma Civil Rights movement

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Jean-Pierre Liegeois

The emergence of the Roma Civil Rights Movement in France

Historical and Cultural Overview

The earliest records of Roma in France are of the arrival of a group in the village of Châtillon-en-Dombes, north-east of Lyon, in 1419.1 They were given relief, and then moved to stop near Mâcon before moving on again. In October the same year the town of Sisteron in the south of France allowed the families to pitch their tents in a meadow and supplied them with food. After this France was criss-crossed by many such family groups.2

France does not recognise the existence of ethnic minorities or keep statistics on them; it only has records of “nomads”, categorised administratively by labels like Gens du voyage treated as a homogenised category without any real social or sociological definition. We can therefor only estimate that in France today the ethnic Roma population, (broadly defined as by the European Union, is around 300,000 to 400,000.3

In France the diverse groups known as Roma, Manouches, Sintis, Gitans and others differ for all the historical reasons that have led different populations to migrate to different regions, and indeed continents. Different environments have led to linguistic and cultural diversity.

Two concepts can help us understand how social organisation remains strong despite the differences. The first is the picture of a mosaic, within which each piece has its own character, different to those of neighbouring pieces, which cannot, however be understood except in relation to the pattern of the whole. Each piece is unique, but cannot be understood in isolation; and to take away anyone piece diminishes the whole. Thus, there is unity within diversity. The second picture is that of a kaleidoscope; the different pieces are shaken up and moved around within the overall configuration; but the links between them endure.4

One of the biggest shake-ups, the emergence of an international movement of Roma has many of its roots in France; the 1971 London Congress germinated in the suburbs of Paris. France is therefore a key case study for understanding the emergence of local, national and then international organisations, and the important synergies between them, which made possible a politics that people for generations had thought impossible.5

From Myth to Utopia

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. The 15th century groups in France said they were led by Counts and Dukes; a little later they had become Captains a Lieutenants. The mythical Tsigane “Kings” and “Queens” of the romantic imagination appear frequently in the French press up until the 1960s. Individuals could appeal to this myth for personal ends to give themselves legitimacy or gain respect in part of the world around them.

A utopia is a plan or project for an imaginary government. A utopian seeks to make his dreams real. All that is needed to turn mythology into a utopian project is a formalisation or rationalisation of the mythology.

But we should not see utopianism as purely the offspring of mythmaking. It appears at those times when a transformation of social organisation, a revolution in the relations of production, is necessary in order to adapt to a changed environment of the forces of production. It is at this level that mythology intervenes, facilitating not just utopianism of the imagination, but putting it into practice.

In France in February 1958, the Journal du Dimanche published a photo of a man picking up boxes at Les Halles market in Paris under the headline “Romanian writer becomes market porter to write a Tsigane epic,” with a story about how Ionel Rotaru was about to publish a book entitled Rhapsodie Roumaine. A year later the press received invitations to a ceremony where ‘the Tzigane people (Oursaris) would crown the person who had been selected as their supreme chief “Vaïda Voévod”, Ionel Rotaru’. Journalists and photographers flocked to tell France of the coronation of the Tsigane king.

Various newspaper reports6 offer Rotaru’s own explanations of the symbolism of the ceremony, (including blue for the sky and green for hope in his sash) which, he said had previously happened in 1836 and 1909, as though they were opening up what was previously secret. In contrast a Zionist magazine7 reported that his office in a tiny flat was functional rather than picturesque, its table covered with piles of paperwork, a telephone and a typewriter, dedicated to the practical future of his people, not the romantic past, with a framed copy of the French Revolutionary Declaration of the Rights of Man. He was all things to all men, however. A French journalist emphasised that despite holding court in a dilapidated building in a disreputable area, this small dark man of around 50 exuded dignity without affectation8, while even as late as 1970, another journalist wrote of feeling himself for the first time truly in the presence of royal blood.9

Rotaru put forward a political message to a huge audience through these journalists. In 1971, after his political star had faded a Romni and two Roms in Montreuil told this writer:

“You have to respect him, like anyone else. You know he only played king for the gaje and jornalists, that kind of thing. That’s not important. It doesn’t bother us one way or the other...”

“It was the worst kind of fantasy. Why not call himself emperor!”

“It was a fraud. He wasn’t Tsigane, he was Romanian...”

“I only know two things, and both those are good. He asked for war reparations from the Germans, and I agree with that, and he went to lay a wreath on the tomb of the unknown soldier, but apart, from that...”

The Ursari group who had enthroned him led him to become involved with migrant Roma from Yugoslavia generally. Small groups arrived looking for work after 1962, and numbers swelled after the Yugoslavia-France accord of January 1965. These Roma stayed in boarding houses in the 10th and 11th districts of Paris, Montreuil, Romainville and Rosny-sous-Bois. Some carried the address of Rotaru’s organisation on their papers, and the organisation helped them find accommodation and work and sort out their status, and offered poste-restante and telephone facilities.

At the beginning of the 1960s Rotaru started two organisations, the Organisation Nationale Gitane (ONG), oriented towards France, and the Communauté Mondiale Gitane (CMG), to work internationally. Some aspects of the latter recalled the Kwiek monarchy in Poland of the 1930s.10 The first foreign branch of the CMG was in Poland, and members of the Kwiek family in Paris helped Rotaru, and he also gained early support from Canada and Turkey. In France in the CMG he brought together the Kalderash and immigrant Roma of Montreuil, the Manouches (French Roma similar to the Sinti) and Gitanos (Spanish and Catalan Roma living in France). Partly the attraction for them was the possibility of getting German war reparations, but partly also it was the possibility of building unity against the oppressive environment left by the second world war and internment in the camps, in which the Vichy French government had collaborated as an alleged preventative measure. The ONG and the CMG were formally registered with traditional Roma leaders as their managing committees.

Rotaru’s programme was thus based on real needs and well-founded claims, but it retained its utopian overtones. In 1962, he called on the people of Lyon to make their city the international Roma capital because, since the time of Agrippa, it had been the crossroads of the Celtic soil, but at the same time called for more caravan sites because the number of Gitans in France had increased from 120,000 to 300, 000 because of refuges from Algeria.11

At various times he suggested he wanted to lessen distrust of Roma by encouraging them to get professional qualifications.12 He called for repeal of the 1912 law which made travelling Roma carry Nomad Identity Cards and demanded managed camping places with caravan schools.13

In 1964, the CMG secretariat wrote to every member of the French parliament asking them to legislate on the following 7 points:

  1. Repeal of the 1912 Law on Nomadism
  2. Creation of well-managed camping sites
  3. Putting caravan schools with Tsigane teachers on these sites
  4. Abolition of the anthropometric Nomad Identity Card
  5. Allowing everyone to register their trade, so that they can pay their taxes
  6. Administration by Gitans themselves, under the ultimate control of the government, of the camping sites, for which rents would be paid
  7. Collaboration by the Inter-Ministerial Commission for the Study of the Problems Posed by Populations of Nomadic Origin with the CMG: if the money paid for so long by the French government to solve the “Gitan problem” had been used in this way, there would be no more “Gitan problem” in France.

This serious tone was, however partly derailed by the French government 1965, however, forcibly dissolving the CMG on 26 February 196514, because it had too many non-French citizens in its leadership. A new grouping was almost immediately formed, with those from the CMG who had French citizenship, led by Vanko Rouda, Rotaru’s former deputy. From 1967 it was calling itself the Comité International Tzigane. Its leaders were often taken into local police stations for interrogation on suspicion of activities against state security.

This group at first had Rotaru’s blessing; but as he travelled more widely without direct involvement in the French organisation, the inconsistent elements of utopian fantasy became more pronounced. Sometimes it was not a town, but a country to be called Romanestan, that Rotaru demanded. In 1967 ‘Vajda Voevod III, the king of the Gitans gave a press conference where he announced “The United Nations must take charge to ensure the 14 million Gitans scattered and persecuted across the world survive”‘. The Gitans... should ask the United Nations for the right to return to the land of their distant ancestors in Somalia.15 But just two months earlier he had spoken of establishing a constitutional monarchy on the shores of the Red Sea.16

The CIT carried on many of the goals of the CMG, especially the demand for German war reparations. It continued close ties with the Pentecostal Tsigane evangelical church, which helped the CIT compile the papers necessary to get individuals compensation. The CIT also suggested there should be collective reparations and an international body should be created to administer these.

Vanko Rouda, the President of the CIT, had been editor of La Voix Mondiale Tsigane since it started in 1962, and its politics of giving a voice to the Roma, Gitanes and Tziganes in a peaceful world with freedom of travel17 continued seamlessly. In 1967 we find the same themes in the reported speeches by Vanko Rouda, Matéo Maximoff, and Juan Fernandez at a gala of Third World Solidarity attended also by the Dahomien writer, Roger Hazoume, Michel Domlevo, Secretary of the African Cultural Union in Paris, and Miriam Novitch, Director of the Ghetto Museum in Israel.18 Vanko Rouda held advice surgeries in various town halls, to give advice and information to Roma.

We can see from La Voix Mondiale Tsigane the merry-go-round of meetings with local authorities, film shows and discussions in Youth Centres, Cultural Centres, Young Workers’ Hostels and other organisations. A Romani section of the international writers’ association PEN was formed, prelude to lasting PEN support for Roma Civil Rights,19 and an armed forces veterans’ organisation was created, based in England led by the Irish Traveller Labour politician George Marriott, named Regimental Old Members (R.O.M.).20

Action to protest municipal or prefectural bans on camping, and lobbying parliamentarians and the press was undertaken not only in France but internationally. The British government responded to correspondence about the preparation of the 1968 UK Caravan Sites Act, and the Vatican added its endorsement of the idea of Roma organising for themselves to that of the Paris office of UNESCO.21

A sustained campaign of reports, films and meetings was directed at the Council of Europe. On 18th September 1969 the CoE Consultative Assembly unanimously adopted a report which recommended to the Council of Ministers that programmes devised to improve the situation of Tsiganes/Gypsies should be worked out in consultation and collaboration with their representatives; they recommended member governments should create national organisations including representatives of the government and Gypsy and nomadic communities as well as of benevolent organisations supporting the interests of Gypsies and other nomads, and to consult such organisations when forming policy.22 In discussion of these recommendations it notes that only recently has there been created a form of Intereational co-operation through the Comité International Tsigane, which is based in Paris, and which ‘actively seeks recognition of the civil rights of nomadic families, bringing acts of segregation against Gypsies to the attention of national and international organisations dedicated to the defence of human rights.’

As the remit of the CIT thus became definitively international, more local organisations appeared in France. Already in 1962 in Marseilles Juan Fernandez, a Catalan Gitano, had founded l'Association des Gitans et Tziganes de France to improve public knowledge and lobby the authorities. It supported the CMG, and then the CIT. In 1968 a Manouche, Archange Stenegri, founded l’Association nationale des Tsiganes de France. He was President, and was supported by Stévo Demeter, Matéo Maximoff and Charles Reinhardt. On 17th September 1969 Zivan Vasič founded a new, explicitly pro-Romanestan organisation called “GIPSAR” which identified the immigrant Yugoslav Roma in France as the most educated section of the Roma population, but strongly dissociated themselves from the man they called “Vaïva III”.23

Meanwhile, Ionel Rotaru continued to act independently. In 1971 some former CMG members who were holding membership booklets that Rotaru had printed, which looked very much like French Passports, except that where the French passport had the words "République Française", these had the words "Déclaration des droits de l’Homme". Roma succeeded in crossing frontiers waving these cards, but they were hardly legal. A group of Lovari Roma who arrived from Poland tried to enter France with these documents were arrested at the beginning of 1971. Then there was a flood of French press reports that “Vaida Voevod III, King of the Gitans” had gone to Vannes to defend four of his subjects, and he gave interviews claiming that these permits to travel were special passports recognised by 45 nations. Arrested himself, he started a hunger strike and was hospitalised in Vannes, and then in Rennes.24

His release soon after was perhaps an indication that his courage and imagination no longer seemed a threat to the state, and were no longer even much of an embarrassment to his old comrades in the CIT, now renamed the CIR (Comité International Rom) who were preparing their most significant event yet, the First World Romani Congress which took place near London in April 1971, which is described in the section on the International Roma Civil Rights movement. That Congress charged the CIR with organising the next two congresses in 1973 and 1975, and the CIR re-organised itself as a federal body bring together full or associate affiliated organisations from 22 states, with a central office headed by Vanko Rouda as President, Stévo Demeter, Leuléa Rouda and Jean Montoya as joint secretaries, and Jarko Jovanovic as Cultural Secretary, (a different set of officers to those elected for the Congress itself.) This lasted until 1978, when the, tired of the failure of the CIR to organise a Coingress the leadership from the 2nd World Romani Congress in Geneva registered a body called “The International Romani Union” as an NGO at the United Nations, as though it was the true successor of the IRU. The residual CIR, under Vanko Rouda, protested, but henceforward it was just one among many French Roma Civil Rights organisations.

These in fact had multiplied while the CIR had busied itself internationally. In 1973 a federal body was formed bringing together both gajo-led and Roma-led organisations in the Comité National d’Entente des Gens du Voyage25, with Nicolas Lorier as President, and as secretary Dany Peto-Manso, who declared in 1974 ‘I do not want to exclude Gaje or their organisations, but we do not wish them to take responsibility in our place. We will take the decisions ourselves’. This organisations then formed an even broader coalition, the Bureau des affaires tsiganes which after a meeting issued a press release which declared:

‘The Associations of Tsiganes and itinerants of all origins have decided on 28th October 1973 to create a common office to co-ordinate their action, and in particular, their interactions with the public authorities.’

This Bureau met for the first time on 28th November 1973 and on 20th December in Paris elected a committee of ten including:

President: Stevo Demeter (Comité Rom de Paris)

Vice-Presidents, Nicolas Lorier (Comité National d’Entente des Gens du Voyage), Honoré Martin, (Action Sociale Evangélique Tsigane); Emile Duville (Amicale Tsigane).

Secretary: Charles Welty (Centre missionnaire Tsigane de Paris).

They asked for a meeting with the French Prime Minister. This was perhaps the first group to involve civil rights leaders with traditional leaders like Stevo Demeter in concrete political activity.

Since then many other organisations have emerged and become active. In 1979, the Union nationale des Gens du Voyage français en Europe unie, (National Union for French Travellers in a United Europe) was founded and in 1982 the Comité national pour la promotion des Tsiganes et Gens du voyage, (National Committe for the Advancement of Tsiganes and Travellers) and the Centre culturel tzigane, (Tzigane Cultural Centre). In 1983 there followed the Office National des Affaires Tsiganes.26 By 2017 there have arisen numerous local, regional and national organisations such as France Liberté Voyage, the Association Française des Gens du Voyage d’Ile de France, the Association Nationale des Gens du Voyage Citoyens, Les Gitans de France, La Voix des Rroms and many others.

There were also many attempts to produce organisations grouping other organisations as the 1973 Bureau des affaires tsiganes. These included the Union des Tsiganes et Voyageurs de France in 1980, the Fédération tsigane de France in 1981, and the Mouvement confédéral tsigane in 1992.

All of these suffered from a lack of resources, just as had CMG, CIT and CIR, in comparison with the state-sponsored NGOs led by Gaje, whose governing bodies contained state representatives who were deeply suspicious of the Roma-led organisations. These included the Journal Études Tsiganes, founded in 1954 and still continuing, and with it, always reported in its pages, an account of the government’s National Committee on Social Information and Action (C.N.I.N.). The latter has gradually recruited more philanthropic NGOs and individual Roma to its ranks, and has mutated and broadened its identity several times, to take the title U.N.I.S.A.T. (National Union of Social Action Organizations for Gypsies) and finally, together with the Association Études Tsiganes and UNAGEV (National Union for Action on Travelers) formed FNSAT-Gens du voyage (National Federation of Solidarity Associations for Action with Gypsies and Travelers) in December 2004. This Federation is administered by a board of directors, elected by representatives of more than 80 mainly gajo-led member organisations, and has a team of 10 employees27, which is ten more than most Roma-led organisations in France.

Another relatively well-financed body supported by major and local humanitarian NGOs is the Collectif National Droits de l’Homme Romeurope (C.N.D.H.R) which was founded in 2000 to support immigrant Roma28 and is certainly more critical and oppositional than FNSAT, resisting the evictions and deportations carried out by the French government; on the other hand they still include the Gajo organisations formed by and for social workers, organisations for help, friendship and community relations, rather than any Roma-led organisations. For better or worse this perpetuates the fact that although FNSAT and CNDHR offer a political choice between them, they remain the partners of local, regional and national administrations in policy discussions, and are seen as the experts by journalists and even academics. In 2008, deeply aware of this, some 45 organisations describing their members as Roma, Manouches, Sintis, Gitans and Yenish, came together to form UFAT (Union française des associations tsiganes) under the presidency of Eugène Alain Daumas and with Ricardo Lorier (son of Nicolas) as one of the national delegates.29

In 2012 at its general assembly UFAT declared that ‘the interested parties, the Travellers and Gitans themselves, are far from being really involved in decisions concerning them. We are frequently invited, but the decisions have already been taken and they only want us there for our presence to legitimate actions which are often inadequate!’ 30 They continue to protest the exclusion of Roma not just from policy-making but from history itself, as in their 2015 protest31 that French President François Hollande had abjectly failed to make any mention of Roma among the victims at a holocaust commemoration.32

From Innovation to Consolidation

This new form of organisation did not come about without rudely pushing aside some elements of tradition. Existing Roma social structures were not predisposed to formal associations and federations, while their segmented ethnicity did not make unity easy. This led to difficult in reconciling organisational forms with traditional social dynamics and a rupture between tradition and an innovation which seemed more like mutation leading to radical transformation. Tradition and innovation could appear opposed, and the innovators treated as defectors from a Roma society in which they were only marginally involved. Nevertheless, this type of innovation is one of the ways, and undoubtedly an essential one, to stop assimilation leading to total passivity. The organisations are partners who have to be dealt with.

The movement, once launched, was irreversible. During their difficult history, the organisations demonstrated an enduring agency. Looking outwards, they learned to present themselves as attentive and robust partners in a dialogue with a social establishment that never ceased to try both to co-opt and marginalise them in the colonial project of the state towards Roma. Looking inwards, they showed that the dynamisms of their own society had not lost the capacity to move forwards. Despite the divisions among the groups from which they came, they demonstrated the value of the emergence of a collective consciousness, as Roma who could act together as a transnational minority33, without borders, without territory, without an army, and without violence, a Romanestan of the spirit.