"Tsiganes"-"Nomades" : un malentendu européen

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« Tsigane », « Gypsy », « Nomad » : a European Misunderstanding

Paris, 6-9 October, 2011


Besides the loud campaign launched by the French state in July 2010 to dismantle Roma settlements and expel « Roms » from France, and originally also to contest the citizenship rights of French « gens du voyage » or « travelers », segregation policies targeting « Gypsies » are multiplying all over Europe. Though modes may differ in Eastern and Western Europe, these policies aim to expulse a foreign body from national territory. The « Roma question », aggravated in some cases by transnational identity claims, reactive and sometimes equivocal, exists at present at a European scale.

At a time when it is extending its « Unity », Europe, worried about an unfindable self, is revealing fractures in its national boundaries as well as in its memory of the past. The vocabularies of citizenship and difference accommodated by the democratic model emerging from a decomposing communist world, seem out of joint : their coexistence reveals lines of frontier and identity which are blind to real history and problems.

The Roma populations of Eastern Europe migrating towards Western Europe are doubly subject to discrimination, as Roma as well as migrants. But the constitution of a « Roma question », sometimes depending on false compounds, reveals a problem reaching further than the specific case of this population : the political production of undesirables by nation-states is neither a surprise nor an exception. However it rests here on the construction of a specific otherness, a combination of cultural scorn, social fear and racial hate which brings us back to the image Europe has of itself, its history, its vocation and its destiny.

What is the meaning of this haunting and so-called nomadic people, « inner foreigners » that European nations seek to assimilate, to expulse, to eliminate in order to reaffirm coherence and energy, if not purity ?

Disregarding historical complexities and real political constructs, an ambivalent system of imaginary representations seems to make the « Gypsy » into the Other of Western civilization. This contemporary political fabrication of the « nomad » relies on a long-standing cultural construct : that of a « nomadic people » both wild and illiterate, as if what is non-written were also without state, nation or history. Attempts to identify, at all cost, a « gypsy literature » belonging to a transnational group create yet more compounds, instead of trying to understand the ongoing history of that Other, both lived and fantasized. For this otherness has been construed differently from the inside of these communities, implying a different relation to history and becoming, both spoken and written. A structural misunderstanding of this difference, sapping our European culture, perpetuates this gypsy-nomad-barbarian equation, the cultural and political function needs to be questioned. This involves questioning the belated political category of « Gypsies », reconstructed by administrations and « gypsy policies », inheriting partly from the imaginary legacy of « bohemians ». This archetype reveals an underexamined and maybe central element in our civilization.


This long-standing and ambiguous image thrives upon active historical denial, in spite of historical studies on the persecutions undergone by these populations, and in particular on the genocide of the « gypsies ». While the Council of Europe is working on putting together teaching kits on the memory of gypsies exterminated during the second World War, based on the model of those existing for jewish victims, situations are being repeated which, in the past, led to the worst. Municipal initiatives led to the creation of the first gypsy camps in Germany and Austria in the 1930s, before nazi laboratories for « racial hygiene » and then sterilization policies, then the « Auschwitz » decree of 1942, signed the death of the gypsy population of the Reich and its occupied territories.

The nazi attempt to exterminate the « Gypsies » did not however create an event - except for the victims and their descendants, but in the improper forms of a « work of memory » borrowed from the memory politics linked to the Shoah. Such a « work of memory » presupposes an internal written history and a claim for public memory that are not relevant here, except to a few belated artefacts. But the refusal to name the dead, passed on amongst communities which, for a long time, were not familiar with written history, does not mean that there is no « memory », even if the memory of genocide tends to dissolve in a longer history of persecution. This untold tale has not been built into a « culture of holocaust », but it exists, and its denial is a form of misunderstanding begging to be confronted.

The interaction of deeply different cultural systems, seemingly impervious to one another, has given rise to powerful symbolic formations, even more dangerous when they do not seek historical perspective. It is to this perspective that we must return, and to the narrative which has or has not appeared : this genocidal non-event, the breach it did not create, the memory it did not produce, the blind spot its has become in the course of a history it did not interrupt : we do not plan to tell this story over again, but to reflect upon this incredible continuum.

This return to history will involve two separate series of questions :

- How was and is this representation of a European Other possible ? What is its function in the context of the European Union and of globalisation ? What does it say of the collective body which continues to produce and to recycle this image and the categories with which it is connected (race, tribes, people, nation, minorities) ?

- How do the members of such groups consider themselves and these labels ? How are family groups constituted on social, political, economic, individual, historical planes? How do they represent themselves, in this hostile Europe which replaces them at the heart of the imagination of European identity, but only as polar opposites ? How are we to understand their different categories of identity, and the differences between gypsy and non-gypsy or « Gadjé » ? What are the connections between the Manouches of the French Pyrenees, the Gitanos of Sevilla, the Roms of Bucarest ? What can be made of the central European « Rom » movement ?



These questions are connected to several disciplinary fields which the conference aims to cover : social science, anthropology, political science, political philosophy, cultural studies, cultural anthropology, epistemology of literature and history. The aim is to take stock of reflections coming from these different fields of thought and knowledge, following four main directions :

1. Political aspects : political function and usage of categories (« Gypsies », « Nomads », « Roma ») ; forms of discrimination and persecution in Eastern and Western Europe ; the question of « ethnic minorities » in Europe ; the alternative between republicanism and multiculturalism.

2. Historical, historiographical and memory issues in relation to the second World War, internment and genocide : review of long-term denial, focussing on the post-war period and on the internalization of disavowal ; the memory of « Samudaripen » as a construct following the model of the Shoah, its ideology and effects.

3. Cultural, anthropological, literary aspects : reactivation of a racial fantasm regarding the « nomad », after the « bohemian », literary and cultural forms ; logocentric homo europeanus vs barbarians ; notions of « civilization », « literature »/ internal representations carried by non-written cultures ; expectations of a transnational identity discourse still under construction.

4. Epistemological aspects : questions arising in social sciences, in the theoretical models which tend to emerge in disciplinary frameworks (e.g. in literature : transposing the postcolonial model ; prerequisites of a so-called « gypsy » literature) ; usefulness of a transversal approach, tasks for cultural anthropology, culture criticism, political philosophy.


The more « literary » part of the conference will be held in partnership with the Maison des Ecrivains et de la Littérature, at the auditorium of the Petit Palais, Paris, on Sunday 9th of October. It will reflect on the representation of gypsies in literature and the idea of a « gypsy » or « roma » literature.


Also planned :

- an exhibition/photography screening

- a film cycle at the cinema Les Trois Luxembourg.

- a concert

 Program in english here.

Another conference will be held at the University of Pau in November 2011, with a focus on the French case.



Authors :


Catherine Coquio (University of Paris 8- Literature and History)

Jean-Luc Poueyto (ITEM-Pau)

Leonardo Piasere (University of Verona).