All the media stories of rabid attacks on Muslims and Latino immigrants in recent weeks might have you convinced that America’s racism is unique among nations. But across the Atlantic, another republic is making headlines with its blatant bigotry. The French may not think much of Americans, but both countries’ governments share a singular antipathy for “outsiders.”
France has launched a widely condemned program to expel members of the Roma ethnic minority and send them to Romania and Bulgaria.
While such assaults are nothing new to marginalized Roma migrants, who trace their deep lineage to a nomadic people of Punjab, India, the state’s determination to decimate their settlements has drawn criticism from the United Nations and European Parliament, perhaps because it evokes the stench of ethnic cleansing in a Europe still grappling with its new identity and past genocides.
The New York Times reported in August on the purge:
France flew some 100 Roma home to Romania — people who France insists agreed to leave voluntarily for a flight and a resettlement sum of about $385 instead of facing the chance of forcible expulsion in a month. … Mass expulsions based on ethnicity violate European Union law, [said Robert A. Kushen, executive director of the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Centre] and the failure of France to do individual assessments of each case — as opposed to cursory examinations of papers by the police — also violates European Union rules.
Speaking of skirting the law. Meanwhile in Arizona, the Border Patrol’s strategy to “deter” border crossings, known as Operation Streamline, has effectively turned the federal court system into a mechanized deportation mill. At a Tucson courthouse, NPR reports, immigrants are packed into groups of as many as 200 and shuttled through fast-track hearings (at enormous taxpayer expense) before getting punted back over the border (in all likelihood, only to try returning later in desperation).
France’s crackdown on local Roma communities might seem more severe, baldly discriminatory and conducted with minimal due process. But in both expulsion campaigns, the government’s motive is to project toughness by demonizing an utterly defenseless “illegitimate” group. Another common feature is that both are carried out under ostensibly liberal-democratic regimes, with a tradition of absorbing migrants and refugees (both led by statesmen who are children of immigrants, no less).
Paralleling America’s Mosque Mania, French politicians are also capitalizing on an anti-foreigner atmosphere by banning the full veil worn by Muslim women. The Senate just overwhelmingly approved the “burqa ban“—a move that’s sure to further alienate the Muslim minority. Since French society reflexively avoids openly discussing racism, the policy has been justified as “a question of dignity and equality” and a measure of “respect for our republican principles.”
Back on this side of the pond, it’s sometimes called “American values.” That powerful rhetoric is readily exploited in any society where economic and political unrest goads a dominant group to target “them” in order to save what belongs to “us.” You can brand it as a fight for national character, but really, bigotry sounds the same in any language.