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Fear of ourselves

As long as the Roma remain persona non grata at the rich lands' tables, the emancipation of the European individual is still on shaky ground.

The president of the French republic raised a mountain, and it has fallen on his toes. In launching its offensive against the Roma, the French government believed it could turn to its electoral advantage a problem which is essentially a problem of border policing and the state authorities. Major error. The question of the Roma is not about public or social security, it is about mental security. And it is not a uniquely French problem, it is a European problem.

After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the American daily the Los Angeles Times conducted one of the first polls in Eastern Europe in 1990. The results showed that for 80 percent of the populations freshly freed from Communism – Czechs, Hungarians, Romanians, Bulgarians and Poles, the 'Gypsy' was the incarnation of the diabolical other.

In the nineties and in the face of strong popular resistance, Czech President Vaclav Havel tore down a ghetto where his people wanted to see the "travelling people" incarcerated. The hatred of the "Gypsies" may be widespread and have seen its worse excesses in Eastern Europe, but it is certainly no stranger to the West. Nineteen century literature and opera – from Victor Hugo to Verdi – amply betrays the fears of the sedentary about the non-territorial collective. Begging, disease, thieving, and even fantasies about child snatching - such were the associations that for centuries haunted a European mind living in fear of "people who don't live as we do". Propelling this hysteria to its extreme, the Nazis sent these "sub-humans" to the gas chambers.

By implementing – at long last! – the right to freedom of movement for all its members, the European Union stirred up ancient fears, as the ousted returned. Confronted with an endemic malaise, the French reaction has emerged as inadequate and detrimental, as churches and NGO's rightly pointed out. The issue is less about the Roma than about those for whom the Roma are a problem. Postmodern Europe loves to break taboos which impose restrictions on its freedom, but at the same time rears up in front of immigrants. And it is petrified of the Roma, a people who move around of their own volition and tradition. We have to understand that this is less about a refusal of the other than a refusal of the self.

The lifting of borders, the Europeanisation of nations, the globalisation of the continent, all this has propelled every one of us into a universe with no clear orientation and with no infallible norms. Remember Charles de Gaulle's diagnosis of 1965: "The general progress, has left a cloud hanging over the individual. The old serenity of nations of peasants certain of a mediocre but secure existence on the land, has been replaced in the children of the century with a stifling fear of the uprooted."

The smiling face of rootlessness are the 300,000 French expats who line their pockets in the City of London when the stock market booms. And the tragic face are the travelling people who are chased from one wild campsite to the next, deprived de facto of their rights to travel and beg, as only Communism had tried to do using force. The Roma inpire fear. To hide the Roma is to hide our brothers in rootlessness, and they are an unavoidable and frightening part of our destiny. The fear of the Roma is an unacknowledged fear of ourselves.

If you refuse to recognise the nomads' right to live as travellers, if you do not offer them the opportunity to move around in acceptable conditions, you are entering the realm of racist and xenophobic obsession. A minimum of decency demands, and indeed French law stipulates, that proper lodging facilities be set up to replace the random camp sites and the disgraceful settlements which should be an embarrassment to the whole Europe.

The media furore over the - more or less voluntary - collective repatriation, of hundreds of unhappy people is pointless when in Romania alone, two million European citizens are sitting on packed bags telling themselves that the life of a beggar in France is less of a catastrophe than that of an ostracised have-not in East Central Europe. It is also pointless that the European Union is doing its best to force a vagabond people to settle. This policy was one of the obsessions of Nicolae Ceausecu and his totalitarian accomplices. The Brussels subsidies will not succeed where police terror failed. And it is pointless for Sarkozy to send his envoys to Bucharest to try to convince the government there to do more for integration and assimilation. The Romanian authorities can't do it and and the Gypsies don't want it.

So it is up to us prosperous nations to bring about an intellectual revolution, for the recognition of the legitimacy of a trans-European nomadic tradition that is hundreds of years old. The right to errancy is indelibly written into democracy.

And let no one say that plenty of defenders of this right to freedom of movement have raised their voices. The Brussels bureaucrats, those aediles of modern Europe, have not lifted a finger to ensure that the Roma's right to freedom of movement is guaranteed. And the sweet-talking greens who are always so quick to mow down GM plants in front of camera teams, have not exactly rushed to the side of these "travellers" to fight for their reinstatement. Save the planet yes. Save its nomads, no? European parliamentary initiatives are also conspicuous by their absence or inefficacy.

Only a handful of individuals who have had it up to here with intolerance have given some well-intended sermons to the "democrats", but they have gone in one ear and out the other. Let's be very clear about this: European freedoms are not restricted to the business community, the powerful and the intellectuals of this world. The free circulation of goods and ideas is guaranteed; now it's time to secure the freedom of the weakest among us, those with the border-crossing caravans, the travelling people with no homes who so fascinated the musicians and poets of yesteryear. As long as the Roma remain personae non gratae at the rich lands' tables, the emancipation of the European individual is still on shaky ground.

Cut the hypocrisy! In this outrageous demagogic closing of ranks the Roma are being vilified on one side, and the French are coming under attack by the international media on the other. The Times talks of a French "Gestapo", The Daily Mail said a "system of deportation" was at work. Even the Bejing People's Daily had the effrontery to adopt this terminology. It is possible to criticise Sarkozy's policy on the Roma without tarring him as Petain or Laval, without resorting to insult and caricature. But the delirium races ahead. The Roma are the expiatory victims of the lost children of globalisation, Nicolas Sarkozy has been demonised by an opposition with no ideas of its own, and France is being condemned by European and international organisations who have lost their way and sense of purpose. Each to their own scapegoat.

Just to make myself very clear: I am neither interested in mounting the high horse of exaggerated moralising, nor in furrowing my brow over inner security. All that interests me here is the Roma and their scandalous and unnecessary suffering. Neither the forces of repression nor in the counter-forces of invective, do anything to improve their situation. One or two municipalities have responded to the pressure by offering up their sports halls. For a week? A month perhaps? Then what? The presidential election is scheduled for two years from now. Let's just hope that they don't use this to prolong the debates that have already crowned Paris the capital of derision.

This article was originally published in French in Le Monde on 31 September, 2010

Andre Glucksmann (born 1937 is a French philosopher and writer. His most recent book is "Une rage d'enfant" was published in 2006.

Translation:lp - let's talk european