"Self-Preservation" Doesn't Excuse France's Anti-Romanyism

“Gypsy criminals…We will set your homes on fire…You will burn inside your houses!” are the words a small community of Romani settlers heard as they barricaded themselves in their homes for safety. The protesters threw rocks at innocent families as the police stood by watching. Although this sounds like the story of a hate crime from the 20th century, this violent attack occurred in Hungary less than six years ago. (1)

From their initial migration into the European continent, the Roma (2) have encountered powerful social, political and economic resistance. France in particular has exhibited a particularly strong pattern of social discrimination,  implementing policies that seek to eradicate the French Roma population from its territory. The oftentimes outright xenophobic and coercive treatment of the Roma at the hands of the Republic has sparked international outrage.

Amidst these alarming practices, one might question France’s rationale: what is at the core of the Republic’s refusal to accept the Roma? Historically, marginalization of the Roma has been justified through an appeal to their “inherent, immoral" behaviors that have resulted in a spike of crime. At the core of this prejudice lies an argument rooted in notions of self-preservation. 

Such a justification is often produced from a Eurocentric perspective in which the European individual or community attempts to validate its intolerance in the name of security and prosperity, to which some form of the Other, in this case another ethnic group, poses a threat. While self-preservation is neither a new nor unreasonable aspect of a nation’s ability to thrive, it is important to examine how the presence of self-preservation is manipulated to justify a nationalistic absence of responsibility to the non-French Other.

To explore the derivation and modern-day progression of anti-Roma discrimination in France, it is necessary to first examine the historical background of Romani migration and the subsequent attitude that developed in European countries. The traces of Roma history are not easily identifiable since the ethnic and linguistic origins of the group only came into light during the eighteenth century. Philological researchers observed striking similarities between the Romani language and Sanskrit, an Indian language, and concluded that the Roma likely migrated from the Punjab region of northern India between the ninth and fourteenth centuries. (3) Migrating through the Balkan region, the Roma were first mentioned in Persian documents recorded by the famous poet Ferdowsi who noted that the ethnic group had been “imported” from India for entertainment purposes (Bunescu, 13). Greek forces conquered the territory in the late ninth century, capturing the Zott (4) in the process and transferring them to Byzantium. As the Black Plague reached the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, the Roma are believed to have migrated further towards modern-day Europe, slowly appearing in various parts of Western and Central Europe by the beginning of the fifteenth century (Achim, 10).

Upon arrival, the Roma were often subjected to extreme measures of discrimination, facing social and political persecution, religious assimilation and even slavery. Iona Bunescu notes in Roma in Europe that countries such as Denmark and Switzerland introduced death penalties to address the growing influx of Roma migration; any Romani residing or refusing to leave the countries would be executed. By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a growing movement to integrate and/or liberate the Roma began, with assimilation programs established within the Hapsburg Empire and the emancipations of Romani serfs and slaves across Transylvania and the Ottoman Empire. Yet, as Bunescu details, the gradual relief of Romani suffering did not continue from this point onwards. The Roma were deemed to be dirty and criminal due to their skin color and very low socioeconomic status, creating an opportunity to for natives of several countries to organize against Romani presence and use them as scapegoats. During the twentieth century, the Roma were consistently politically and socially victimized across Europe by groups who violently stormed settlements and killed several Romani people (Slovakia 1928), as well as by governments who deported their children (Switzerland 1926) and banned Romani culture and language (U.S.S.R. 1938), all of which created a social platform for a political attempt to eradicate the ethnic group through systematic execution. Following the murderous example of Stalin in the late 1930s (in which hundreds of Roma were murdered in modern-day Crimea) (5), Hitler’s foremost campaign to eliminate the Jewish population also included the Roma, among other minority groups that are generally less acknowledged. (6) Within Hitler’s campaign, an estimated 500,000 Roma executions took place. (7)

The social conditions of the Roma have improved (albeit slightly) since the middle of the twentieth century, as World Romani Congresses have taken place and organizations such as the European Roma Rights Center and Roma Parliaments in Eastern European countries have been established to address the current issues facing the ethnic group. Despite the rise in recognition of Romani history and culture, European anti-Roma sentiment has not only persisted but also taken newer, more aggressive forms as countries have politically and physically enforced the predominant social antipathy towards the ethnic group. (8) The beginning of the twenty-first century marked a turning point for Romani security within Western Europe, particularly in France, after several countries began to forcefully expel the ethnic group from their territories. In August 2002, a legal agreement between France and Romania ensured that should an “irregular situation” occur in France, Romanian citizens would be flown back to Romania via French-sponsored charter flights. (9) In retrospect, this agreement can be considered a catalyst for the gradual but effective systematic eviction of Roma residing in France. As early as November 2002, merely four months following the agreement, France distorted the agreed-upon circumstances that allowed for the situational deportation of Romanian Roma and began pushing them out through various tactics; in the case of the Parisian suburb of Lieusaint, for example, the Seine-et-Marne Prefect discontinued the water and electrical supply to a Roma settlement in the town (10), presumably to drive them away without taking direct action against them.

As the European Rights Center has documented, however, more aggressive methods of expulsion have ensued over time:

"The actions of French law enforcement officials reveal a pattern of specifically targeting Romani migrants for arrest and deportation. The frequent raids of unauthorized camps or squats as well as identity checks near these places of residence are often accompanied by arrests and deportation orders. This has also become common practice when police catch Romani migrants trying to make a living (11) [...] They are presumed to have insufficient resources. Collective deportations have nonetheless been carried out by the French authorities in explicit contravention of Article 4 of Protocol 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which bans the collective expulsion of aliens. (12) For example, a collective expulsion took place on September 28, 2004. A special charter plane […] left Paris’s Roissy Airport with at least 27 [Roma] … The plane stopped in Spain, Italy and Belgium before arriving in Bucharest […] with 75 Romanians aboard. ... Of the persons returned, some had been in France for less than the three months they are authorised to stay but were deemed to have insufficient financial resources." (ERCa, 293-294)

The 2004 Roma deportation from Paris is certainly not an isolated incident, with numerous reports attesting to similar forced Roma deportations across over a hundred French Roma living sites. (13) Even though President François Hollande assured that his policies would offer the Roma alternate solutions before being expelled (“pas d’expulsion sans solution alternative”), police forces detained all present Roma and gave them one option: to “voluntarily” return to their home country, usually Romania or Bulgaria (14), with a €300 check from the French Office of Immigration and Integration (Office Français de l’Immigration et de l’Intégration, OFII). (15) Such camp raids and subsequent deportations have not only continued over the last decade but also increased in frequency, driving out Roma in significant amounts. In fact, looking only at the most recent years of French anti-Roma policy, French police forces expelled 19,380 French Roma from the Île-de-France region in 2013, 13,483 in 2014 and 11,128 in 2015. (16)

France’s unapologetic expulsion and deportation of the Roma has garnered infamy around the world from international organizations and religious figures. Human rights organizations have criticized France’s systematic deportation of the Roma, as has the Vatican: during a meeting with former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, Pope Benedict XVI called for a stronger effort for “human diversity” and a prayer for France was said by Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, who urged for “the welcome of the persecuted and immigrants.” (17) Such criticisms demonstrate that there is, in fact, an ethical issue in the way France is responding to Roma populations migrating into its territory.

Actions against the Roma have shifted from ethical criticisms to economic and political risks for the country as the European Union and United Nations have repeatedly warned France of economic sanctions should it continue its expulsions. (18) Likewise, the European Commission has expressed concern that France’s systematic expulsion of the Roma may violate the fundamental citizenship rights guaranteed to all E.U. citizens by the “Freedom of Movement” Doctrine, a status that was granted to all Romanian and Bulgarian nationals when the two countries entered the E.U. in 2007. (19) The French, however, would predictably argue that the deportation of the Roma is not in violation of the E.U. Free Movement Doctrine, as most Romani peoples do not possess any form of legitimate identification, let alone a European passport. Such a justification indicates a striking tenetwithin French ideology: a person’s life and rights are only recognized and respected in as much as they are legitimate citizens of a country to which they can culturally, politically and economically contribute.

However, the issue of valuing Romani lives arises not only from their lack of citizenship but also from a deeper understanding of what national contribution is. While the connection between human value and citizenship poses a significant problem to the way the French view the Roma, it is impossible to ignore the practicality of the issue.  The Roma are often posing an economic threat to France in that they are often found to be in opposition to the standard French lifestyle. As Prime Minister Manuel Valls puts it, the underlying reason behind division between French and Romani values are due to the fact that “[the Roma]” have lifestyles … very different from ours, and are clearly in confrontation [with the French way of life].” (20) To a certain extent, Valls is correct in saying that the Roma actually don’t share the same lifestyle as most French citizens. They fail to assimilate into French society within a systematized and capitalistic globe; they often do not own any valid identification, do not have legitimate jobs, and do not pay taxes. To add onto their lack of contribution, the Roma also take from the Republic and its values- the Roma are frequently involved in aggressive begging, pickpocketing, child labor, and prostitution – all of which are in opposition to the French ideals, as Valls would argue. The Roma, do in fact, dress, speak and act differently than the French (often in a “lesser” degree due to their economic inferiority). What French logic fails to recognize is that the Roma are not inherently corrupt; there isn’t a fundamental prevalence of criminality in their culture. There is a difference between choosing a criminal lifestyle and being deprived of the necessary social and economic opportunities to have anything but a life based on subsistence. In this way, the French argument for excluding the Roma fails to attempt to understand the Roma and their struggles, and instead categorizes the entire group as one anti-French Other.

The establishment of the Roma as the Other is produced out of an attempt to preserve that which is sacred to the French: the Republic. In order to preserve the nation – meaning its economy, tourist industry, culture, language and all other aspects that are threatened by the Roma’s presence – France takes steps against the Roma. In deporting the Roma, France seeks to preserve the values it stands for and the culture they exist within, thus creating a divide between the Self (France) and the Other (anti-French Roma). Self-preservation is not a new or unnatural ideal within the essence of the Self, be that an actual individual or a nation. However, in the case of France’s treatment of the Roma, it transforms from a need for survival to a paranoid hyper-defense mechanism that preserves the Self by pushing out any possible threat. In the framework of this hyper-self-preservation, France’s need to preserve its culture, language and economy becomes aligned with a lack of empathy for the Roma.

France’s actions can be examined through Judith Butler’s essay “Precarious Life and the Obligations of Cohabitation” (21), in which she analyzes ethical responsibility in the realm of proximity. According to Butler, ethical responsibility between any two parties is something that is prevalent between them from the beginning to the end of their lives: “Ethical obligations […] impose themselves upon us without our consent. […] In fact, responsibility may well be implicated in a vast domain of the nonconsensual” (137). Ethical responsibility between the Self and the Other is not chosen by either party, but ever-present in that neither party chooses to be responsible for the other; they enter such an ethical contract by their singular, though dependent coexistence. Butler argues that proximity is not the ethical ground for obligation to each other; everything occurring around the globe is interconnected because whatever happens “here”, also happens “there”, and vice versa (138). We are all bound by an absolute ethical force that connects us globally on a level of responsibility to others. Such responsibility is exhibited in the way we respond to others, as we become the Self in our responses to the Other.

A large section of Butler’s analysis is dedicated to examining Emmanuel Levinas’s ideas on ethics; from there, she draws conclusions on reciprocity in the relationship between the Self and the Other.  As Butler states, she aims to use Levinas’s argument against himself in the articulation of “global ethics that would extend beyond the religious and cultural communities that he saw as its necessary condition and limit” (140), meaning she wishes to examine how ethical obligation functions in the grand scope of various differences. Taking this into consideration, Butler questions Levinas’s ideas on the reciprocity of ethics. She writes:

"Let us take as an example his argument that ethical relations are asymmetrical. In his work, the Other has priority over me. What does that concretely mean? Does the other not have the same obligation toward me? Why should I be obligated toward another who does not reciprocate in the same way toward me? For Levinas, reciprocity cannot be the basis of ethics, since ethics is not a bargain: it cannot be the case that my ethical relation to another is contingent on their ethical relation to me, since that would make that ethical relation less than absolute and binding; and it would establish my self-preservation as a distinct and bounded sort of being as more primary than any relation I have to another. For Levinas, no ethics can be derived from egoism; indeed, egoism is the defeat of ethics itself. " (140)

Butler uses Levinas’s argument of asymmetrical ethics to consider how ethical obligation works between the Self and the Other. While the Other always has priority over the Self, the same must be true for the Other’s Other – the Self. In other words, there must always be a dual coexistence of reciprocating responsibility. However, what occurs in that relationship if the Other cannot or will not return the ethical obligation? As Butler writes, if the responsibility is performed by the Self but not by the Other, the Self questions why it should prioritize the Other. Meaning, if there is no equality in the ethical relationship, the Self ceases to care for the other because it is not gaining the same effort as it is distributing. Butler continues that this scenario presents an ethical conflict because it assumes that ethics functions as a two-way system.

As Levinas and Butler agree, the Self’s ethical responsibility towards the Other cannot be dependent on reciprocity because this makes ethics a “bargain” in which the Self performs ethical duty only out of guarantee that it will receive some sort of compensation. This alters the absolute and binding nature of ethical obligation: it becomes a conditional responsibility that allows the Self to choose when or whom to help. Self-preservation becomes the condition of performing the ethical obligation because the Self begins to place itself, not the Other, as the primary responsibility. The obligation becomes driven by a self-interested egoism, which, as Levinas states, “is the defeat of ethics itself” (140). As Butler argues throughout the text, however, a dependency on reciprocity is not a valid form of ethics and obligations to the Other, by way of ethical responsibility being involuntarily placed upon us as we enter the sphere of ethics by simply existing. You cannot change or control the obligation; it occurs between the Self and the Other unconditionally, without consideration of proximity or privilege. By enacting a “false” form of ethical obligation – by which the Self is performing its responsibility to the Other based on the guarantee that the Other will reciprocate the service – the Self is not ethical, or at least performs a kind of perverse ethics by acting on its responsibility as a means of self-preservation.

Taking Butler’s analysis of ethics into consideration, we can move on to examine how reciprocity and ethical obligation function in the conflict between France and its treatment of the Roma. If we follow Butler’s logic, we can appoint an ethical obligation on the French Self and the Romani Other: they are both ethically bound and responsible for the other. This ethical relationship becomes complicated, however, by issues of socio-political and economic status. The Roma are irrefutably the lesser Other in the scope of an established world: they are disadvantaged to a point of inferiority, particularly in legitimacy. In other words, they do not have an established nation-state, much less a recognized social status in the world – something that is exhibited through France’s actions. The Roma are not respected as humans with ethical value because they lack the established status that most of the world’s ethnic/religious groups possess. While France does not explicitly state so, it is evident that its actions against the Roma correlate with the issue of legitimacy and value.

Returning to an earlier point, the Roma’s lack of cultural and lingual recognition is deepened in France’s anti-Roma justification by the group’s inability to provide for the countries to which they migrate. An overwhelming quantity of the Roma population lives in poverty and results to means of income that are deemed immoral in European ethics, such as stealing, aggressive begging and so on. Not only do the Roma fail to provide any kind of economic benefit to France, they also take from France’s prosperity and security by committing such anti-French (as Valls would argue) actions. This allows France to rationalize its political discrimination and deportation of the Roma in the name of self-preservation.

We can then understand how France’s actions correspond to Butler’s argument of ethics and responsibility. France establishes the Republic and its security as the Self and in the process generalizes every Roma individual as the threatening, anti-French Other. France, however, refuses to follow its ethical obligation to the Romani Other due to the fact that the Roma do not reciprocate the benefiting nature of a privileged country such as itself, thus disrupting the asymmetry of ethics. It ostracizes the Other for its inability to economically reciprocate the obligation, even though the Roma simply do not have the financial or political means to benefit France. We can therefore see how the Republic plays into Butler’s characterization of perverse ethics. Butler dismisses the possibility of ethics being a “bargain” in which the Self and the Other are engaged in a relationship based on mutual benefit. Due to the fact that France follows such a system of reciprocal ethics, we can see that its treatment of the Roma denotes a lack of sympathy based on self-preservation and selfishness. Since the Roma fail to provide a reciprocated assistance to the French, France has no reason to keep the Roma within its territory; Romani lives are rendered useless and unwanted – signifying an enormous issue with the conditionality of human sympathy.

In realistic terms, France is not obligated by political law to sustain Romani livelihood, let alone accommodate the Roma with social programs such as housing or education. France has, by all means, the sovereign ability to decide who remains in its territory and cultural sphere. What the evidence of international criticism and Butler’s argument presents, however, is a call for action in which France steps out of its comfortable mindset of self-preservation. For the sake of human sympathy and ethical decency, it is crucial that France does not submit to its initial instinct to aggressively protect the Self, but instead makes the difficult effort to challenge the cyclical nature of Romani poverty. Only then will France surpass the prejudices stemming from false notions of ethical reciprocation and see the Other as connected to the Self in the realm of human experience and sympathy.



  1. Černušáková , Barbora, A Drop of Hope in the Sea of Fear: Tackling Hate Crimes against Roma in Hungary  (London: Amnesty International, 2017).
  2. As synthesized and utilized by the Council of Europe since December 2006 in “Descriptive Glossary of terms relating to Roma issues”, the term “Roma” refers to people of Roma, Sinti, Kale, Dom, Lom descent and other ethnically related traveller groups who reside in Europe, including those who self-identify as travellers or gypsies. For the purposes of this essay, the term will be used generally to describe all peoples who fit within the categories described.

  3. Viorel Achim, The Roma in Romanian History (Budapest: Central European Press, 2004), p. 7-8. Hereafter, cited intertextually as (Achim, #).

  4. Indians from Persia, now regarded as the Roma. Dr. Iona Bunescu, Roma in Europe: The Politics of Collective Identity Formation (Ashgate, 2014), p. 13-14.

  5. Ibid, p. 13-14.

  6. Other minority groups persecuted under Hitler’s regime were Jews, Polish nationals, homosexuals, Catholics, Jehovah’s witnesses, physically disabled people, etc.

  7. Council of Europe, p. 57.

  8. As specified by Bunescu, the World Romani Congresses have taken place in England (1971), Switzerland, (1978), West Germany (1981), Poland (1990), Czech Republic (2000), Italy (2004), Croatia (2008) and Romania (2013). Additionally, the European Roma Rights Center was established in Budapest, Hungary in 1996.

  9. European Rights Center, Always Somewhere Else: Anti-gypsyism in France (Budapest: European Roma Rights Center, 2005), p. 293-294. Hereafter, cited intertextually as (ERCa, #).

  10. Bernard Rorke. The French Roma File 1997-2005: The shame of the Republic (Part 1) (European Roma Rights Center, 2015).

  11. Here, it is important to note that the author of the text is referring to Roma making a living through legal means, not criminal methods such as pick-pocketing.

  12. European Council on Human Rights, Protocol 4, Article 4 (Strasbourg: ECHR, 1968). Following its judgment in the Conka vs. Belgium case, in which Slovakian Roma arriving in Belgium were collectively expelled, the European Council of Human Rights ruled Belgium’s actions in violation of the prohibition of collective expulsion and established said document to maintain that collective expulsion is against international human rights law, unless such expulsion is conducted objectively under reasonable cause and with examination of each person’s individual case.

  13. European Roma Rights Center, More than 11.000 Roma migrants forcefully evicted in France in 2015 (ERRC, 2016).

  14. The largest populations of Roma from Eastern E.U. countries are Romania (1,850,000) and Bulgaria  (650,000). Instituto de Enseñanza Secundaria Ribeira do Louro, et al, Romaninet - A Multimedia Romani Course For Promoting Linguistic Diversity And Improving Social Dialogue: Report On Roma People (Spain, 2011).

  15.  Marie Martin, Expulsion of Roma: the French Government’s Broken Promise (United Kingdom: Statewatch, 2013), p. 1-2.

  16. Cécile Barbière, France continues evicting Roma, cuts re-housing and integration efforts (EurActive.com, 2016); European Roma Rights Centre, More than 11.000 Roma migrants forcefully evicted in France in 2015 (Budapest: ERRC, 2016).

  17. Steven Erlanger, France: Sarkozy and Pope Meet Over French Actions Against Roma (New York City: New York Times, 2010).

  18. Angelique Chrisafis, European Union warns French minister over Roma comments (Paris: The Guardian, 2013).

  19. Diana E. Mahoney, Expulsion of the Roma: Is France Violating EU Freedom of Movement and Playing by French Rules or Can it Proceed with Collective Roma Expulsions Free of Charge (Worcester: Brooklyn Journal of International Law, 2012), p. 651.

  20. Nikolaj Nielsen, French minister's anti-Roma remarks draw EU criticism (Brussels: EUObserver, 2013).

  21. Judith Butler, Precarious Life and the Obligations of Cohabitation (University of California, 2012).