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Martin: Sarkozy's Scapegoats

09/21/10 5:55PM By Mike Martin
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(HOST) As French President Sarkozy struggles with government scandals, economic reform, and questions about human rights, commentator Mike Martin wonders if he's trying to distract voters from tougher challenges - and whether we might have a similar problem here.

(MARTIN) For Americans, the word "gypsy" conjures up images of fortunetellers, caravans, and flamenco dancers. But for Europeans, gypsies are more than a romantic idea from the 1800s; they are a real-life, modern-day people still struggling to find a place in society. And the people in question prefer to call themselves "Rom" or "Roma," since the term gypsy is a centuries-old misnomer derived from "Egyptian," which shares the same origins as the ethnic slur "to gyp," meaning to swindle.

It is well known that oppressed minorities are often subject to labels they don’t control, and now, as the Rom people find themselves in the middle of a European human rights debate, the French government is making the distinction between the Roma - mainly groups from Romania and Bulgaria - and the manouches or gens du voyage - the estimated 400,000 Rom people who are French citizens. The point being, of course, to distinguish between "our gypsies" and "their gypsies" as the French police close down camps and expel the Roma from France.

These expulsions, which started last summer, have earned France a rebuke from the European Union and a lot of bad press. But it’s important to recognize that many French feel as though their country has bent over backwards to accommodate the Rom. For example, by law, each and every French municipality must provide free campgrounds equipped with water and electrical outlets for "travelers," as the Rom are sometimes referred to. And many French have loudly opposed President Sarkozy’s new crackdown.

Of course, almost all European countries have a long, ugly history of persecuting the Rom. Italy and Denmark have been quietly sending their Rom back to Eastern Europe, and the Czech Republic forced sterilizations of Rom women as late as 2004. And if German Prime Minister Angela Merkel publicly rejected Sarkozy’s policies last week, it may be because her own country is thought to have killed as many as 500,000 Rom in World War II concentration camps.

So why are the Europeans only now getting around to this public debate about the Rom people? Well, it probably has everything to do with the economy. Throughout history, political leaders have found scapegoats to shore up their power during tough times, and the Sarkozy government’s new anti-burka and anti-Roma laws should be seen in this light.

With Sarkozy’s loud, combative style, France will probably continue to draw fire for his populist politics for a while longer. But in time the French will probably end policies which single out an ethnic group because it’s simply not in line with French democratic values.

So while it’s tempting to wag fingers at the French as Sarkozy blunders on, we might do well to think about our own scapegoats during these uncertain times. For example, are American Muslims really free to openly practice their religion? And are Mexican immigrants really a threat to our security and economy?  I’m not so sure that they are. In fact, these debates may simply be a loud distraction from our talking about our real problems.
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