Madam Speaker, I rise today to address the comments made by French President Nikolas Sarkozy that have caused quite the media flurry in the past few weeks.
On July 16, French police shot and killed a Romani man when he apparently tried to run a roadblock. This shooting sparked two days of rioting by some 50 members of his community damaging the local police station and private property.
In a story that has now been covered by the media from Vancouver to Moscow, French President Sarkozy subsequently announced that he would look into “the problems created by the behavior of certain travelers and Roma,” with a view toward the closing down Romani camps and driving out Roma. Government statements have indicated these measures would focus on finding and expelling Romani citizens from Bulgaria and Romania–two European Union countries. Despite the fact that the Romani man in the July 16 incident was actually a French citizen–Mr. Sarzkozy later spoke of stripping citizenship from nationalized French citizens convicted of serious offenses.
Not surprisingly, human rights groups have condemned the President’s remarks with one voice. Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg rejected the notion of holding Romani people collectively responsible if one among them commits a crime. Good for you, Mr. Hammarberg. (It is a shame that the European Union has been so utterly silent and paralyzed in the face of this downward spiral.)
Many of the reports and analyses of these events, such as last Friday’s editorial in the New York Times, rightly placed these developments in the context of French politics and President Sarkozy’s political imperatives. Understanding the current political dynamic in France, particularly the ongoing debate over “national identity” and the situation of Muslim and African-origin minorities in France, is extremely helpful in understanding the President’s expansion into anti -Roma mudslinging. But there is a wider, broader European context for his remarks that I think must be addressed.
French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux has stated that the new measures targeting Romani camps are not aimed at “stigmatizing a community” but rather at stopping illegal activity. This sounds remarkably like the rhetoric of Hungary’s far right wing party, Jobbik, which claims it is not against “Gypsies,” just “Gypsy crimes.”
In fact, rhetoric linking Roma to criminal activity or broadly portraying Roma as criminals–traffickers, prostitutes, thieves, and so forth–is pervasive throughout Europe. In early July, in the wake of a mass expulsion of Roma from Copenhagen, Danish Minister of Justice reportedly made remarks tying Romani culture to criminal behavior. Romania’s foreign minister remarked in February about “the natural physiology of Roma criminality.” For two years now, Italy has been gripped by anti -Roma policies, included targeting Roma for fingerprinting, that are built on a perception of the Roma as criminals.
The idea of Romani people as inherently criminal is not new. In fact, it was at the very center of Nazi racial theories regarding Roma. According to these theories, Roma –as descendants of an Aryan people–we’re just fine on their own. But Nazi racial hygienists concluded that, as a result of intermarriage between Roma and non-Roma, Roma had been left with mixed, “degenerate” blood and were genetically predisposed to criminality. Moreover, Roma were “unadaptable”–that is, this condition could never be changed. These Nazi racial theories provided the rationale for the sterilization, persecution, and eventual extermination of Roma.
Unfortunately, as Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, has observed, “Even after the….. Nazi killing of at least half a million Roma, probably 700,000 or more, there was no genuine change of attitude among the majority population towards the Roma.” In other words, Nazi racial theories regarding Roma remain remarkably entrenched and are regularly given voice in the rhetoric about “Romani crime.”
Madam Speaker, last year Senator Cardin and I, as Chairman and Cochairman of the Helsinki Commission, wrote to Secretary Clinton regarding the situation of Roma in Europe. In particular, we noted that “racist rhetoric directed against Roma today often uses terminology or images that have been in continuous use since the Nazi era,” and we argued that teaching about Romani experiences during the Holocaust is essential to successfully combat prejudice against Roma today. Perhaps this could start in France.