The Roma in France: "Is Hollande going to expel us all?"

Like their classmates, Roma children in one Paris suburb are getting to grips with a new school year - but French ministers continue to play politics with their future.

The Roma families who live in the Voltaire settlement in Saint-Denis, near Paris, count themselves lucky. They live on a piece of land owned by the state, they have houses – modest prefab affairs that they built themselves, using materials put at their disposal by a philantropic entrepreneur – and their children go to school. It's early September, la rentrée, and I'm following the steps of Adriana, a 30-year-old charity worker, who's going from house to house to help parents fill up school forms in French (the ones that say who to call in case of emergency, and whether you want your kid to have school meals). Adriana makes sure parents understand how parent-teacher books work, and I am reminded of my own childhood: a mother holds a notebook covered in yellow plastic, and nods intently to explanations given in Romanian. Here, school is taken seriously too.

In Romania, Adriana, who studied psychology, used to work in a bank. She moved to France three years ago and now acts as a mediator between the 200 Roma people who live in this settlement and the council (which finances her job). Like all Romanians, she is free to visit France but, in theory, not allowed to stay for longer than three months. She's been fighting to obtain the right to live in France, with the help of Rues et Cités, the charity that employs her. "I didn't know much about Roma culture before," she says. "I discovered they have values I can identify with." She confirms school is important to parents and their children. "In this settlement, there's a 13-year-old girl who was born in France. She's always been to school here. When kids have been going to school in France for a few years, there's never any problems with them. We don't receive reports from the schools signaling that they have been called this or that by their schoolmates – which can happen when they're only starting and don't speak French." Prejudice, she thinks, is largely fuelled by the French media. "If you were to believe them, you'd think there were 100 000 Roma people in France. As it happens, there's only 15,000 of them." Adriana was hoping that after Hollande election "people would stop talking about 'Roma', and only talk about 'Romanians' or 'Bulgarians', that the ethnicisation would be abandoned." But it hasn't. "I suppose headlines about Roma sell well," she says, shrugging.

Prejudice, indeed, is not hard to come across. As I take the tram to leave the settlement, I hear a black teenage schoolgirl tell her friends what she saw on a popular TV program (Jean-Luc Morandini's) the night before: "The police visited the slum in front of my house and found out that there were not 300, like they thought, but 600 Roma living there. And they only expelled 300. What are they waiting for? They say they're going to make Roma people work. I say: why don't they send them to work in the North Pole instead?" The girl has, I find out, strong suspicions that Roma boys stole her phone on the previous week, in this same tram.

The way Saint-Denis council treats its Roma inhabitants does not match up with what is happening in the rest of the country. The Saint-Denis district concentrates one fifth of Roma population in France, while wealthier districts like the Hauts de Seine (Sarkozy's electoral heartland) are very prompt, I am told, to let Roma know that they are not welcomed on their territory, effectively washing their hands of these migrants. Saint-Denis councillors have been pleading for a fairer repartition of newcomers in the country – to no avail so far. They have also had to appease the outrage and racist reactions of some of the local residents when Roma people settle near their houses. In the city, there are two heavily monitored 'insertion villages' (which are watched by a janitor and have a curfew), one settlement like the one I visited, that allows more freedom to its inhabitants, and six or seven slums where newcomers agregate. When possible, rather than systematically eliminating the slums, the council tries to ensure people who live there have access to water and that their garbage is collected. As Michel Ribay, delegate for environment and education for the council, puts it: "We try to be pragmatic, and focus on education. In the city, there are 15 kids who go to nursery school, 19 kids in elementary school, a dozen in secondary school. This is the generation who could turn things the other way around, so that boys and girls don't reproduce existing patterns of economic insertion and integration. It's also important to make some effort to keep the older Roma children in school, when they reach an age where they could be able to help their family by working."

France's policy towards Roma is flawed with major inconsistencies. Marian Mandache, head of Romani Criss, the main Roma NGO in Romania, condemns it strongly: "We believe that the French government, be it right-wing or left-wing, UMP or PS, is mainly looking at ways to reduce numbers, following the idea that Roma people should leave France and stay in Romania, and we believe this is wrong. The focus should not be on restrictive policies but rather on integration and insertion." For him, the new government has done little to make the Romas' situation better: "In the new set of measures they presented, they maintained the 800 euros tax that employers have to pay when they hire a Romanian or a Bulgarian worker – which is a lot of money for a small contract. They've only added a few jobs to the list of jobs that these migrants are authorised to do and are continuing the policy of expulsion, which is costly and inefficient, as Romanian and Bulgarian people can return the following day or week, and do. This money would be better spent on insertion programs." For Mandache, a succesful policy "should start by observing what jobs Roma people who live in France actually do (mostly metal and garbage collection, and some trade) and make them legal." Cooperation between Romanian and French schools for children who go back and forth is also much needed, he says, to prevent them being lost when they enter a different education system.

But this is not the way things seem to be going. On 12 September, Manuel Valls, French Interior Minister, chose to go to Bucharest to criticise discrimination against Roma there. "Everything he said was true," says Mandache, "but for the impact it's going to have, he might as well have stayed home." Observers point out that Valls seems keen to use the Roma case to pursue his own agenda. Benjamin Abtan, National Secretary of the EGAM (European Grassroots Antiracist Movement) and a member of SOS Racisme, says: "It's not as bad as with Sarkozy, who was pitting various elements of society against one another, Valls is using Roma to show that the left is not weak and that he is strong. Indeed, after the expulsions that took place at the end of the summer, he became France's most popular minister." In Brussels, important budgets have been allocated to the integration of Roma in Europe, reveals Abtan: "They amount to billions, and are only used up to 10 per cent. Sometimes there are even sent to the states and returned to Brussels untouched. It shows there is a lack of political will to embetter the condition of a population that is often misconstrued as being on the go, ready to leave at any minute."

Back at the Voltaire settlement, people are worried, because of the slum clearance that happened in Saint-Denis the same morning. "Is Hollande going to expel us all?," they ask. I cross paths with Lisa, who's 12 and excelling at school. I also meet a man who's holding a little baby girl in his arms. "We are Europe's misery", he says, several times in French, squeazing the little girl's cheeks. I look at him, puzzled, before suddenly realising he's using the words that Manuel Valls had been using on TV the day before when he declared that :"France cannot accommodate all Europe's misery". Meanwhile, the children who live here go to school. They know better than the French government.

Valeria Costa-Kostritsky is a French journalist based in London. This post first appeared on openDemocracy 50.50 here.

Children from the Roma community in Villeneuve d'Ascq, northern France. Photograph: Getty Images

Valeria Costa-Kostritsky is a French freelance journalist. She reports on social issues and contributes to the LRB, the Guardian, Index on Censorship and French Slate, with a particular interest in France and Russia. She is on Twitter as @valeria_wants.

 

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"The land of Gandhi can never be racist": is India in denial about its attitude to skin colour?

“If we were indeed racist, why would we live with the South Indians?" was how one politician addressed the debate. 

When we were kids, my younger brother and I would spend much of our time thinking up new and innovative ways to get under each other’s skin, as siblings often do. One of the most reliable weapons in my brother’s arsenal was a taunt about skin colour - he was quite fair even by Punjabi standards, a fact that he was inordinately proud of. I on the other hand, had a permanent tan. This is now politely referred to as a "dusky" complexion, but back then was just "kaala" (black).

Being older, I generally had the upper hand in this cold war of insults and condescension, but my brother employed this particular tactic to great success for a couple of years. Because it rankled, it really did. No amount of explanation about melanin and sun exposure, or the fact that we were both "brown" in the eyes of the world made a difference. He was fair, I was not, and that was that. We didn’t have the context or the vocabulary to articulate why that minor difference in skin tone was important, but we knew instinctively that it was. It took us years to realise how problematic these little exchanges were. By then, we had  recognised how racism and prejudice about skin colour had wormed its way into our psyches at a young age, even growing up in a fairly liberal household. We laugh about it now, and my brother is more than a little embarrassed about that short phase during his pre-adolescent years. But as recent events have reminded us, for many people in India, racism and colourism is no laughing matter.

Two weeks ago, a video posted on Facebook by the African Students Association of India (AASI) went viral. It showed a mob of 40-odd Indians armed with snooker cues, dustbins and chairs brutally assaulting two Nigerian students inside a mall in Greater Noida, a city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, just 40km from the national capital, and home to hundreds of students from Africa who study in the city’s many private colleges and universities. This was part of a wave of violence unleashed by residents of the city that saw at least four Nigerian students admitted to the hospital with serious injuries, and countless others being treated for minor injuries. The details of what transpired over that week are as familiar as they are sordid - a missing Indian student, who was later found, and died in the hospital of a suspected drug overdose. Rumours of Africans being "cannibals", a new addition to the long, long list of racist stereotypes about black Africans that are bandied about to justify such violence. Demands that all African residents of the area be kicked out. And eventually, inevitably, mob violence.

The response by the government and the police followed the general SOP for when such attacks happen - and they do, with alarming frequency. There were promises of swift action (which rarely materialises), brazen denials that the violence was motivated by racism or xenophobia (“Criminal not racial” is how External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj described one attack in 2016) and victim-blaming (“Africans are involved in drug-dealing, Africans don’t assimilate”).

Then there is the Gandhi factor. “India is the land of Gandhi and Buddha…we can never have a racist mindset,” declared a pompous Swaraj, conveniently ignoring the fact that Gandhi himself was a proponent of anti-blackness in his early years, separating the South African Indian community’s struggle for freedom from that of the Zulus and writing that “about the mixing of the Kaffirs (blacks) with the Indians, I must confess I feel most strongly.” The truth is that, despite three centuries of experiencing racial discrimination at the hands of British colonisers, India’s unrequited love affair with whiteness has remained undimmed. We - specifically the North Indians who dominate so much of our national political and cultural discourse - take pride in our "Aryan" heritage, thereby aligning ourselves with global white hegemony. We have internalised the pseudo-scientific European racial theories that were in vogue in the 19th and early 20th century, but have lingered on in our school textbooks long after they were debunked. Indeed, when black Africans in India talk about being treated like a caged animal in a zoo, it’s hard not to make connections with 19th century Europe’s infamous "human zoos".

But while much of India's anti-blackness can be traced back to a colonial hangover, it is also fuelled by our own indigenous strain of "colourism", one that predates European theories of racial superiority. Last week, former Bharatiya Janata Party MP Tarun Vijay went on an Al Jazeera programme to talk about the recent spate of attacks. “If we were indeed racist, why would all the entire south – you know Kerala, Tamil, Andhra, Karnataka – why do we live with them?,” he said. “We have blacks…black people around us.” In his attempt to defend India from charges of anti-blackness, Vijay inadvertently laid bare the full extent of India’s problem with skin colour-based bigotry - our othering of not just black Africans but also of the darker-skinned citizens from our own country. It’s not hard to guess who the "we" in that statement is - the fairer, upper caste North Indian Hindus that form the BJP’s core constituency, and who have for ages thought of themselves as the template for the "true Indian". Everyone else, whether it’s Dalits and lower caste citizens from across the country, or the Dravidian residents of the southern parts of the country (both associated, though not entirely accurately, with darker skin colour), are merely tolerated. These two strains of bigotry - race and caste - combine to create a society where darkness is, at best, treated as a personal failing, something that you must strive to overcome. At its worst, it leads to dehumanisation and, eventually, violence.

Much of the blame for the persistence of such toxic attitudes towards skin colour rest with India’s pop culture and mass media industries. Bollywood, as always, has been a pioneer. For decades, people of darker skin colour have been pushed to the margins, relegated to the role of caricature or villain. Take for example the still iconic song from the 1965 film Gumnaam, in which comedian Mehmood tries to win the attention of Anglo-Indian actress Helen. “Hum kaale hue to kya hua dilwale hain (so what if I’m black, I still love you),” he sings, reinforcing the improbability of a beautiful (read fair-skinned) woman like Helen falling in love with a dark-skinned man. More recently, there was the 2008 film Fashion, in which Priyanka Chopra plays a model whose descent into drugs and depravity finally hits rock bottom when she wakes up one morning next to a black man. There’s also a long history of Indian films featuring "blackface" and racist stereotypes of black Africans, best exemplified by a horrifying scene from 2000 film Hadh Kar Di Aapne, in which… actually, just watch it yourself because I can’t figure out a way to put it into words without throwing my laptop out the window.

Indian television is no different, with dark-skinned actors - especially women - so rarely seen on programmes or advertising, that any advertisement that dares to break the norm is celebrated as groundbreakingly progressive. And then there’s the fairness cream industry, endorsed by a host of top film and television celebrities, with advertisements that inextricably link fairness not just to beauty but also to employability, self-confidence and suitability for marriage. Just take a look at this epic five part tele-commercial by Ponds, appropriately titled White Beauty. The focus on whiteness is relentless, and this colourism runs rampant even as Indian movies and television borrow and steal from black culture at will, even bringing in rap artists like Snoop Dogg and T-Pain to perform on Bollywood songs. It’s another thing that Snoop Dogg - or anyone with the same skin colour - has as much chance of playing the lead in Bollywood as I have of becoming Potus.

In recent years, as Indians outrage about racist attacks against non-resident Indians (NRIs) in the US and Europe and get involved in global conversations about racism and cultural appropriation, many of us have also started turning a spotlight on racism back home. The fairness cream industry is facing increasing criticism, even from high profile actors like Abhay Deol who would otherwise earn big money by appearing in their ads. Explicit racism in film and in advertising no longer goes unchallenged. When former Miss World and current Bollywood royalty Aishwarya Rai appeared in a print ad for a jewellery brand that alluded to 17th century European paintings of noblewomen, complete with emaciated black child servant holding up a red parasol, she was met with a barrage of criticism and outrage that forced the company to withdraw the ad. But as last month’s attacks make clear, this is not nearly enough.

First, the Indian government and our political class needs to acknowledge that racism and anti-blackness are a real problem, instead of trying to brush it under the carpet. Step one would be to bring in a long overdue law against racial discrimination. But as the persistence of caste despite the legal abolition of caste distinctions 70 year ago shows, having laws on the books is not enough. We need massive programmes to sensitise police, bureaucrats and the public at large about the toxic effects of racism and how to counter it. Racist stereotypes in media and public discourse should be shut down, not tolerated or even reproduced by political leaders as they are now. Anti-racist and anti-caste discourse should be an integral part of the school curriculum. Celebrities, activists and civil society needs to be much more vocal in their critique of racist and colourist speech and actions. There are more than enough policy prescriptions out there, if we can find the political will to put them into action. And we must find it soon. Or our kids will continue to grow up with the notion that social worth is tied to where you are on the Fitzpatrick scale, they will continue to weaponise skin colour in schools and in playgrounds. And for those of us with darker skin, whether black Africans or "black" Indians, the possibility of sudden, explosive violence will always lurk around the corner.

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. 

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