Éric Fassin: Why the Roma?

In response to the recent deportations of Roma from France, we invited sociologist Éric Fassin to give us his account of why the Roma are being stigmatised by the Sarkozy administration.

In this translation of a talk he gave last month at a public event in Montreuil, France, Éric explains the symbolic links between Roma and Muslims, and suggests the concept of the ‘floating signified’ to explain the rhetorical circulation of the ‘othering’ of multiple groups.

Photo: Éric Fassin

Those travelers, for whom is opened
The familiar empire of future darkness.
(Baudelaire, “Traveling Gypsies” in Flowers of Evil)

Why the Roma? Why should these populations become a target in France today? The answer is not to be found in the Roma themselves. Who would think of explaining anti-Semitism through some characteristic of the Jews? The same applies to Muslims – they are not the cause of Islamophobia, no more than homosexuals are of homophobia, nor women of misogyny. The object of phobia is not to be mistaken for its source. As always, the explanation of politics is of a political nature.

The logic of the Sarkozy administration’s summer campaign against the Roma happens to be revealed by one of the members of the Fillon (the French Prime Minister) government. On August 29, on the occasion of the convention of his party (Le Nouveau Centre), Hervé Morin, who is also the Defense Secretary in the Fillon government, made an ironic reference during his speech to “a Muslim friend’s text message”: “After fifty years of good and faithful service to this nation, with deep emotion, albeit in truth with some relief, we the French originating from the Maghreb are very proud officially to pass on to the Roma our role as scapegoats responsible for all the problems of France. I hope they are and will remain worthy of this prestigious legacy. Good luck to them!”

Of course, the Roma did not have to wait until the summer of 2010 to hold the unenviable position of scapegoats. There is no need to look far into the past: this rhetoric was at work in 2007, right after Nicolas Sarkozy’s election as President. On November 27, then minister of Immigration and National Identity, Brice Hortefeux, while interviewed on television, responded to a remark by the journalist: now that Romania and Bulgaria were becoming part of the European Union, the Roma “cannot be expelled any longer!” President Sarkozy’s trusted lieutenant disagreed: “No, no, wait, I cannot let you put things this way. It should not be said that they will not be expelled any longer. I still make sure that those who misbehave are expelled.” Of course, he entertained no illusions: “If you are dreaming of an ideal society only made up of clean, honest citizens…” The logic was clear: given the yearly quotas of expulsions, the administration had to keep expelling the Roma despite the fact that their countries of origin had just joined the EU. This is why they had to be “unclean” and “dishonest”: stigmatizing the Roma anew was thus a prerequisite.

The novelty resides in the publicity: what had been mostly implicit, except for such explicit moments of candor, became over the summer of 2010 the heart of the President’s rhetoric, and the showcase of his actions. We are not talking of a discreet practice any longer – instead, the government openly brags about its anti-Roma policies. This is why the text message that seems to have first circulated in the French Muslim community proves so comically (or tragically?) convincing. Stigmatization does not rely on a fixed target. On the contrary, it functions most efficiently not only through repetition (indeed, Muslims will still have their day with this government – what with the so-called burkha and polygamy!), but also through multiplication (along with the Roma and the Muslims, various categories of population can be treated as « racaille », or “scum”, Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2005 infamous insult).

There is indeed a kind of rhetorical circulation: the focus shifts with the news between multiple “Others” – that is, between social groups treated as others. In order to account for this mechanism, I suggest using the phrase “floating signified.” A word of explanation will help understand this notion. In 1950, anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss invented the concept of “floating signifier” in order to make clear that the “mana” previously analyzed by Marcel Mauss in his theory of magic was to him no more mysterious than everyday words such as “truc” or “machin” (“thing” or “stuff”) whose meaning changes according to the context. A signifier can refer, not to one signified, but to many, depending on needs. As a “mere form,” the floating signifier can “potentially be invested with any symbolic content.”

Let us turn the argument around: the Roma, along with the Muslims, as well as the descendants of immigrants, Blacks, or binational couples, are today multiple signifiers of one “floating signified”. That is what the heterogeneousness of the list reveals. What do they have in common? Obviously, nothing – except that they are all available, so to speak, for the purposes of the current political rhetoric of stigmatization. While they do not have social properties in common, they may well share symbolic ones. Not that these will explain the causes of the phobia; but at least, pointing them out will help understand how it functions. They make it possible to analyze not why, but how the Roma are caught today in the political rhetoric of the government. My hypothesis is that all these groups are on the border between “us” and “them” – neither in, nor out, but rather both at the same time. The “problem”, so to speak, is that they all have one foot inside, another outside.

At the end of July, when the new rhetoric against the Roma was first launched, critics denounced its confusion: indeed, the government did not take into account the difference between the Roma, who are foreigners, and the administrative category of « gens du voyage », who are French nomads. However, it is worth pointing out that this confusion was deliberate, rather than accidental. The drift is already at work in the original logic. The populations that constitute a “problem,” i.e. that are constructed as such, are not so much foreigners any longer, but rather those whose situation questions a divide that is allegedly as straightforward as the new denomination of the ministry that defines national identity by contrast to immigration, or “us” versus “them.”

This is true of Muslims. Let us think of the op-ed published in Le Monde (December 9, 2009) by the French President of the Republic in the midst of the so-called “great debate” on national identity launched by his Minister of Immigration, Éric Besson. The topic was Islam, and the occasion was the Swiss referendum against the minarets. While inviting both to mutual respect, Nicolas Sarkozy drew a distinction between Muslims, described as “those who arrive,” and “those who greet them”, the French – supposedly non-Muslim), thus implying that Islam was foreign to France. The confusion is crucial: what it does is to treat all Muslims, a population that includes French citizens as well as foreigners, as immigrants.

The same applies to Blacks. Some have been French for generations – in particular those who come from overseas. Others are recent immigrants, mostly from Sub-Saharan Africa. The stigmatization of Blacks is based on this ambiguous position, as insiders and outsiders on both sides of the national boundaries. The same Nicolas Sarkozy, while on an official visit in the United States, marveled on November 6, 2007 (thus before Barack Obama’s election) about a country whose last three Secretaries of State were “of foreign origin”. While this was true of Madeleine Albright, born a foreigner outside the United States, or Colin Powell, born of foreign parents in the United States, the only reason their successor Condoleezza Rice could be mistaken for an immigrant by the French President was obviously that she is black.

There is a twofold logic. On the one hand, constructing foreigners as a problem has consequences on all the French citizens who, one way or another, “seem” foreign – given their origin or culture, their skin color or their name. This is the reason why the exclusionary logic of immigration policies cannot go hand in hand with an inclusionary logic in terms of anti-discrimination. The wolf of xenophobia always ends up devouring the lamb of diversity… On the other hand, and at the same time, this inevitable confusion between internal and external boundaries, or, to put it differently, this fatal contagion from the latter to the former, constitutes the border, precisely at the moment of making obvious the contours of national identity, as a problematic location. How can one distinguish between those who look foreign, while they are not, and those who are, while it may not show?

Binational couples (so-called “mixed”) are yet another signifier of this floating signified, defined by its ambiguity. Why should they have become the object of a systematic suspicion, revealed by the obsession of fake marriages – whether “mariages blancs” (both spouses pretending) or even today (thanks to Éric Besson) “mariages gris” (the foreigner betraying the love of the French spouse). Precisely because they are at the border between “us” and “them”, binational couples undermine it through their love. For the same reason, the Roma are today apprehended as a “problem”: they camp on the threshold of identity – both national and European. Their situation raises questions about our borders in two ways: first, they can be either French or not; second, if they are Bulgarians and Romanians, they are on the threshold of Europe – almost in, but not quite, and in particular, without the exact same rights. They could appropriate Césaire’s famous phrase, and broaden the question from its original, French formulation: fully part of Europe, or fully apart?

Does the threshold of identity, this floating signified whose signifier of the day is the Roma population, imply that they are hopelessly stuck in the part of the scapegoat? The European Parliament may have voted the EU directive on the return of illegal immigrants on June 18, 2008 (the so-called “shame directive”, that established harsher treatment in terms of detention and expulsion); still, it voted on September 9, 2010, a resolution that expresses worries about “the stigmatization of Roma and general anti-Gypsyism in political discourse”, inviting France in particular “immediately to suspend Roma expulsions”.

Is this incoherent, or hypocritical? Maybe. Never mind: just as in France political xenophobia that has flourished for thirty years by invoking the limits of tolerance may finally run against the limits of intolerance, as I have argued elsewhere, perhaps one might risk the hope that, despite the recent setback encountered by European Commissioner Viviane Reding in her call for sanctions against France, Europe could finally understand this: a phobia that focuses on the boundaries between “us” and “them” will not only affect “them” (outside of Europe), but also “us” – or at least some of us (within Europe). Sooner or later, European citizens are bound to be affected by the consequences of such a political logic. This is also true, of course, within France, if we consider the spouses of foreigners, or the victims of the so-called “crime of solidarity” (délit de solidarité) prosecuted by the French bureaucracy, not to forget all the French citizens who did not feel in any way concerned by measures concerning foreigners, but who now have the hardest time proving their citizenship when trying to renew their papers. That is the problem with the problematisation of the threshold. This may be why the EU finally wakes up to “shame”: we all come to realize that this phobic logic that was supposed to affect only non-Europeans also concerns Europeans.

Does the “familiar empire” of phobia that the Roma have experienced not so long ago announce the “future darkness” that threatens us? Or does the “prophetic tribe”, to borrow yet another phrase from Baudelaire’s poem, call upon us to dream that the worst is not bound to happen – which is why we must relentlessly fight to prevent its resistible ascent, including by imagining changes of fortune yet unforeseen and unhoped for?

Éric Fassin is a sociologist at the École normale supérieure and co-author of an annual survey of President Sarkozy’s immigration policies: Cette France-là (vol. 1, 2009; vol. 2, 2010; Paris, La Découverte). This paper was first presented in a French version on the occasion of a public event, “Les Roms – et qui d’autre?” (“The Roma – and who next?”) that took place on September 11, 2010, in Montreuil, in reaction to the French government’s stigmatization of the Roma population. It was first published in French on Mediapart, a news website: http://www.mediapart.fr/club/blog/eric-fassin/120910/pourquoi-les-roms.

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