It began in my French sociology class on the topic of immigration. The professor mentioned that the first sociological book written about the issues of immigrants in France was written in 1988, which he laughingly accredited to the very French idea of droit de l’homme that tends to overlook differences among citizens in the name of liberty.
I don’t know if it was the particularly strong coffee I drank that made me perk up, or if it was the eerie resonance with the good old “American melting pot” idea. Either way, I soon understood that there exist many similarities in how France and America have dealt with and continue to treat two unique minority groups: the Roma in France and Native peoples in the U.S. Though the two groups are of course different in their histories and in the issues they face today, the abuse they face from their home country is nearly parallel.
The Roma are thought of as beggars and thieves, and there are constant attempts to expel them from the country. Technically they maintain a European citizenship but are not legally citizens of France, and this has been interpreted by the French extreme right as an excuse to forcibly remove them ‘from the temporary communities they create.’ Beyond France there are many countries, such as Greece and Hungary, who have taken extreme measures to quite literally exterminate the Roma population.
America has historically maintained a similar policy with indigenous peoples. Their fight for sovereignty has often been used as an excuse to refuse them the right to sufficient health care and education. Like the Roma, who are pushed away to a country that is not their own, Native peoples have been forced onto reservations.
Both the Roma and Native peoples are discriminated against on a constant basis. A French student described to me the reaction of Parisians in the métro when two young Roma children entered the car. She noted how everyone seemed to tense up and clutch their bags. The conductor even announced that there were Roma in the métro and everyone should keep an eye on their belongings. One might argue that the discrimination of Native peoples is more subtle, but that is not the case. Stereotypes about indigenous people, such as a propensity for alcoholism and violence, still influence American thought and can constantly be found in films. It’s trendy to wear headdresses, and teams still exist with racist mascots such as the Washington Redskins. The fact that many Americans find nothing wrong with such blatant appropriation is dangerous for Natives. It’s a form of normalized violence that manifests itself in such epidemics as the incredibly high rate of Native women who are raped, most often by non-Native men.
Conservative leaders in France and America make a point of putting blame on the Roma and American Indians for their supposed laziness and failure to contribute to the good of the society. The Roma have been called “insolent and dangerous”, and members of the Right seek to remove them from the country on the basis of lowering the nation’s crime rate. Indigenous peoples in America tend to be lumped into the group of those who are on welfare and are consequently subjected to belittlement by right-wing politicians.
This is not to suggest, however, that all hope is lost for these two great nations. In fact I have found many positive and remarkable aspects to French culture and politics. For instance, universal healthcare, for example, is not a topic up for debate: it is a human right. Common courtesy and respect are expected in all social interactions, for example there is no phrase for eye contact because it is unthinkable to not look at the person to whom you are speaking. Both the United States and France have the opportunity to live up to their declared fervor for equality and liberty pour tous. This requires a close and critical look at their policies for minority groups, such as the Roma and Native peoples, who have a traumatic history of abuse and deportation and who continue to be forced into a modern, Western social structure. Forced forgetting and negligent racism must not play a part in the government of two countries who claim to be, and who can be, examples of functional democracies.
—Meaghan Hughes ’15 is a psychology major and is currently studying abroad in France.