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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Les Tsiganes toujours discriminés

by Marc Bordigoni

French Gipsy Travellers Are Still Discriminated Against

Translated Monday 24 May 2010, by Isabelle Métral

Why are French travelers not treated like their fellow-citizens? Official surveys and recommendations are clear enough, Marc Bodigoni explains.
He is a research engineer at the Institute of Mediterranean Ethnology, a unit of the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and department of the University of Aix-Marseille.

For several years France has been criticized by several international institutions for its treatment of populations that are diversely and collectively called “Tsiganes”, “Gitans”, “Roms” or “Travellers”. More often than not the media and government agencies amalgamate two distinct categories, despite their cases being different. Indeed, whereas “Roms” are natives of Balkan countries or of the former federation of Yugoslavia - and for many of them EU citizens (since Romania and Bulgaria have joined the EU), Travellers are French citizens that also choose to call themselves “Manouches”, “Gitans”, “Sintis”, “Yeniches”, “Roms” just as other French citizens will consider themselves “Corsican”, “Ch’timis” (in the North of France), or “Auvergnats” (in Auvergne).

The High Authority Against Discrimination and For Equality (HALDE) has published several resolutions concerning the former and the latter. Because the government was slow in following some of the High Authority’s recommendations, The French Republic’s Official Bulletin has published a statement of the legal abnormalities that justify the Authority’s recommendations. (Jorf no. 241 17 October 2009)

Concerning French Travellers, the High Authority points out discriminatory provisions in a 1969 law (still in force) on voting rights and on administrative regulations concerning Travellers’ documents. In a previous recommendation, the High Authority listed regulations and practices that were incompatible with the republican principle of the citizens’ equality, whether concerning school registration or access to housing, or the right to free movement. “HALDE surveys have listed the main sources of discrimination against French Travellers, whether as a consequence of the specific regulations they come under or because of individual practices.” (deliberation number 2009-143, 6 April 2009)

Individual practices can be those of ordinary citizens (in shops, administrations, or neighborhoods) but also, and in fact more frequently so, of councilors. A lot of the time they will consist in trying to oppose the purchase of a plot of ground, or they will forbid Travellers’ double-axle caravans to enter municipal camping sites (being often heavier, their family caravans will need two axles instead of one for smaller models – which will also be true for other, non Travellers’ caravans). Or they will put pressure on the utilities (the water, or even public electric companies) so that the plots Travellers have been legally allotted are not served, with the result that families are denied access to water and electricity. Some councils have even been known to stop the waste collection in places where it normally existed.

Many families start proceedings against these practices. But suits take time and money. Still, the courts find their actions justified: many councils have been convicted, and common law is building up. That does not deter many councilors from persevering in their illegal practices relative to Travellers’ rights to stop within their towns’ boundaries. A lawsuit is long (longer than the councilors’ terms sometimes) and gives voters the impression that councilors “do something” even though they are wasting their electors’ money as the town will be convicted. Their real intention is to harass Travellers in the hope that “they clear off.”

The mayor of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in the Camargue (in the Rhône Delta) deserves first prize for discriminating practices for banning (as early as 2008) the few female hand-line (palm) readers that plied their art within municipal limits. Here again, the High Authority found that “banning the activity itself by municipal decree without having brought convincing proof of the severity of the possible resulting breach of the peace, and over such a long period of time and such an extensive area, seem(ed) disproportionate and therefore unlawful.”

If some councilors (taking cover behind the State), and sometimes public workers, condone the illegal practices denounced by international institutions and outlawed by French courts, things are most likely to get even worse. Which does not exempt Travellers from observing the law when the law does not discriminate against them or does not prevent equal treatment for all citizens.

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