The wide diversity of the groups of which the
Gypsy people is composed emerges strongly from the variety of names given
to them, none of which defines them fully and precisely.
In France today the word Gitan is commonly used to designate all Gypsy
and nomadic people, whereas the Gitans are actually a highly specific ethnic
group whose migrations culminated in Spain and southern France. Non-Gypsies,
or gadje, sometimes simply refer to these people whose social organization
is based on travel as "travellers".
Apart from the Gypsies, who are themselves divided into ethnic groups
and sub-groups (Rom, Manush or Sinti, Gitans), there are the Yenish who
are said to have come from Germanic Europe, and other groups which also
lead a nomadic life but which are difficult to categorize.
Various groups of Gypsies can also be distinguished from one another
by differences in their life-styles. In France, where more than half the
Gypsies are still nomadic, some are great travellers, while others restrict
their movements to a region or even to a department (county).
The Gypsies practise various trades, but their
activities remain traditional: tinning, basket-making, collecting scrap
metal, music. In addition, they often have a seasonal activity, such as
grape-picking and the harvesting of fruit and vegetables. The travellers
are also itinerant vendors, peddlers and hawkers, shop-keepers and craftsmen.
Few of them are salaried workers.
Their living conditions also vary. The caravan is the most common form
of dwelling used by the travellers. As for those who lead a sedentary life,
most of them (apart from a small minority who live like the surrounding
population) are to be found in temporary settlements established on the
outskirts of large cities, on waste land or in shanty towns, their caravans
Though most of these wanderers move about by caravan, some use waggons.
The Rom also often travel by train. Other forms of shelter are the tent
(older even than the caravan), the cave (as in Spain), and huts made of
branches. The travellers sometimes buy houses but as a rule do not live
in them. Those who have become sedentary sometimes live in deplorable conditions--in
shanty towns, old railway carriages, or insalubrious huts. In central and
eastern Europe, where sedentary life is often compuslory, they concentrate
together in streets and districts.
These groups of people who left India centuries
ago and scattered throughout the world have always maintain their identity;
but even more than the Gypsies' own conscious efforts, the attitude of
the people among whom they lived has kept them apart. What are the common
traits which make it possible to speak of a specific Gypsy identity? They
are not to be found in the Gypsies' life style, as we have seen, nor in
their dewllings, their travelling habits, their dialect, their way of dressing,
their rites. Over and above these customs that vary from group to group
and from country to country, the Gypsy feels a desire to be a Gypsy in
a non-Gypsy society and to adopt forms of behaviour that stress his specificity.
More than a common "Gypsyness" shared by all members of the group, a culture
gap separates Gypsies from the rest of the community, whatever their country
or place of residence.
For centuries groups of Gypsies were regarded merely as wanderers eking
out a living from begging or larceny, or sometimes as slaves fit to be
worked to death, as recorded in certain tales from Hungary and Romania.
The "Bohemians" whose task it was to entertain noblemen were treated somewhat
better, but their position was precarious and it was considered compromising
to mix with them. The authorities viewed with suspicion these wanderers
on whom it was impossible to keep a check.
The traditional activities of the itinerant Gypsy--peddler,
chairmender, sometimes a kind of sorcerer--were easier to practise in rural
communities before the twentieth century. Today, the development of transport
has encouraged sedentary trade by ensuring the rapid supply of a wide variety
of goods at fixed prices established in advance. In this context the Gypsies
are reduced to eking out a living on the fringes of society and they regard
this precarious existence as a loss of their collective and individual
Despite official statements calling for understanding between cultures,
intolerance seems to be the rule, with the host community jealously guarding
its own values as the Gypsies look to their past for ways of resisting
what they regard as the destruction of their personality.
The Gypsies' legal status encourages this feeling
of insecurity. In France, special travel documents were established by
the law of 3 January 1960: a circulation book for those who have a regular
professional activity, and a circulation record for French and other nationals
who practise no regular craft or trade or industrial activity and have
no regular income. The latter document has to be presented to the authorities
every month. Moreover, persons with no fixed place of residence have to
register with a local authority. The right to set up camp, which in theory
is freely recognized, is in fact strictly regulated.
One thing emerges from all these regulations: the characteristics of
the travelling people that are perceived by sedentary society are those
which contrast with that society, and the socio-cultural identity of the
Gypsies is never considered except when it creates a problem for the community.
Elsewhere in western Europe, and in the United
States, legislators show a similar concern for assimilating the Gypsies
and regulations regarding them are equally arbitrary. In Belgium, the concept
of an "indeterminate nationality" deprives the Gypsies of many rights.
In Spain, persecutions have never ceased since the Pragmatic Sanctions
enacted by the kings. In the Federal Republic of Germany, the Gypsies have
still not been able to obtain the compensation provided by law for the
victims of Nazi persecution. In the Nordic countries where, for the same
reasons as in the rest of Europe, the Gypsies' living conditions are not
always favourable, a special effort has been made by the authorities in
the field of literacy work and schooling.
In eastern Europe, since the advent of socialism, the "social problem"
of the Gypsies has been solved through their gradual adoption of sedentary
life. But special facilities have been granted to enable them to preserve
their cultural heritage.
In many countries the Gypsies have been forgotten by social policy-makers.
Under French law, for example, regular school attendance is obligatory
for Gypsy or nomad children, and the payment of family allowances is linked
to the child's record in this respect. Compulsory education thus increases
the Gypsy population's dependence on national insurance benefits. The schooling
of Gypsy children leaves much to be desired: the lack of suitably adapted
programmes and specially trained teachers, a lack of interest on the part
of parents who fear a break with traditional values, and rejection by the
surrounding community have led to illiteracy and a low level of scholastic
achievement among most of these children.
Housing also contributes to enclosing the Gypsies
in a separate system, even when they have become sedentary. Families relodged
in low-rent housing units have often lost their traditional social structure,
for in such a situation the clan can no longer perform its controlling
and socializing functions and is no longer a focus for identity. Traditional
activities also change: it has become more difficult for families to find
sufficient space to collect and sort scrap metal, for example.
For nomadic families, the caravan has a great cultural and symbolic
importance. Yet the law offers no facilities for caravan dwellers: credit
establishments reject requests for loans, basing their refusal on the lack
of sufficient guarantees, for a caravan is not regarded as a dwelling.
Families whose caravan has been damaged or is out of commission and therefore
unfit for the road simply have to stop travelling. Lack of money makes
it impossible for them to take to the road again; all they can do is solve
their subsistence problems on a day to day basis in the sedentary conditions
that have been forced on them. Camping areas created with the avowed purpose
of promoting nomadism become a kind of ghetto for families which find it
hard to abandon itinerant life.
How do young Gypsies face up to the hard daily confrontation with the
non-Gypsy community? Failure at school, deviance and a crisis of identity
are the sorry paths offered by a society which has shown itself incapable
of giving its most deprived members a chance to overcome their handicaps.
These young people show a growing disaffection for school--many of them
do not know how to read or write. After the age of fourteen none of them
continues in school: the boys, at a loose end, become great "consumers"
of television programmes, cassettes, and motor cycles, while the girls
are kept busy with household jobs or looking after younger brothers and
sisters. To all intents and purposes they take no part in the activities
of the young centres, cultural associations and other organizations serving
the general community which they regard as expressions of the dominant
When these young Gypsies are asked about their plans for the future,
the boys answer "I want to pass my driving test" and "travel", while the
girls say they want to "leave the family" and "get married". These replies
are indicative of the strong influence still exercised by tradition, and
a desire to perpetuate tradition through "family travel".
Indeed most young Gypsies feel strongly that they belong to a cultural
minority whose values are as important as those of the non-Gypsy community.
This leads to a certain pride which expresses itself in a narcissistic
concern for dress. But the Gypsy identity to which these young people cling
is no longer the same as that of their elders. Though the general framework
remains the same, and the way of life and even the language are preserved,
relations imposed by the social policy and increasingly coercive regulations
of the dominant society inevitably introduce alien elements. This onslaught
of contradictory influences alienates them increasingly from their own
culture with the result that they are drawn towards other underprivileged
groups with which it is possible to organize exchanges or to become integrated.
Does this mean, as some people maintain, that we are witnessing that
last flickerings of the Gypsies' centuries-old resistance to assimilation?
It may be so, unless we succeed in finding a meeting place between the
two cultures, a way of reconciling two different worlds, before the gap
becomes too wide to bridge.
Present trends which encourage particularisms of
all kinds and the publicity given to statements by minority groups have
given rise to cultural demands such as the rehabilitation of regional languages,
festivals and traditional costumes. As far as the Gypsies are concerned,
the growing number of people of Gypsy origin showing an interest in their
past and their language, as well as the large number of publications on
the Gypsy question and the interventions of certain Gypsies in the press,
on radio and in public life in general--all this indicates beyond a shadow
of a doubt that "something is happening". Morever, the growing number of
social and cultural associations created by the Gypsies themselves is another
example of the revival of Gypsy self-awareness.
Associations with a political colouring, such as the International Gypsy
Committee, are older still. It is not surprising that the Gypsies should
choose an international context to try to acquire a more precise legal
status. Their main characteristic, mobility, puts them in an uncertain
position with regard to national legislations, and they have come to realize
that an international framework can enable them to assert their rights
and put an end to discrimination.
The meetings of the "Romano Congresso" held during the last few years
have reasserted Romany identity, recalled the Gypsies' Indian origin and
called for the extension to Gypsies of all the benefits of social progress.
Less well known is the attention being paid to the Gypsy community by a
number of international organizations. The recommendation on the social
situation of nomads adopted by the Council of Europe in 1975 is beginning
to be widely nown and to serve as a legal basis for the Gypsies' claims.
Both the United Nations and UNESCO have also shown great interest in the
cultural and social problems of the Gypsies and nomadic peoples.
The Gypsies also believe in acting independently.
Some, striving to establish their own means of cultural expression, are
challenging their rejection by the dominant community and calling for equality
and justice. Others are searching for their historical roots; one of their
projects is to raise monuments in memory of the victims of Nazi persecution.
For the Gypsies the past lives on in the present. Centuries of oppression
have left their mark, and all too often relations between them and non-Gypsies
are coloured by suspicion. The Gypsies cannot forget; we must try to understand
them and establish a new dialogue.