President Nicolas Sarkozy’s clampdown against Romanian and Bulgarian Roma immigrants took a new twist recently when France’s only gypsy circus announced that their performers could soon be “invited” to leave their caravans for a one-way flight back to Romania. The French government has already paid for the “voluntary” repatriation of over 1,000 Roma back to the Balkans following clashes between the police and French Roma this summer. The performers at the Cirque Romanès claim they are next. “They want to put us in an airplane,” according to the website of the beloved circus a few weeks ago.
A poll this summer showed that almost half of the French support their government’s controversial drive, which includes dismantling illegal squatter camps. Nevertheless, resistance is strong amongst the French left and the Cirque Romanès is rapidly becoming a hyped-up symbol of the peril facing the Roma in France.
Why has a group of circus performers captured the attention of France? Although Newsweek has hinted that Sarkozy represents the new “extreme right” and European Commissioner Viviane Reding was reminded of the deportations of the Second World War, you simply can’t take a circus away from the Parisians. Certainly not the beloved Cirque Romanès, an old-school tented act that has charmed the city for almost 18 years with a frenetic combination of classic circus numbers and traditional Romanian music.
This Monday, almost a thousand fans and a horde of television journalists packed under the circus tent for a benefit show organized by the flamboyant founder of the circus, Alexandre Romanès. The Cirque is always a chaotic affair – jugglers, contortionists and trapeze artists vie with a 6-piece Southern Romanian band for precious space on the tent’s carpeted floor. For the benefit, it was especially cramped, with dozens of camera crews and photographers throughout the tent. On several occasions acrobats literally had to hop over crouching cameramen.
The city’s artistic bohemian elite was also out in full swing, providing plenty of fodder for celeb photographers. Actress/singer Jane Birkin was among the various notables that joined the performers. The show went on as always (see my hastily put together video below) but everything felt a little awkward with the surplus of media and celebs.
The media frenzy has reached such levels – a photo of a ten year old Romanès performer graced a major weekly (see photo below) – that the French government issued a statement the night of the benefit show. According to the Minister of Immigration Eric Besson, the circus organizers have engaged in a “gross manipulation” and their plight has nothing to do with the government’s “fight against illegal immigration from Romania and Bulgaria.”
In reality the situation is more complicated. Alexandre Romanès was born in France, making him, his Romanian-born wife Delia (and resident circus diva) and his immediate family of performers all French citizens. In fact, it is his five Romanian musicians (fiddle, accordion, trumpet, clarinet and bass fiddle) that are in trouble as their request for renewal of work papers was recently denied. In his opening speech at the benefit, Mr. Romanès, had no doubts why their papers were turned down after years of easy renewals. “It was the word Tsigane that caused the administrators to block,” he said.
The French administration has directly responded to the accusations, claiming that the circus pays below minimum wage, employs children and has unacceptable working conditions – the performers do live in caravans behind the circus tent. In an argument repeated throughout the French print and television media, Mr. Romanès has insisted that his musicians are well-treated, (“they are paid twice the minimum wage”) have free electricity and that his musician’s paper troubles have everything to do with the government’s efforts to combat Roma illegal immigration.
Since the government crackdown this summer, misunderstandings in the media have been rife. Confusion has been sown between French Gypsy, Romanian Roma, French Roma and so on. There are around 300,000 “French Gypsies,” known as gitanes, largely in the south of France. Most came to France in the 19th century and form a distinct semi-nomadic cultural group of Roma that includes the Spanish Gypsies. On July 22 in the town of Saint-Aignan, a group of French Gypsies surrounded a police station to protest the killing of a young member of their community by a policeman.
Sarkozy’s reaction was immediate – he described “problems coming from the behavior of certain itinerant populations and Roma.” By “Roma,” he meant the some 20,000 Roma immigrants that came to France after escaping aching poverty and discrimination in Romania and Bulgaria. So, on one side there are French Gypsies who have been French citizens since generations and the other side Romanian/Bulgarian immigrants, who by European Union law can legally stay in France for three months.
A few weeks ago, a government memo that was circulated to police chiefs over the summer was leaked to the press, identifying Roma camps as a “special priority” for dismantlement. The government quickly distanced itself with the memo and had it retroactively modified to remove the nasty ethnic reference. Yet this only increased public misunderstanding of Roma, Rom, Roms, Romanian, Gypsy, Gitanes etc. It is gaffes like this that give credibility to the Cirque’s claim that their problems stem from simply “being Gypsy,” despite their French nationality. (Alexandre is a French Gitane and widely published French poet)
It remains to be seen if the media circus around the circus and its paper problems will help break the impasse. A petition has gathered well over 10,000 signatures and I’m sure Alexandre and his performers will continue to raise awareness of their problems, and hopefully shine some light on the issues faced by French Gypsies and Balkan Roma throughout France. (I’ve covered the plight of a Moldovan musician with similar problems in this space)
The Cirque and its performers reflect many common clichés about the Roma. The image of free-living, musical bohemians juggling in some caravan-strewn abandoned lot outside of Paris fits perfectly into our common Roma fantasy. Perhaps that is why they have become such media darlings. But isn’t this romantic/nostalgic image so quintessentially “French?”
I asked a circus worker if he thought the circus’ future was in jeopardy and he seemed surprised. “Of course, can you imagine a circus without music?!” I guess he took me for the dumb blogger I am, or thought I was. Little did he know I cameo as an accordionist/banjoist/guitarist/drummer in the smallest Circus in Paris, the Zebre de Belleville.
I remember the first time I went to the Cirque Romanès. I was fascinated by the well-behaved kids in the audience enjoying old timey Romanian music and classic circus acts. I couldn’t help think, “jeez this is the coolest country.” A few years later, when I found myself playing Romanian accordion in a dimly lit Paris circus I felt like this New Yorker had truly integrated and was on track to becoming French, or at least my conception of what seemed so quintessentially French.
Maybe I was wrong…