After deporting many illegal Roma immigrants, Nicolas Sarkozy’s government may force Europe’s only Gypsy circus to close down
Musicians of the Romanes Gypsy circus play in Paris. But their future in France is uncertain. Photograph: Bertrand Langlois/AFP/Getty Images
With its mesmerising songs and startling acrobatics, the Cirque Romanès is one of the most unusual cultural highlights of Paris: the only Gypsy circus in Europe and the only show in the French capital whose artists retreat to their caravans after the curtain falls. For 18 years it has been attracting audiences to its exotic blend of poetry and performance. In June it was deemed good enough to represent France at the World Expo in Shanghai.
But after a summer which has seen France crack down on its foreign Roma population and draw the ire of Brussels for the policy, the future of the circus and its loyal band of artists hangs in the balance. The authorities have refused to validate work permits for the five Romanian musicians whose instruments are crucial to the performances.
The French employment inspectorate insists that the cancellation of the permits has no connection with the wider political climate, which has seen around 1,000 Roma return to their home countries in nearly two months and around 200 unauthorised Roma camps cleared by police. They say there are problems with the circus’s functioning, accuse its owner of underpaying the musicians and question the use of child performers.
Such claims are dismissed as “pure invention” by Alexandre Romanès, the circus’s charismatic founder. “They’re making up all these reasons. It’s complete fantasy,” he said, as he sipped coffee outside his caravan on the outskirts of Paris. Responding to the authorities’ chief criticism – that of low pay – he added: “They get four times the minimum wage, and they are fed and housed. When I contacted a lawyer and told her what they [the authorities] were trying to claim, she just burst out laughing.”
Romanès, a published poet and friend of the late writer Jean Genet, is unequivocal about what he believes to be the real reasons for the sudden move, taken for the first time in the circus’s two decades of existence. For him, it is just another sign of France’s growing hostility towards his people.
“As this woman from Luxembourg [EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding] said, we thought Europe was protected from this kind of thing, but clearly it isn’t. What I have noticed is that, instead of waging war on poverty, the French government is waging war on the poor,” he said.
In order to try to revoke the authorities’ “unjust” decision, 59-year-old Romanès and his wife, Délia, have started an online petition. Urging the authorities to let the circus “employ those Romanian and Bulgarian artists with whom they want to work”, the appeal has more than 7,000 signatories. A “night of support” on 4 October will aim to rally the troops.
One of the most vocal Romanès fans is Reinhard von Nagel, a world-famous harpsichord maker and esteemed Maître d’Art appointed by the French culture ministry. There was no doubt, he said, of the political nature of the refusal of permits. “In France, as in other countries, there are laws for and against things, but they are not always applied. If you want to attack someone, you find a law and you apply it. That is what the authorities are doing in the case of Alexandre and Délia,” he said, criticising the “zealousness” of the authorities implementing the “hunting down of the Roma”.
“It is a policy which I have no hesitation in declaring to be fascist. It bothers me deeply,” said Von Nagel, a German who has lived in Paris for decades. At a meeting last weekend with Frédéric Mitterrand, the culture minister, he brought the Cirque Romanès to the minister’s attention. “I told him that if the Cirque Romanès is shut, I don’t know if I can stay in France,” he said.
President Sarkozy’s policy of paid “voluntary returns” for all those foreign Roma found to be living on French soil without permission has been denounced as unfair and unworkable by human rights activists, foreign politicians and even members of the president’s own right-wing UMP party, one of whom – like Reding – enraged the government by comparing the evacuations across France with Vichy-era roundups of French Jews and Gypsies.
For the Romanès family, who dislike the term Roma and prefer to be proud Gypsies, the situation is telling. Even though they are both French citizens – Alexandre since birth – they feel they are being stigmatised by a crackdown which is supposedly only a question of legality. This was not helped by the leak this month of an interior ministry memo that singled out Roma camps as the target for this summer’s expulsions.
“Even we, Gypsy artists who are legal citizens, are being attacked,” said Délia, 40, a Romanian-born singer who fled her native Transylvania during the communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu. “I found it extraordinary that they sent us to represent France at Shanghai and that, when we came back, they weren’t letting our musicians work. It’s mad, really bad. They want to get rid of us. They just don’t want to have to see us. But we are human beings too, you know?”
Extract from the newspaper “The Guardian”