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France and the Travelers: “They Are Channeling Social Anger by Offering It an Outlet“

Police violence, discourse on “security”, and xenophobia: the war declared by the government against the Roms and the gens du voyage[1] has unleashed wide-spread indignation. The philosopher Grégoire Chamayou puts this new state-organized man-hunt into perspective.

Police violence, discourse on “security”, and xenophobia: the war declared by the government against the Roms and the gens du voyage[1] has unleashed wide-spread indignation. The philosopher Grégoire Chamayou puts this new state-organized man-hunt into perspective.

Graduate of the École normale with a doctorate in Philosophy, Grégoire Chamayou published this year Les Chasses à l’homme[2]. Specialist in Kant and Foucault, he also works for the publishing house Zones, centered on counter-culture, activism, and new forms of contestation.

Huma: What do you think about the political question raised concerning the Roms, and all this shamelessness [3] in taking racist positions.

Grégoire Chamayou: This is undeniably a case of setting back-fires to divert attention from the Woerth-Sarkozy-Bettencourt affair. The procedure is now routine: as soon as the powers-that-be find themselves weakened on social issues, they step up the xenophobia and racism. They select, from among stigmatized groups, one to set at bay, at the mercy of public opinion. The government is directly implicated in a case of tax evasion? It announces fiscal controls in caravans on vacant land in the slums. Ministers dip into cases of cigars? It talks about “big shots” among the gens de voyage. It is a process of shifting the scenery in the psychoanalytic sense of these terms: it moves the problem from one image to another, from one social group to another. It gives the public an alternative focus. This channels the people’s anger by furnishing another outlet, a prey that is closer at hand, more accessible. The Roms are all the more easily a target, being the victims of an historically rooted racism, with all its cliches and stereotypes. All led by Brice Hortefeux, a minister himself ordered to stand trial for racist remarks, but still in office. This tactic of the smoke-screen would be laughable if it were not accompanied by dramatic human consequences.[4]

Huma: The parallel with the hunting of the poor is
 mentioned in your essay. Is it relevant?

Grégoire Chamayou: In the seventeenth century, European states embarked on extensive hunts of the poor, of beggars and vagrants. This was the birth of the police as hunter arm of the state. Failing to eradicate poverty, we already had begun to exclude the poor. This policy had a double face: enclose the premises and expel foreigners. But the most foreign of the foreigners, the most undesirable of the undesirables, were the Bohemians. As wrote one historian of the nineteenth century, “They were hunted, followed, caught like wild beasts, women shaved, then flogged, destroyed, expelled from the kingdom, the men chained to the benches of a galley for life.” The gens du voyage have suffered centuries-old persecution. Much later, during the Second World War, they were interned in camps on French soil. That there can now be measures of banishment announced against them, emergency measures taken against EU citizens, citizens supposed to have freedom of movement, is a sign that this work of memory has not been accomplished.

Huma: What role does the police play, now strengthened by the “power of stalking and capture” you describe?

Grégoire Chamayou: The police power was historically created outside the judiciary context. While we are presented with the police as the embodiment of law, it is primarily something else. The idea that the police, in order to act, must distort the law that impedes their action, is not an idea introduced by screen writers, it is a structural tension. Respect for the law is not the primary motivation of the police; it is the pleasure of the hunt. Today, police in the BAC do not say anything different: “We are the hunters.” But in the case of the Loir-et-Cher[5], we cannot rule out the possibility of a messy police “blunder”. A young man of twenty-two years is dead, it is from there that we must start. The question that first arises is that of the death, after dozens of others in similar circumstances, under the bullets of the police or gendarmerie. We need to demand truth and justice. The riots had this as their main objective. And this is not a question of any particular “community”. It is a democratic requirement.

Translator’s note: This article, published in l’Humanité the end of last July, was not translated by us into English at the time. Its depth of analysis, and the current intensification of the struggle against state xenophobia, is a compelling reason to translate it now.

[1] Often referred to as “gypsies” in English, of East-European and Indian origin. The term gens de voyage (travellers) was created in French law in order not to identify nomadic peoples by race.

[2] “Man-hunts”, La Fabrique, February 2010.

[3]The French text spoke of “décomplexion”, a word used by members of the government to suggest that racism can be a natural, rather ordinary, state of mind, something not to be embarrassed about.

[4]The gens de voyage can claim certain rights under French law. They are French citizens, cities of more than 5000 inhabitants are required by law to provide parking areas for them, and their children “should” be sent to school. They have the right to vote if they have filled out a required travel notebook. The Roms are European citizens, but only recently, with the entry of Romania and Bulgaria into the European Union. The right of Romanians and Bulgarians to travel and to settle are initially restricted, and the Roms are also looked down upon in their countries of origin. They are easy targets for discrimination. They can be sent back, even illegally, to the countries from which they came.

The principal dates this summer:
— During the month of July, the gens de voyage set up a barricade to protest the death of one of their youth, killed when pursued by the police.
— In a speech on 28 July, Sarkozy pointed directly to “problems posed by the behavior of certain gens de voyage and Roms”
— 30 July in Grenoble, Sarkozy proclaims the necessity for the evacuation of illegal camps of the Roms.
— 11 August, the United Nations places France on the index for racial discrimination.
— 18 August, Viviane Reding, European Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, reminds France “to respect the rules concerning the freedom of circulation, and the right to settle, of European citizens.”
— 19 August, the first expulsion of 86 Roms to Romania.
— 23 August, Brice Hortefeux announces that 88 encampments of Roms have already been dismantled, while Eric Besson says that 261 Roms have already been removed across the French border.
— 25-6 August, A meeting between Brice Hortefeux, Eric Besson and two Romanian State Secretaries concerning the reinsertion of the Roms in Romania.
— This enumeration of events in no way implies that the situation of the gens de voyage has improved.

[5] The death of Luigi Duquenet, the night of 16-17 July, in Saint-Romain-sur-Cher.