From the gypsies to the Roma, old and new mythologies

Des tsiganes aux Roms, mythologies anciennes et nouvelles | Rom, Eric Fassin, Nicolas Sarkozy, Manuel Valls, Nomadisme, Tsiganes, Martin Olivera, Elisabeth Clanet, Olivier Gros, Jean RossettoNever a social group drew upon itself so much frenzy full of hatred and simplifications like those we commonly call "Roma", the broad "minestrone" category of European societies, economically poor and politically fragile.

France is no exception to this phenomenon, where the discourse of leaders has greatly contributed to the further polarization of the so-called "Roma". Of course, these are not the only ones targeted, also the French of North African origin, at regular intervals, become the scapegoats for the ills of the French society. "There is, therefore, a circular rhetoric: the projector is moved, depending on current events, among these diverse 'others', ie among these social 'alienated' groups", noted Eric Fassin in a speech on the occasion of the "Roms, et qui d'autre?"(1) day.

Des tsiganes aux Roms, mythologies anciennes et nouvelles | Rom, Eric Fassin, Nicolas Sarkozy, Manuel Valls, Nomadisme, Tsiganes, Martin Olivera, Elisabeth Clanet, Olivier Gros, Jean Rossetto


Is it possible, nevertheless, to get some order in this deleterious game of representations? What mythologies feed the prejudices about "Roma"? And what exactly is the "Roma issue"?



Two episodes of stigmatization on "Roma" have significantly marked the French political life, both the right and the left, for the last five years.

Des tsiganes aux Roms, mythologies anciennes et nouvelles | Rom, Eric Fassin, Nicolas Sarkozy, Manuel Valls, Nomadisme, Tsiganes, Martin Olivera, Elisabeth Clanet, Olivier Gros, Jean RossettoFirst, Nicolas Sarkozy's speech of Grenoble on July 30, 2010, in the aftermath of the violence in Saint-Aignan and Grenoble.

In his securitarian harangue, the French President urged citizens to stand against a minority of immigrants and Roma, who, massed in cities and camps, swelled the ranks of delinquency and crime. Massive dismantling of the camps and the systematic expulsion policy became the norm.

Although intending to distinguish himself from his predecessor, Emmanuel Valls, prime minister of the Hollande government, has taken his place. Talking to the media in November 2013, when he was the Interior Minister, he criticized the "Roma people" accusing them of having "very different ways of life... in comparison" to ours. "It is illusory - he explained - to think that you can solve the problem of the Roma populations only through integration [...], there is no other solution than to gradually dismantle these camps and return (these people) to the borders...".


The tale of the Roma

Des tsiganes aux Roms, mythologies anciennes et nouvelles | Rom, Eric Fassin, Nicolas Sarkozy, Manuel Valls, Nomadisme, Tsiganes, Martin Olivera, Elisabeth Clanet, Olivier Gros, Jean RossettoSo, Emmanuel Valls does not hesitate to resort to a representation kneaded of preconceived ideas, that consists of bringing together extremely different groups in a single category, that of "Roma", considered collectively as an "in-integrable" homogeneous minority. This rhetoric riddled of essentialism shows that the stereotypes and racism are no longer just the prerogative of the discussions at the bar but have become, as highlighted by the philosopher Jacques Rancière, "a passion of the intelligentsia" who end up inspiring directives and laws that govern us.

This passion, regarding the Roma, is traversed by a mythological narrative that can be summarized thus: this people from distant Indian origins, arrived in Europe many centuries ago, is sentenced by a kind of atavistic nomadic lifestyle to live on the edge of our cities in filthy makeshift camps. This fable, coated by the rhetoric of the "politically correct", is more or less maintained by the European institutions in an embellished version since the thesis, once again, of a compact ethnic minority is confirmed.

Discriminated against at all times, this minority would therefore be unable to fit in our modern societies, to live like Europeans, to access to housing, education, health, integrate and, therefore, to settle.

Either victims or perpetrators, these populations continue to attract an anti-Gypsyism that has resisted over time with its paraphernalia of preconceived ideas: thieves, idlers, nomads, marginals, asocials... However, the generic category of gypsies - in which the Manouche, gypsies, romanichels, 'bohemians', travelers are brought together from the 19th century - has found itself in two decades to be replaced by that of "Roma" that has even obtained, in 1993, the legal status of a European minority.

But we are entitled, in France, to speak of a Roma minority?


The confusion of denominations

How to call them, then? And how do they define themselves? Certainly with a multitude of names. 'Bohémiens', Manouche, Gypsies, Sinti, a diversity that refutes by itself the existence of a compact ethnic minority. "The Bohémiens, as they were called until 1970, notes the historian Henriette Asséo, were radicated for centuries not only in the country but in a precise region: the Bohémiens of the Basque Country lived in the same villages since the sixteenth century, to the point of acquiring Basque patronymics, the manouche of the countries of the Loire from the 'Bohémiens captains' descendants protected by local nobles, Catalan Gypsies from the south, 'bouminas' from the Provence, Alsatian Sintis or Piedmontese from the Duchy of Savoy... etc. The list is as varied as the table ethnography of the French provinces of the time. Each time, a different culture mixes the Romany and local languages, without any element of nomadism. Their rootedness is shown in the archives of the civil state "(2)

Yet, at the end of the 19th century, these different realities are all incorporated in the designation of "Gypsy". A pejorative term that fails to take into account the multitude of groups and names that vary according to the historical period, the forms of social organization and the regions of settlement in the French territory. However, there is always one constant: all these groups have in common the fact that they define themselves in opposition to the "gadje", the "others".


Des tsiganes aux Roms, mythologies anciennes et nouvelles | Rom, Eric Fassin, Nicolas Sarkozy, Manuel Valls, Nomadisme, Tsiganes, Martin Olivera, Elisabeth Clanet, Olivier Gros, Jean RossettoNomadism

This category encourages the adoption of the law of 1912 that includes the itinerant populations and gypsies in the legal status of "nomads." This discriminatory and disciplinary law is still in force, and is a further measure in the process of control and identification used by the French Republic against these people. This hostile administrative treatment serves to guarantee the traceability of populations recorded in the mobility.

The anthropometric identity card to which they are now subjected serves to regulate hawker professions and circulation of the "nomads."

All those who have more than thirteen years of age must have one and have it stamped on entry and exit from each municipality crossed. This document involves a variety of measures and a double photograph. To move without this paper is a crime punishable by law. The head of the family has also a collective one in which all members of the household are registered. In 1969, a similar bill replaced the legal term "nomad" with that of "itinerant", and the anthropometric document with a paper of circulation. The term "itinerant" is more suitable to the French Constitution which excludes any ethnic reference.

Being an "itinerant" does not mean being a nomad but to enroll in economic mobility to meet own needs. These people's way of life is integrated in the French economy in which the itinerant trade is widespread until the mid-twentieth century. One can still belong to the itinerants' world without being part of any gypsy group. According FNASAT (Fédération nationale des associations solidaires d'action avec les Tsiganes et les Gens du voyage), in France today there are between 400,000 and 500,000 "itinerants".


The obsession of the origins

Recent studies have confirmed the Indian origin of the "Gypsies", completely rejecting their alleged nomadism. "In fact, more than a migration of nomads, says Elisabeth Calnet dit Lamanit, we're dealing with a massive deportation of populations of villages and citizens with skills useful to the Seljuk army whose conquests led, in the 11th century, to the colonization and the establishment of Turkic peoples in Asia Minor accompanied by a large number of Indians. The latter arrived as military slaves, lived nei'mahallas', or 'ethnic neighbourhoods', and came mostly from a major raid carried out decades before in a kingdom located in a valley in the middle of the Ganges. It is not, therefore, a "tribe" or an "ethnic group" or a "caste" in particular origin, but very diverse populations united only by the fact that they come mostly from the same region and to speak the same Prakrit "(3)

Des tsiganes aux Roms, mythologies anciennes et nouvelles | Rom, Eric Fassin, Nicolas Sarkozy, Manuel Valls, Nomadisme, Tsiganes, Martin Olivera, Elisabeth Clanet, Olivier Gros, Jean RossettoHowever, it seems like the gypsies have kept no memory of their Indian origins: "The reference to India is a recent intellectual construction, emphasizes Henriette Asséo. Also, in general, these people define themselves in relation to the region where their family stayed longer, distinction which is also found in the different dialects of the Romany language. " This view is echoed by the anthropologist Martin Olivera, who adds: "The religious, cultural and linguistic diversity of the gypsies is also a direct reflection of the diversity of European territories and their history, much more than the sign of a faded distant 'Indianness''.

Although the Indian origins do not appear in the gypsy mermories, and despite the fact that Elisabeth Clanet dit Lamanit's work confirms a displacement from India of "peasents and citizens with multiple skills" and not of nomads, the version of an ethnic group of nomadic ancestors of gypsies, continues to fuel thecommon imagination. The obsession of the origins does not lose its charm, like an ember ready to reactivate itself depending on the securitarian or pietistic rhetoric. "It is a recurring phenomenon, reserved almost exclusively to these populations, says Clanet. In fact, the authors that deal, for example, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, of Hungarian architecture or trade in Istanbul, do not feel at all obliged to refer, at the beginning of their research, to the Germanic or Magyar tribes coming from elsewhere, or to evoke the sedentarization of nomadic Turkmen at the gates of Constantinople ... (5)"

But to whom serves the mystification of the Roma and their origins?


The "Roma issue" or the ethnicization of the new poor

Just like the Gypsies, the Roma represent a political invention in the beginning of this century. That's a new category that absorbs many groups, and does not represent any of them: Itinerants - Gypsy and non - Manouche, Gypsies, Roma, poor migrants from Central and Eastern Europe perceived as a wave of incontrollable migration that threatens the country.

"Initially an endonym, underline Olivier Gros and Jean Rossetto, 'Roma' with time has become a polysemic term that covers both linguistic and cultural belonging, a geographical origin which is supposed to be common, namely from India, a problematic social position characterized by marginalization and exclusion, a legal status since 1993, when the Roma, then still indicated by the name of Gypsies, were treated as a European minority"(6).

Des tsiganes aux Roms, mythologies anciennes et nouvelles | Rom, Eric Fassin, Nicolas Sarkozy, Manuel Valls, Nomadisme, Tsiganes, Martin Olivera, Elisabeth Clanet, Olivier Gros, Jean Rossetto

A rapid historical reconstruction is needed. The enlargement of the European Union has resulted in the removal of borders and in access to citizenship of many citizens of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe (Hungary joined the EU in 2004, Bulgaria and Romania in 2007). The latters leave their countries because of the impoverishment caused by economic transition. Among them, also hundreds of thousands of Roma reach Western Europe and most do not choose to go to France, but to Italy and Spain. "To date, among the 15 thousand new migration of Roma in France (a drop in the 150 thousand foreigners who move every year in our country), there is no 'ethnic momads'"'says Asséo (7).

Demonized, legally in an irregular situation, because not provided with the conditions required to settle in their host countries, these European migrants survive in extremely precarious conditions. Thus, although they represent a small part of them, the Roma are mixed to all the poor migrants - Roma and non - in a new categorization designated under the term "Roma issue". All poor migrants are then traced to a fictitous ethnic group, and this involves a process of disturbing deterritorialization and denationalization.

According to Martin Olivera this process of ethnicization of poverty leads to distraction of the gaze away away from the real problems: "for people suffering from decades of growing socio-economic relegation, only real social policies based on the idea of ​​redistribution, would be able to improve their conditions. There is no use fighting against discrimination or invoking the 'inclusion' when the system itself, the way it works, produces its own marginalized and etnicizes poverty. The rhetoric of 'Roma issue' seems to be a miserable cover in a Europe in tatters. " (8)

The European Commission and the international organizations, directly affected by these new migration flows that they could neither direct nor prevent, multiply directives and public policies, helping to spread the image of a transnational and marginal population that feeds the xenophobic and racist rhetoric in some member states. By doing so, inadvertently, the visibility and the stigmatization of groups known as Roma increase in the public space. "Repeated endlessly by the institutions and the media, continue Olivier Gros and Jean Rossetto, statistics on the inclusion or marginalization of the Roma end up building a doxa or ideology that are extremely difficult to call into question, as if they were built on scientific basis. "(9).


Nathalie Galesne

Translated from Italian by Övgü Pınar


  Supported by :

 Roma in Turkey: Not recognized, not protected | Ali Mezarcıoğlu, Cingenelerin Kitabı, çingeneyiz, Dursun, Ali Şahin Edirne Roman Havas, Hacer Foggo, European Roma Rights Centre







  1. Eric Fassin, Pourquoi les? Revue Lignes n° 35,giugno 2011;
  2. Henriette Asséo, L'identité tsigane, EHESS, report of the conference of 27.04.2001;
  3. Elisabeth Clanet dit Lamanit,Enjeux et instrumentalisation de l’objet « origine »dans les discours autour du concept d’un « peuple » dit « rom », Revue Lignes n° 34, febbraio 2011;
  4. Martin Olivera, Roms en Bidonville, éd. Rue d’Ulm/presses de l’Ecole normale supérieure, 2011;
  5. Elisabeth Clanet dit Lamanit, ibid, pag.1;
  6. Olivier Gros e Jean Rossetto, « La question», in Europe aujourd’hui : Regards croisés et mise en perspectives, Etudes Tsiganes n.46;
  7. Henriette Asséo "Le nomadisme tsigane": une invention politique, Le Monde 29.07.2010;
  8. Martin Olivera, ibid, ppg.62-63;
  9. Olivier Gros e Jean Rossetto, ibid, pag.9.

I'd like to thank Evelyne Pommerat from the Mateo Maximoff (Paris) multimedia library for her invaluable bibliographic advice.











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