It would be a bitter irony if Europeans cannot reconcile their cherished right to free movement with the Roma community
Rarely has a leak done more valuable work. A memo from France's interior ministry this week confirmed that President Nicolas Sarkozy's war on Traveller camps had an explicit racial dimension, with Roma people being deliberately targeted. By doing so, it has jolted the European commission out of indulging the Sarkozy stunt, and into a full-throated attack on Paris. It has stirred overdue introspection in France about how minorities are treated, even while its politicians stampede to use the law to persecute those few Muslim women who wear a face veil. And it has highlighted how Europe's largest minority, the 10 million-plus Roma people, suffer right across the continent's boundaries.
For France is not alone. The systematic discrimination against Roma in eastern Europe – where Gypsy children have often been routinely packed off to schools for the "mentally deficient" – is an acknowledged if underreported reality. But with the EU's eastward expansion and the migration that followed, eastern attitudes have been spreading west. While the Danes have been seeking to expel some Roma, Swedish police have been caught illegally forcing others out of the country. As Germany has repatriated Gypsy children to Kosovo, the Belgians have driven a camp out of Flanders and the Italians have used the presence of Roma as reason to declare a state of emergency.
The truth is that there is a long tradition of open hostility towards Roma, one with uncomfortable echoes of the open hostility shown towards another ostracised minority in the past. Right across Europe, including in Britain, casual anti-Gypsy remarks are simply not taboo in the way that slights on other ethnicities mostly are today. Some of this, it is true, can be explained by distinctive facets of Roma culture, which do not fit comfortably within contemporary capitalist societies. Rolling caravans do not lend themselves to rooted integration, and especially when they are decoupled from standard western ideas about property rights. The latest French crackdown followed on from rioting that was sparked by the shooting of a young Roma man, and with dire school drop-out rates Gypsy communities tend to rub up against authority more often than most.
The same facets of Roma life, however, make it easy to paint them as an underclass whose ambitions are irreconcilable with the wider community's, and easy as well to get away with rounding them into camps. After his pre-presidency crackdowns in the banlieues, and after trying and failing to revive his flagging poll ratings by banning the burqa, Mr Sarkozy is once again after a scapegoat. If his motives were different he might instead note that the great majority of Europe's Roma are not in fact vagrant, and pause to consider whether it might be possible to engage with Roma people through meaningful targeted policies on housing and jobs. Instead, the French establishment retains its peculiar historic insistence to being perfectly colour-blind. Even as the racialised language of the leaked memo emerged, the immigration minister claimed: "The concept of ethnic minorities is a concept that does not exist among the government."
Diversity has undermined French hopes that ethnic differences can somehow be washed away through a process of assimilation. There was always an imperialist undertone to that stance, but it is simply not tenable in a frequent-flyer world where some immigrants do not stay long enough to put down roots. But the Roma – who are discriminated against in the south-eastern European "home" that angry westerners demand they return to – will also continue to represent a wider problem right across a continent for as long as that continents continues to treat them so badly. It would be a bitter irony if Europeans as a whole cannot find a way to reconcile their cherished right to free movement with a community of their fellow citizens whose one great sin is a tendency to move freely.