A look at the struggles of Roma people in France. And at how good inter-communal relations can be when local authorities treat migrants as people. A story of how a family grew and integrated over a long period. Respect for a courageous struggle instead of fear and prejudice against the Other.
Valérie Mitteaux and Anna Pitoun’s film was 15 years in the making, from when they arrived in 2003 in Achères on the outskirts of Paris to make a film about the problems of education for Gypsy families, and met their heroine, Salcuta.
Witnessing a brutal and illegal eviction changed the direction of their project.
The images of caravans, homes that is – having their roofs smashed in by hungry mechanical monsters, while bedding and other belongings are dumped into rubbish trucks show a horror that few people in western Europe have to endure, unless they are ‘illegal’.
But the Roma people have a long history of being the wretched of Europe, subjected to actual slavery in southern Romania as late as the 1860s, as José Vieira pointed out in one of his films on immigration into France.
This film develops a rich family and social history of a marginalised community, in a unique combination of circumstances, where the law of the country protects children and hence their families by insisting on their right to education, and where a humane society led by a communist mayor decides to welcome them.
I interviewed the directors for The Prisma by email following the successful presentation of their film at the Leffest festival in Lisbon.
Would this have happened if schooling were not obligatory for all children in France?
That is a funny question but yes fundamentally you are right. Without this obligation, Salcuta, our heroine, might not have had this vision and the conviction that France was the solution for her and her kids through education. Schooling, through the presence of this amazing teacher Maden Gerbin, is a main thread in the film: it is an essential path to integration.
She is exceptionally focused. A long time ago, France was for her a kind of Eldorado. And yet, even in 2002, she knew that the country wasn’t exactly a paradise. But she felt she was going to feel welcome.
There are many Communist mayors in France – what was specific to this situation that the community united in support of the Roma?
Achères has been communist for a very long time before the team lost in 2014. Alain Outreman, the mayor, held a dialogue with its citizens about why the townhall had decided to support Roma people.
The town organises an annual day, “La fête de l’amitié” where everyone is welcome.
The lesson would be that a functioning society is a place where no-one is left aside, where the mayor never let any group become discriminated, and creates a “human comfort zone” contrasting with cities like Paris where people begging in the streets are now part of the landscape.
Were the expulsions legal?
The one in Achères, in 2003, wasn’t. Médecins du Monde had made a study before, showing that the camp was not unhealthy, but the prefecture used this argument of non-healthiness to expel them, against the authority of the townhall.
This was March 2003, when Nicolas Sarkozy, as minister of Interior, had implemented a “cleansing policy”. After the expulsion, support groups sued the prefecture, and they had to pay compensation, but hardly anyone had bills that could be reimbursed.
How has the situation of the Roma changed in France since the 1970s?
Romanian Roma migration is linked to the death of dictator Ceaucescu in 1989. Ceaucescu had settled the Roma, giving them houses and land. When the communist bloc collapsed, Roma people began to emigrate. Prejudice is much the same, it seems that they are considered a concentrate of disaster for western societies, when they are only a new wave of migration, like Italian, Portuguese, Arabic and Black people before.
Where is the boundary between inclusion and assimilation with loss of identity?
This seems to us a very American process. We don’t have this sensation with our Roma friends. There is a very strong focus on the life of the extended family and Salcuta goes on living with this focus. She has desired France so much, and suffered so much in Romania, trying to survive, alone, with her 2 kids. So, I don’t think she has this feeling of losing her identity.
She feels nostalgia for her life as a kid with her parents (two of them already died), even though their living conditions were very basic.
Are Roma still expected to remain invisible and not assert their culture?
The Roma people we see in France, are the poor ones, begging in the streets with small kids, the others, like Salcuta and her family, kind of disappear in the landscape. We think that prejudices against Roma people which are amongst the worst in the list of racist behaviours, are more about class-struggles than cultural difference.
Anti-Gypsy people see Roma as a social plague, a threat of chaos. Very irrational feelings, which globally will ruin your life.
Some of the French community seemed to be congratulating themselves – “We were right to support you, because you’ve done so well”.
Yes, the mayor said that during Salcuta’s daughter’s wedding. Even though he is a great humanist, he was worried about losing his town hall because of Roma living in the area. You can feel through the film this gentle paternalism. They are very open-minded and generous people, but layers of prejudices and doubts can remain. As Anna and I say, we are raised to be racists, it’s a daily job to get rid of the remaining layers.
Did the situation of the Roma change when Romania joined the EU?
Then it became possible to stay in France with Romanian ID, but it took 7 years before they could work… The state created a kind of crime of poverty: you have 3 months to prove that you can support yourself financially and your family – but this applies to any European coming to France.
The central message being: “we do not want the poor, keep your poor”. At the same time, countries like France, relocate industries to Romania where low wages can make more profit.
Roma society seemed quite macho -would Salcuta have been able to act as she did, if she had been married?
It’s true that being a single mother when she arrived in France, probably facilitated her life, the kindness of the citizens support group, and the town hall. But she is a very stubborn person, so I guess even married, the result wouldn’t be so different in the end.
Your film covers 15 years of struggle, what advantage comes from this long perspective?
This film was born from our desire to follow Salcuta and her family, looking deep into what integration meant, beyond getting IDs…
The advantage is a richness of content and the emotion of watching persons growing up over the years. In Salcuta’s case, it’s amazing when she decides to join a trade union to fight for her rights with her comrades.
With more funds, we would have made several films to show this family journey. But making documentaries and making a living with it, is also a big fight.
There seemed to be a lot of racism against Roma in Romania.
Romanians are raised with this strong prejudice against Roma people. As former migrants, they are considered a threat.
But in Romania, some villages exist where the two communities live together in harmony… As a great French historian, Henriette Asséo says, there are two populations that states use recurrently in Europe to revive neofascist tendencies: Gypsies and Jews, with this irrational image that they are migrant and landless.
What is the relationship between nomadic Roma coming from Romania and Bulgaria now, and those who have been settled in France for a long time?
In our heroine’s village in Romania, the Gypsies who remained, are living in very poor conditions and the ones who emigrated are trying to help them, even though living in France or Belgium, they are not wealthy themselves.
(Photos provided by Valerie Mitteaux and Ana Pitoun)