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East European Eyes on France’s Roma Policy October 19, 2010

Posted by Yilan in France, Roma.
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After a summer marked by a needless quarrel over how to treat their Roma population, the French seem on course for an autumn of discontent over issues much closer to their pocketbooks: the reform of their state pensions.

For the trade unionists and leftists gearing up to take on President Nicolas Sarkozy and his government over treasured welfare benefits, protests may well drown out the summer storm over the Roma.

For the rest of Europe, the memory may not fade so fast.

Karel Schwarzenberg, at 72 now foreign minister of the Czech Republic for a second time following the surprisingly strong showing of his new TOP09 party in elections last autumn, was musing on his embassy’s magnificent terrace overlooking the Eiffel Tower when he hit what felt like an important point.

“Especially in our part of the world,” he said, referring to Central and Eastern Europe, “we always look at France as a lighthouse of democracy and freedom.”

Many “refugees of our nations found asylum in France,” Mr. Schwarzenberg noted. No names were mentioned, but Milan Kundera, the Czech author who has been in Paris for decades, is a clear example.

So to have the president of France — the highest official of an esteemed European land — single out the Roma as some kind of hostile force was, Mr. Schwarzenberg said, “such a shock, and such a surprise.”

The scion of one of Central Europe’s mightiest landowning families, Mr. Schwarzenberg, who in Communist days supported anti-regime dissidents in his native Prague from his family holdings in Austria, might not seem the natural critic of a conservative French leader with Hungarian roots.

But he has seen the vicissitudes of power, and different fates, on a continent that 20 years after the Cold War still struggles for unity.

When it comes to problems like the Roma, he suggested, the best politics is local. Without sparing criticism of Czech policy — the “mistake,” for instance, of effectively segregating Czech Roma in special schools — he lauded the mayor of Cesky Krumlov, a Baroque jewel in the south of the Czech Republic, where Roma have not been marginalized in ghettoes and take a pride and a part in keeping the town spick and span.

“Let’s be honest,” the mustachioed, bow-tied aristocrat suggested, fussing with and eventually lighting a pipe. “In all our countries, the Roma are badly treated, especially by the police.”

Behind this lies a complex history of Nazi destruction of the Roma, one of Europe’s most ancient cultures, he noted. In Czech lands, almost all indigenous Roma died in Nazi camps, Mr. Schwarzenberg said. Those who settled in and near Czech cities after 1945 were already outsiders, descended from Roma from Romania, Hungary and Slovakia, and lacking the Czech language.

That kind of ethnic fracturing has vastly accelerated, Mr. Schwarzenberg noted, with the more recent migrations into Western Europe. When he studied in West Germany in the 1950s, he said, Italian and then Yugoslav workers were just arriving. There were almost no Turks — now estimated to number about 2.7 million in Germany. Similarly, the suburbs of Paris were French, and not — as in some areas today — North and sub-Saharan African. The Netherlands was home to some Indonesians loyal to Dutch colonial masters, but there was no sizeable immigration.

Europeans need “some time to adapt,” he said, while dismissing, as “a bit tactless,” the ideas of Thilo Sarrazin, the German banker who has created a stir for saying that immigrants, notably Turks, have contributed little or nothing in Germany.

The furor this summer over France’s expulsions of Roma to Romania and Bulgaria — European Union countries whose citizens still have limited rights to free travel in the 27-nation bloc — would pale by comparison to the prospect of full E.U. membership for Turkey, a country of 80 million people.

Mr. Schwarzenberg, conscious, he said, of being “only” foreign minister of a Central European nation of about 10 million people, has quite firm ideas about how Europe should react to Turkey, and what it must get done first.

If Turkey, whose membership is tied up in complex negotiations and is unlikely before 2020, meets all conditions, Mr. Schwarzenberg said, it should join. “A promise must be kept,” he said. If Turkey decides to pursue a more nationalist line but still seeks strong ties, “then let’s find another modus vivendi,” as well as working on “our own prejudices against the Turks.”

But before Turkey, Mr. Schwarzenberg said, let Europe finish other tasks. Noting the creation of a new European diplomatic service, he said, people like the Czechs should ensure they are well represented, thus increasing domestic identification with the European Union.

“We have to show that we are there to do our best and be valuable members of the E.U.,” he said, alluding to the gaffe-prone Czech presidency of 2009.

Next, he noted, all Europeans should work with the Poles and Swedes to emphasize partnerships to the East — Ukraine and Belarus, principally — to overcome lingering division of Europe. In the same vein, the western Balkans — Albania and the remnants of the old Yugoslavia — should join the fold.

If Mr. Schwarzenberg had one frustration, it was that the Czech Republic, ”the heart of Europe,” is still regarded by some Westerners as “the Far East.”

He conceded that parts of Eastern Europe bear scars of what he called the continent’s “prolonged civil war” between World War I in 1914 and the collapse of Communism in 1989. Yet 20 years after the Velvet Revolution, he said, his country is a fairly prosperous, fairly normal democracy.

How close to the dreams he nurtured from Vienna when his friend Vaclav Havel was still a dissident playwright pursued by the Communists? “Seldom,” he said, “the dreams you have are fulfilled completely.” And consolation, he smiled with perhaps a nod to his surroundings, is “only in a good bottle of wine.”

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