[lg policy] In France, an Evangelical Gypsy group shakes up the immigration debate

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Sat Sep 4 15:15:54 UTC 2010

In France, an Evangelical Gypsy group shakes up the immigration debate

In France, a movement from within the Gypsy community could temper
what have been bad relations with European governments amid a hot
immigration debate.

By Robert Marquand, Staff writer
posted September 3, 2010 at 12:24 pm EDT
Chaumont, France —

Even as French police deported hundreds of Gypsies to Romania in late
August, a devout set of 26,000 Gypsy Evangelicals gathered in the
heart of France for song, testimony, and scripture. France’s
high-profile deportations have put one of Europe’s oldest and most
vulnerable groups in a rare spotlight. They may also be a
miscalculation for President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Though debate in Europe about immigration is heating up, reaction in
France to this policy has been withering: The Roman Catholic church,
the Socialist Party, and even many in Sarkozy’s center-right party are
publicly angered at a policy that appears to single out an ethnic
minority as undesirable, in order to score political points. The
stereotype of the Gypsy doesn't work here

The Gypsy Evangelicals in Chaumont, France counter any stereotype.
They park some 6,000 white trailers in neat rows on the grassy runway
of a World War I air base. It is a “city” brought from “the north, the
south, the east, and the west,” as signs replete with biblical
language affirm, anchored by a tent that holds 6,000 and atop of which
flutter the flags of France, Belgium, the US, the EU, Germany, and the
UK. The gathering joins these Evangelicals, whose numbers and faith
have swelled to some 145,000 of the 425,000 Gypsies in France. Their
tight organization, work and family ethic, regard for civil law, and
stress on education has made them the “go-to” Gypsy group for French
authorities, and a point of pride in a larger Gypsy community that has
long suffered a stigma of criminality, drugs, and brawls. Beyond that,
they help stabilize and keep a vanishing Gypsy identity intact,
analysts say, as economic and legal pressures in post-industrial
Europe are atomizing a nomadic life.

For example, they developed a model for negotiating lands to settle
on. Many Gypsies, facing local bureaucracy, occupy land, then
negotiate. But, “the Bible tells us to be wise and respect the
authorities,” says Aladin Blivet, treasurer of this “Life and Light”
gathering. “We call ahead, we do paperwork, we send a delegation, we
do the organizing.” Michel Lambert, a Gypsy organizer who runs a Gypsy
postal service in a Paris suburb says, “the Protestants are a good
example for us.” He continues, “they have shown how things can work.”

“These Gypsies created an organization with spokesmen.... They speak
with [the] authorities, something new in France,” says Marie Bidet, a
former Interior Ministry employee whose doctoral thesis is on
Gypsy-state relations. “They are serious, respectable; they vote, they
don’t want to burn cars, they want everyone living in peace. That’s
opposite from the traditional image … it can be underlined that they
succeed in their approach.” There's a difference between French
Gypsies and Roma

French Gypsies are known here as “travelers,” whereas Gypsies targeted
for deportation come mainly from Romania and Bulgaria, and are known
as “Roma.” Gypsy leaders and others critical of the policy, say the
crackdowns on Roma tend to amalgamate them into a single negative
public image. Last year France quietly deported more than 7,000
Gypsies. But this summer’s roundup of more than 8,000 were part of a
get-tough-on-crime media campaign by the French government.

At the Chaumont gathering, deportation talk takes second fiddle to
faith-talk. It is rare in secular France to hear open discussion of
spiritual belief. But Gypsies are frank about why they gather: “Our
faith unites us. What God has put in our heart – that’s why we are
here. We are here to share experiences,” says Tino, a small tank of a
man who wears a suit and open pink shirt as he tends a barbecue. His
comments were repeated often.

Most believers speak in rich detail about being “touched” – how they
went from a “bad” life of unbelief or woe into a new life they
attribute to an active Holy Spirit. They quote the Bible avidly, and
speak of healings or “cures” they have seen. A few “churches on
wheels” in the 1960s have grown to some 240 fixed churches today. “I
have four uncles, and each is pastor of our church for two months,”
said a volunteer. “We are on the road the rest of the time.”

“Most Gypsies have a hard life, stealing, family problems. The Gospel
has changed the mentality of many Gypsies,” says Rene Zanellato, a
prominent prayer leader here who speaks six languages and led Gypsy
missions in Russia. “The idea of 26,000 Gypsies coming together in
peace and order used to be a dream. There was fighting and drugs … it
was inconceivable to get together without problems.”

Much of “Light and Life” centers on family. The “caravans” sport
satellite TV and computers. Gypsy women still cook stews of hens or
hedgehogs, a Gypsy delicacy. “But we also like McDonald’s,” says a
smiling matron. Indeed, the evangelical caravans regularly accept
among them nonbelievers, Gypsies who are ambiguous about their belief,
but travel along because they feel safe and there are programs to
educate not only kids, but adults, according to Ms. Bidet.
'We are more French than Sarkozy'

French Gypsy leaders in Chaumont are “disappointed” in Sarkozy’s
policy, implemented by interior minister Brice Hortefeux. In July, Mr.
Sarkozy cracked down on some 128 foreign camps – home to 15,000
Gypsies from Romania and Bulgaria – after a riot spurred by the
shooting of a young French Gypsy, not a foreign born Roma.

Prayer leaders insist Sarkozy knows the difference. He's has visited
their meetings, they say, but is playing politics. “We are more French
than Sarkozy,” says one, pointing to the president’s Hungarian

A new European Union report says the wholesale shutdowns of the
makeshift camps violates EU law. French officials argued strenuously
at EU Commission meetings in Brussels recently that France is not out
of compliance with EU law, and is not targeting an ethnic minority.
Roma have been part of a serious increase in crime in Paris and
elsewhere in France, they say.
Darkening atmosphere about immigrants in Europe

Still, the deportations come amid a darkening atmosphere in Europe
about immigrants and minorities in general. This week a former Slovak
soldier and nationalist shot and killed seven Gypsies who lived in his
apartment building in a rampage that shocked that nation. Current
debates and politics extend to Muslims, Islam, Arabs, and Africans as
well who are changing the complexion of traditional Europe.

As a matter of faith, Gypsies traditionally identify with the main
religion in the country they inhabit. Those in Turkey are Muslims. In
India they are Hindu; Russia, Orthodox; France, Catholic. But after
the war, a young pastor from a fisherman’s family in Breton, Clément
Le Cossec, healed “through Christ” the ill mother of a Gypsy who came
to his church and a young Gypsy whose case was described as incurable.
By 1952, Le Cossec was pushed by Gypsies to train them. He separated
from the French Assemblies of God when a Gypsy-focused mission was
frowned on. “He explained that Gypsies had a special need, were poor
but had faith, but this wasn’t understood,” his son, Paul Le Cossec,
told the Monitor. “So he started his own mission.”

Le Cossec went on the road, living with Gypsies, learning their
customs, language, and “way of life.” He felt, he said in a 1996
interview shortly before his death, that Gypsies had a “childlike”
faith, and that a full and unmitigated concept of the biblical Christ
would transcend the collective image many Gypsies held of themselves:
“Not for a minute was it a question of lecturing them with morals,
telling them they should not drink, lie, steal, or soothsay anymore. I
knew that by receiving the message of Christ, everything would change
in their lives,” he said.

By the mid-1990s, some 6,000 Gypsy pastors were working in Europe –
part of an overall spread of this form of evangelicalism to a world
Gypsy community that claims 2 million in 44 countries. The French town
of Gien is home to a Gypsy Bible college. Marc Bordigoni, a Provence
University anthropologist and author of “The Gypsies,” says Le
Cossec’s approach paradoxically enabled Gypsies to keep their identity
through a faith, Christianity, that asserts what he calls a universal

“The strength of Gypsy Protestantism lies in the fact that Le Cossec
initiated, because he had to, an organization from within the
community. Their faith is led by their own people.”
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