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The Value of Group Consciousness in France: Asserting Collective Identity for the Roma

The common academic definition for group consciousness is the “awareness that an individual's problems are shared by others who are similarly situated in regard to race/ethnicity, gender, class, or age.”  As we have discovered in Humanity in Action, this definition lacks full acceptance in France due to the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity formed from the French Revolution. The principles of French equality and fraternity exist in theory due to the philosophical beliefs that all citizens are interchangeable, and that every person of French citizenship has equal rights to French identity. Yet, in practice, the ‘full’ acceptance of this ideological framework has seemingly veiled its violation and obstructed the possibility for it to become a lived experience. Many ‘communities’ are realizing new lines of identity due to the inability to realize the benefits and inclusiveness of the French identity. Today, the notion of collective consciousness amongst specific minority groups is profoundly relevant due to the existence of longstanding discrimination. As an illustration of such discrimination, we will attempt to flesh out the position of the Roma identity in France and abroad to confirm the usefulness of collective identity. We intend to find a compromise between the opposing positions on group consciousness, and demonstrate the utility this might have for resisting discrimination in matter.

Investigation of Group Consciousness

Before HIA, our perspectives --American and French—about group consciousness were grounded in national and cultural backgrounds. From the French perspective, the notion of group consciousness based on race and ethnicity contradicted the founding idea of republicanism, which sees the French citizen as one entity, and a belief in colorblindness. The universalistic model, commonly referred to as the Republican model is based on the belief in interchangeable abstract individuals, in which all citizens share a common French identity. In addition, the need to assimilate characteristics outside of the line of national allegiance demonstrates ways in which minorities of non-traditional ‘Frenchness’ (different race, culture and origin) have not efficiently been abstracted. The reality of global immigration, which has existed throughout history, is non-specific to one nation.

France’s position on the issue of group consciousness is in stark contrast with that of the United States. Historically, the concept of group consciousness has been apart of the ‘American Experience.’ Near the end of the 19th Century, thousands of immigrants flooded American cities. The magnitude of migration to the States allowed for people to carve out ethnic enclaves that resembled the familiar environments of their past. Thus, the notion of considering national origin, ethnicity, or creed as being apart of an American identity is nothing new. Although high levels of immigration is just one explanation for America’s unique familiarity with the concept of group consciousness, the restrains and problems of a unified ‘American’ identity remain apparent. The United Sates is a far cry away from its vision and promise of pluralism and acceptance. In this respect, the existence of a struggle between a national and group identity remains a pervasive issue irrespective of geography

This paper argues that the growth of group consciousness is a response to the inefficiency of the French Republican ideology. We strive to understand how groups that remain on the margins of French society can find a path of membership within the ideology of equality and liberty. It is not assumed that this study will provide the answer to this incredibly difficult question.  Rather, certain facts are presented considering the Roma that will lead to a conclusion based on what we have taken away from the Humanity and Action Fellowship. With this said, we contend that the theory of colorblindness and the reality of its application are at two very different points. In our opinion, the goal of a ‘raceless’ society must not exist as a façade that hinders the need for a sustained effort toward liberty, equality and fraternity, but rather to make such objectives possible. 

Humanity in Action Experience 

Within the core program we have heard numerous opinions concerning the relevance of belonging to a group based on color, national origin or ethnicity.  This struggle exists in the distinction between community and communautarisme. The definitions of these words are similar, yet give distinctly different implications. In English, the word community maintains a neutral or even positive connotation that describes a group with common interests. Communautarisme in French is used to indicate a group that wants their rights to exist separately and above the larger group of the French republican system. Ironically, some even consider communautarisme’s usage in France today as somehow interchangeable with the group rights of the underprivileged. Patrick Weil, an expert on immigration and national policy, contends a different perspective than standard interpretations and dictionary definitions. He considers communautarisme as an instance, “when the law of a group dominates the law of the land.” Weil draws a sharp distinction between legal and social realms. This interpretation introduces a level complexity to the term because it infers that a group can have access to additional rights, so long as there is no interference with the rest of society.  

Pap Ndiaye, a historian at the EHESS and one of the founders of CRAN (Representative Council of Black Associations of France), places the distinction between these two terms in a historical context. He believes that the use of the word communautarisme has been used as a “myth that was developed by traditional hardcore republicans as a way to criticize minorities for a number of years.” Ndiaye contends that the formations of group consciousness is rooted in the 1960’s, and are relevant to understanding how the negative connotation of communautarisme in the present. Because group consciousness was once a threat to the “mainstream” during the 60’s era, contemporary commentary has assumed the terms significance during a time when activism and social upheaval loomed. Group consciousness, as Ndiaye sees it, is necessary in response to the growing acknowledgement of racism and discrimination in France. “It can not only be a top down fight, but also must be a bottom up fight, and group consciousness is a method.” To us, the arbitrary means in which people use the word communautarisme and 'community' is only evidence of biased perceptions. How  do we interpret the concept of the “French Connection” used by the French who live abroad? How, again, do we  perceive the 'British community' living in the southwest of France? 

As a form of Community or Communautarisme? 

The concept of a French national identity in itself is a form of group consciousness, yet many people claim to be French have issues with meeting the bar of cultural expectations that comes with the identity. As native French citizens have the discretion for what defines national identity, it has become increasingly harder for people that emigrated to relinquish their cultural, ethnic or national baggage, which sometimes is an option they don’t have. It is problems such as this that define how the laws of one group can define the law of the land. This in our minds is an example of the breakdown in the republican ideology. Tools, such as the term communautarisme, have de-legitimized those who speak not only to the interests of a group, but also to the interest of the French Republican principles. 

As a response to the lack of diversity in French legislative assemblies --a point that Pap Ndiaye highlights --groups such as CRAN back the notion of collective identity, which they do not see as anti-republican. Indeed, in the theory of democracy, politicians are elected and appointed to tackle problems concerning the entire society, but they consider this as only half the answer. They are concerned with the problem of tokenism. The nature of diversity does not only pertain to color or ethnicity, but also social class. Some French Blacks feel underrepresented in government, not only because there is not one Black senator for them to identify with, but also because they fell that no one understands first had what it is like to be marginalized because of their identity. Unfortunately, in many parts of France, the realities of growing up in a poor neighborhood and being part of what is referred to as a “visible minority" (which in the US would be referred to a racial minority) tend to overlap. Thus, as the system continues to fail the “visible minorities,” group consciousness will continue to form, and therefore undermining the theory of the republican ideology. As long as the concept of group consciousness is not based on a basis of exclusion, which would only further serve to sever alliances, group consciousness should no longer be seen as a threat to unity. Rather, it should exist as evidence of a lack of unity or that a united citizenry under the Republic has not reflected reality. 

Roma and Collective Consciousness 

The notion of group consciousness related to the Roma community , gives us an opportunity to apply our observations thus far about the usefulness of collective consciousness for a minority not discussed during the program. In this case study of collective identity within the Roma community, we intend to examine the uniqueness of their situation and consider how the notion of collective identity could be further implemented. The Roma population remains a minority that is unique in that it is commonly ignored by many people under the popular notions of what define a minority (color, gender, etc.). Indeed, although the notion itself of “minority’ is not meaningful within the French republican model, the Roma populations exist as an extremely marginal people that remains invisible because of the lack of mainstream consciousness to their issues, a certain indifference. This lack of awareness on part of most nationals and the discrimination faced on dayly basis can in fact be seen as a double discrimination. 
In 1977, the UN Human Rights Commission referred to the Roma “as the most maltreated minority in the various countries of Europe.” Yet, from January 2007 and the integration of Romania and Bulgaria within the European institutions, the Roma have become the largest supranational minority in E.U.  

Some elements on the Roma population in Europe

The Roma are originally from the Northwest of India. They left this region around the beginning of the 10th century. Historians agree that they have been present in Europe for the last seven centuries. Since emigrating to Europe, the Roma were subjects of servitude and slavery which helped build the economic stature of many countries and empires over the centuries. By the beginning of the 20th century, the Nazi ideology continued the trend of oppressing the Roma and labeled them as an inferior race. More than one third of the population of Roma in France was exterminated in the Holocaust. After the war, in the spirit of Communism, many Eastern European countries began to assimilate the Roma within their society. In France, however, even after the French Vichy regime was put to an end, the Roma were not released from the internment camps for an entire year; still considered as deviant citizens. 

The situation of Roma in France is not unique in the history of their oppression in Europe. In the law around the circulation of Nomads in 1912, the French Republic showed its first legal antipathy for the gens du voyage (traveling people). This xenophobic and racist decree was based primarily on the physical characteristics of Roma, which surely assisted the Nazi’s genocide. This decree was a ploy to avoid labeling Roma as an ethnic group, but rather as traveling people. France waited until 1969 to repeal this law, but replaced by an amendment which required the Roma to hold and renew a circulation document. Since 1969, France continues to group Roma, Gypsies, Manouches as gens du voyage despite the fact many of them have settled and may not consider themselves as travellers. Because mainstream France is completly unaware of the complexity of their identity (traditions, origins, language) and continue to narrowly use one aspect of their identity, which is not always absolute, the numerous stigmas of vagabonds remain (thieves, dirty…). 
While the situation of Roma within Europe is similar to that of France, European initiatives have attempted to confront Roma issues for the last three decades.  The efficiency of these initiatives, however, is stifled by their lack of authority in the realm of social legislation. Aside from the E.U. directive “implementing the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of racial or ethnic origin” in 2000, the legal framework surrounding the Roma in Europe is vague and lacks real initiative. Right now the fight for Roma rights and recognition rests with European organizations such as the Open Society Institute, Agency for Fundamental Rights, and United Nations Development Programs. Most notably, the European Roma Information Office (ERIO) and the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) fight directly against the formation of Anti-Romanism. The ERIO works to collect information from EU members and NGO’s to create statistics around the demographics and social evolution of Roma. The ERRC wants Roma issues to be a priority for the EU, and released one of the most significant studies concerning Roma called “The Situation of Roma in an Enlarged European Union.”  Both organizations participate in lobbying on a large scale in European countries. These European organizations have played a major role for Roma so far, but it is Europe and its legal instruments which must play a role in erasing the stigma of Roma identity for the future. 
Although there are many aspects that are positive about the Roma history, today, embracing the Roma identity in some ways means carrying the historic burden of enslavement, extermination, and assimilation, and may explain many pressing issues confronting the Roma identity.  As a group that can be seen as being exploited for their traditions for centuries, it is an individual struggle for some Roma that may believe that it is necessary for them to shed their ethnicity in hope of progress. The Roma community may refer to these polar identities as Roma and Gadjo. Gadjo is a Romani (the Roma language) word used to describe anyone from outside the Roma community or to speak of a Roma who no longer self-identifies as such. Samir Mile, Albanian Roma, President of La Voix des Rroms and professor of Romani language, spoke to the idea of group consciousness and other issues concerning the Roma people. According to Samir, to some extent group consciousness exists for Roma, but currently the French Republican ideology is polarizing the Roma identity. He observes “for the time being, it is either being Roma and being excluded or being a Gadjo and being integrated.” 

Group consciousness based on ethnicity goes against the core principles of French Republicanism and may produce collateral effects. The main apprehended effects are the possibility of self-segregation or negative visibility. Self-segragation in that the mainstream populations may perceive the Roma as an impervious group, insensitive of other identities. Negative visibility in that they would grow more visible but as a distinct ethnic or cultural group being more discriminated against. Critics then could use the “ethnic card” (clothes, slang, homeland, etc.) as a threat to the French Republican model.

It is a fact that racists will always exist regardless of whether or not the republican model is applied or not to the entire society. While this notion of colorblindness exists, ironically minority issues and differences between communities grow stronger in France. People feel the need to build a society within the society, in which their voice would be heard and whose members would share the same experience of being discriminated against. For this reason there is a need to fight directly against the reality of racism, and group consciousness is necessary tool in order to mend the republican model. 

As we have come to this conclusion, the negative aspects of group consciousness must be outlined so further divisions will not be drawn. Group consciousness can push back against stereotypical beliefs, as long as this effort is not exclusive in its application. The threat of being labeled communautariste is apparent, but with the reality of group consciousness existing, it seems inevitable that efforts for progress will continue to further this consciousness. 
An additional significance of group consciousness lies in its ability to lead to political representation. In this the Roma are no exception to this formation of a collective identity, and the possibilities of its expansion. In gaining visibility and social awareness, Roma may have their objections heard and potentially the interest of politically representation. The need for minority representation in the opinions of experts, such as Pap Ndiaye, is of the utmost importance. Before this representation is possible, the barriers that continue to divide the Roma Diaspora (Roma, Gispsies, Manouches, Sinties and other sub-groups sharing some cultural and linguistics features) will have to be destroyed in the shared experience of injustice and cultural familiarity. 
Outside of these barriers there are many more opportunities for them to form unity within their group. At the beginning of the 70’s, the national pride within the Roma community started to emerge. At the First World Romani Congress in London in 1971, the Roma Diaspora chose its national symbols, a flag, and an anthem. Aside from these examples of national pride, which do not imply any request for a specific Roma country, we have found other meaningful tools to create more unity within the Roma community. Language is a good example. Even though the original language they used to speak in their native land of India has been influenced by mainstream European languages, there is still a mutual comprehension between Gypsies in Spain and Manouches in Germany. Such relationships are significant in understanding and expanding the group consciousness of the Roma. Nevertheless, the refusal from France to ratify the text relating to the minority languages adopted by the Council of Europe, does not pave the way for Roma to create a linguistic unity. 

Music is another tool for the Roma to grow more united and share their culture and social concerns. Paradoxically enough, Roma music has always been received in a positive way by the mainstream culture in France. The stigmas conveyed when it comes to music are much more different than the ones conveyed by the image of the Roma people. Thus, music, in the case of Roma, has the ability to transcend ethnicity and creed, and may lead to a more general comprehension about their culture and traditions. If those images conveyed by music may be transferred to the community as a whole, music will play an important role.  However, the role of music does not stop here. For example, the role in which rap music plays in the case of the Jeunes des banlieue. Roma music may be used as a political platform to express their opinions on the French society. By doing so, Roma music may be a manner to sensitize the whole mainstream of the lack of appliance of the Republican principles to their community. Moreover, they may create as Pap Ndiaye call them, new initiés (allies), sensitive to their cause. 

Conclusion of Group Consciousness and Roma

The compromise we have reached throughout our investigation concerning Roma and group consciousness is not only based on ethnicity and race, which can create new divisions, but more based on the social experience based on discrimination. This is what diversity and multiculturalism are about, not denying anyone’s culture or traditions, but at the same time not self-segregating. Multiculturalism is only possible in France if the Republican values are applied to the entire society. Belief in racism is different from a belief in race. 
An example of this much needed multicultural compromise can be seen in the duality of language and music. While language is a way for Roma to see themselves as a collective, music and traditions such as the International Roma Day are a way for them to share their culture and history. This international day takes place in different cities of the world on the 8th of April. This day has been extended this year in Paris to a whole week dedicated to Roma culture. This approach illustrates our opinion about what should be a multicultural society. Even though there are people who have different cultural and traditional backgrounds, they can also be eager of sharing them with the mainstream society, in the case of Roma with all the Gadje. 

The Roma were the first to put in practice a fundamental European principle, the freedom of circulation. With this, we must keep in mind the role Europe will play in the future to achieve its goal of anti-discrimination (the decade of inclusion of Roma ). As Günter Grass highlights « Les Tsiganes sont depuis toujours ce que nous nous efforçons de devenir : des Européens nés. » (Roma have always been what we are striving to become: born European). To conclude, the Roma community has the ability to integrate their culture within the numerous that are displayed in the French republic, but in the meantime the formation of group consciousness is needed to reestablish the value of brotherhood within their own community.
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HIA Program:

France France 2008


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