Facing the defeat of the French army and the exodus of millions of people, the French government negotiated an armistice with Germany on 22 June 1940. In exchange for close collaboration in all areas, France was not integrated into the German Reich and retained its sovereignty, despite its territory being divided into two zones: the occupied north zone and, until 11 November 1942, the free south zone; the departments of Nord and Pas-de-Calais were attached to Belgium; the departments of Moselle, Haut-Rhin and Bas-Rhin were annexed to the Reich; the frontline zones were subject to a restriction on free movement.
Expulsion and Internment
In the summer of 1940, ‘Tsiganes’ in the annexed region were expelled to the free zone, where they were imprisoned in internment camps. On 4 October 1940, the occupying authority ordered the internment of all ‘Zigeuner’ (‘Gypsies’) in the occupied zone and delegated responsibility for implementing this order to the prefects, representatives of the French state in the occupied departments. The French security forces primarily detained ‘travelling’ families assigned a residence in April 1940. At the same time, the German authorities ordered their expulsion from the coastal zone along with Jews and foreigners. Most of the ‘traveller internment camps’ were thus located in the west of France. Because they gave priority to the internment and deportation of Jews and Resistance fighters after 1941, the German and French authorities did not proceed further with mass arrests of Roma.
6,500 Persons in Internment Camps
Around 6,500 men, women and children primarily of French nationality were imprisoned in thirty internment camps between 1940 and 1946. In the free zone, foreign Sinti and Roma were interned at Lannemezan, while those expelled from the annexed region were regrouped at Saliers.
The inmates of the camps protested against their fate by addressing petitions to the authorities to demand an improvement in their living conditions and their release. They escaped en masse, although they were quickly apprehended. Some of them re-joined the ranks of the French Resistance and were deported for this reason. Others were commandeered as part of the mandatory work service.
Over the years, most of those interned were liberated and assigned a residence as they found a fixed abode and a job. Only the poorest remained interned until 1946. In such cases, the new French authorities referred back to the stereotype of espionage and refused to liberate the ‘travellers’. Officially, they were not interned but instead assigned a residence. This lasted until 10 May 1946, when the decree of 6 April 1940 was repealed.
Severe Repercussions for Several Generations
Although Sinti and Roma in France were spared deportation and extermination, these six years of internment left a mark on their families for several generations. In 2017, the belated recognition of this history finally facilitated the repeal of the discriminatory legislation introduced in 1912 and the – at least official – full integration of ‘travellers’ into society.