French president Nicolas Sarkozy
This week I range from my primary school days in rural Scotland to the recent remarkable activities of an itinerant family from Eastern Europe whose half-French son married a singer from Italy who now prefers to live in Paris.
My side of the story is vivid recollections of my first school in the depths of the countryside. Between the ages of five and eight I was one of just 10 pupils, three of whom were from gypsy families living in tents and temporary shelters in nearby woods. My exposure as an impressionable child to these Romany people gave me early practice in the compromises needed to live in today’s multi-ethnic society in Europe. It also helped me understand the dilemma and difficulties which exist today in Bulgaria in integration and acceptance of our Roma people. One thing I’m sure about is that when I was a small boy in the 1940s, neither Winston Churchill or Clement Attlee (who succeeded him) tried to bulldoze the gypsy camp-sites or to deport the "tinkers" (as we called them) back to where they came from.
The French connection is another matter. An immigrant boy who was an aristocrat, not a gypsy, came from Hungary. He was almost certainly, as France’s interior minister, a supporter of the EU sponsored "Decade of the Roma" project launched in 2004 while I was working as an adviser to Bulgaria’s then-prime minister, Simeon Saxe-Coburg. His father’s name was Pal Istvan Erno Sarkozy de Nagy-Bocsa. The beautiful young woman Nicolas married not so long ago was Carla Bruni. The situation which came to a head last week involving Roma people in France from Bulgaria and Romania would in my view be a perfect plot for a modern grand opera, as a sequel to the original one of Johann Strauss II, in which president Sarkozy plays the lead role as the new Gypsy Baron.
The classical opera by this name fits the family profile superbly. Set in Hungary in the 18th century, it is the story of the marriage of a landowner (returned from exile) and a gypsy girl who is revealed as the daughter of a Turkish Pasha, and the rightful owner of hidden treasure. It involves a fortune-telling Romany Queen, an absurdly self-important mayor, a rascally Commissioner, a military governor, a band of gypsies and a troop of Hussars.*
I now press the "fast forward" button. It is hard to believe that about 700 Roma present a real threat to France and the French way of life. From a security and crime statistics point of view the problems are already much greater from the country’s long-established ethnic minority groups whose younger generation are being seriously excluded from equal opportunities and have been demonstrating violently in Paris suburbs like Neuilly-sur-Seine where Nicolas Sarkozy was mayor for almost 20 years till 2002.
The present small groups of Roma in France are seeking to assert their status as EU citizens to find seasonal work and improved recognition, even perhaps integration, which has till now been such a problem for them at home in Bulgaria and Romania. A life of crime and oppression was in my view not what they were looking for, but they have been driven to that by the icy welcome they received from French society at large. The peremptory annihilation of their camps with minimal advance warning is in contravention of all human rights. The one way flight home with 300 Euros in their pockets is not much compensation.
It is an interesting contrast that many Roma families have, over the years, exported honest and enterprising representatives to Western Europe and other continents. Their professions have included show business, the arts, the circus – but also regrettably the world’s oldest profession. Eastern European prostitutes in Paris far outnumber the 700 rural and suburban Roma being repatriated through the latest Sarkozy initiative from French communities where their continued presence is probably illegal but certainly inconvenient. I have a sneaking suspicion that some vested interests would not lightly agree to the peremptory deportation of this other side of the Roma society in France – the young, beautiful, female ones who during the hours of darkness can earn in an hour or two the 300 euro their unfortunate compatriots are being sent home with.
Nothing I have said makes valid excuses for the continued failure in Bulgaria (and of course in Romania) to educate and integrate Roma people, to increase the employment openings for them, and to give them better opportunities for healthcare and social security. Prejudices against them are widespread, and for all the above reasons their birth rate continues to be excessive including a high level of under-age pregnancies. The "Decade of the Roma" project mentioned earlier which applied to all Eastern European countries failed partly because grant and loan funding to support it has found its way into the wrong hands, especially the Gypsy Barons who help to perpetuate the inequality the Roma suffer.
We do have a need in Bulgaria to re-prioritise our actions to help the Roma at political and executive levels both nationally and municipally. My dream is to find a persuasive champion for this effort, perhaps by identifying a new and statesmanlike Gypsy Baron who will be the star of my 21st Century opera by that name. Failure to act now will call for even more resources to be devoted in the years ahead to assist this under-privileged sector of our society. A couple of hundred returnees from France, sent back here by our French/Hungarian friend, will not make much difference either way and will soon be a forgotten news story.
*Source: verbatim from Wikipedia