Posts Tagged 'education'

The rise and rise of Golden Dawn

By Harry van Versendaal

With its leadership awaiting trial for a series of alleged felonies, why would someone vote for Golden Dawn?

“Golden Dawn is changing. To me, as a voter, there are clear signs of political maturity. The party is moving away from what used to be its core ideology; it’s not about kicking and punching immigrants anymore,” says Thodoris, a mild-mannered 45-year-old civil servant a few days after the far-right party gained seats in the European Parliament for the first time in its history.

“A growing number of people are joining out of patriotism and concern about national issues like illegal immigration. If you attend a party rally, you won’t see skinheads but ordinary people like me.”

Thodoris, who lives in the seaside resort town of Porto Rafti, east of Athens, says he initially voted for the anti-immigrant, ultranationalist and Holocaust-denying group in 2012, mainly to protest the way Greece’s two mainstream parties were handling the debt crisis. But at last month’s European Parliament elections, the former PASOK supporter – who did not wish to give his last name – says he had extra reasons to do so.

“While other parties promoted celebrities and soccer players to run in the European elections, Golden Dawn picked serious men,” says Thodoris, a devout Christian. Former lieutenant generals Eleftherios Synadinos, who once commanded the Greek army’s special forces, and Georgios Epitideios, a former director at the European Union Military Staff, as well as Lambros Fountoulis, the father of murdered Golden Dawn member Giorgos Fountoulis, accepted the invitation to run on the party ticket.

On the rebound

The party, which rejects the neo-Nazi label, came third in the European elections, taking 9.4 percent of the vote and collecting 110,460 more ballots than in the June 2012 national elections. Ilias Kasidiaris, Golden Dawn’s swastika tattoo-bearing spokesman, hailed the result, saying his party was now “the third force in the country’s political life.”

Just eight months ago, such a result seemed almost unthinkable. In September 2013, Golden Dawn leader Nikos Michaloliakos was taken away screaming and cursing in handcuffs to the high-security Kordyallos Prison, along with dozens of high-ranking party members and several MPs. But despite its leadership still being behind bars awaiting trial on charges of running the party as a criminal gang, Golden Dawn still managed to make a strong showing in Greece’s local and European elections last month, augmenting its nationwide political presence and surpassing expectations.

In the regional elections, the party won 31,903 more votes compared to the national vote of 2012, electing 26 regional councilors in 12 out of the 13 regions it campaigned for. Meanwhile, on a municipal level, Golden Dawn had 14 councilors elected in the nine municipalities where it ran. Four of them were elected in Athens where the party tripled its percentage compared to the 2010 local vote.

“The desire for retribution, which manifested itself in the 2012 elections, once again ushered voters toward GD, while in areas such as the Athens municipality and the Attica region, where the party commands a more solid backing, its performance most probably reflects some form of real support for the party rather than just anger or disillusionment with politics,” says Lamprini Rori, a political analyst who has conducted extensive research into Greece’s foremost far-right party.

“Voters whose anger initially turned them toward Golden Dawn appear to be gradually starting to identify with the party,” says Rori, adding that although the party’s geographical representation remains uneven, it managed to attract votes from more age groups and professional categories.

Black sheep

Greece’s crippling financial crisis – the economy is in the seventh year of a recession that has driven unemployment to around 27 percent – has been a windfall for Golden Dawn, which used to poll well below 1 percent. However, analysts agree that Greeks’ declining living standards are by no means the only factor in GD’s meteoric rise.

“None of the other countries that suffered an economic crisis in recent years, such as Spain, Portugal or Ireland, witnessed a rise in extremism in recent elections,” Rori says.

“In fact, far-right and Euroskeptic parties made gains in countries that were not that seriously affected by the crisis, such as the United Kingdom and France,” she adds.

Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration, anti-euro National Front topped the national vote in France for the first time, while Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party, which advocates immediate withdrawal from the EU, won a stunning victory across the Channel.

But analysts believe the sociocultural factors which catapulted Golden Dawn into the political mainstream were apparent before the debt crisis hit Greece.

The steady degradation of the center of Athens after the 2004 Olympic Games, soaring crime rates and the rapid influx of immigrants in certain downtown areas created a window of political opportunity for Golden Dawn, enabling it to ensconce itself in the capital’s fourth and sixth municipal districts. It was in working-class neighborhoods such as Kolonos, Sepolia, Akadimia Platonos, Kypseli and Patissia that the party’s foot soldiers gained the trust of native Greek locals who felt abandoned by the state. Golden Dawn developed a grassroots following that organized protest rallies, food drives, offered protection services and launched vigilante-style patrols, including violent attacks on immigrants.

Golden Dawn claimed to be taking on the duties of a corrupt, dysfunctional and unloving state as trust in official institutions and traditional political parties was obliterated by the crisis.

Meanwhile, the participation in November 2011 of Giorgos Karatzaferis’s populist right-wing Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) in the interim administration led by former central banker Lucas Papademos gave Golden Dawn a monopoly on the far-right anti-systemic vote.

Moreover, Golden Dawn’s neo-Nazi rhetoric jelled with the 69 percent of an electorate that harbors anti-Semitic beliefs, according to a recent survey by the Anti-Defamation League.

Just three years after receiving a paltry 0.29 percent, Golden Dawn won 6.9 percent of the vote and 18 parliamentary seats in the June 2012 national elections.

Backfire

New Democracy attempted to counter Golden Dawn’s rise by bringing in two popular lawmakers from LAOS and adopting a hardline attitude on issues such as street crime and illegal immigration, hoping this would bring voters back.

During the 2012 election campaign, ND leader Antonis Samaras labeled migrants as “tyrants” and spoke of the need to “reclaim” city centers from their grip. After becoming premier, Samaras scrapped a law granting citizenship to second-generation immigrants before blocking an anti-racism bill a year later.

ND’s candidate for Athens mayor, Aris Spiliotopoulos, adopted an openly xenophobic agenda in his 2014 campaign, attacking plans to construct a mosque in Athens on the grounds that the capital did not need “another magnet for illegal immigration” or “third-world tents under the sacred rock of the Acropolis.” Despite his own coalition government’s much-vaunted plans for going ahead with the construction of a mosque in Athens, Spiliotopoulos proposed a referendum on it, an idea that had been put forward months earlier by Golden Dawn’s own mayoral candidate.

These attempts by ND to break into far-right terrain worked to Golden Dawn’s advantage, bringing its pet issues into the mainstream of what is politically acceptable.

“When a political player haphazardly tries to hijack the issues and the framing of a rival political force, voters do not just remember the issues but also who is more suitable, in their judgement, to deal with these issues. GD obviously benefited from this,” Rori says.

In the capital’s mayoral race, far-right candidate Kasidiaris, also under criminal investigation, drew almost level with New Democracy, gaining 16.1 percent to Spiliotopoulos’s 16.9 percent. Both candidates failed to make the runoff.

Martyr status

Initially, the massive crackdown on the party after the murder of rapper Pavlos Fyssas, aka Killah P, by a Golden Dawn member in the Athens neighborhood of Keratsini last September was anticipated to reverse the group’s momentum. But these expectations were quickly flattened. The launch of a judicial investigation saw a decline in grassroots actions and violent attacks but fell short of dampening the party’s appeal. Polls show that GD actually increased its share in Keratsini and neighboring Perama.

“The party did everything to portray the ongoing criminal inquiry as politically motivated, a strategy that allowed it to galvanize its party base,” Rori says.

Meanwhile, hard proof, such as a much speculated-upon weapons cache, has not been found, nor has a trial date yet been set, fueling belief among some voters that the investigation into the party is political motivated.

Thodoris, for one, believes the arrests are of dubious legality. “There is no evidence for these trumped-up charges. It’s all reactionary and dirty propaganda by the media. It may fool older people like my parents, but not conscious folk like myself,” he says.

“These people were sent to jail although nothing has been proved,” says Thodoris, who believes that the killing of Fyssas – as well as other widely recorded attacks against immigrants across the country – was an isolated incident that should not be attributed to commands from the top echelons of the party.

Golden Dawn’s martyr status was reinforced by the murder of two party members – 22-year-old Manolis Kapelonis and 26-year-old Giorgos Fountoulis – who were shot in cold blood in the Neo Iraklio suburb of Athens in November. The shooting was claimed by a previously unknown – and silent since – urban guerrilla organization.

“Golden Dawn showed it was able to hold back its members from reacting,” says Thodoris, a sign to him that the party had moved on from its violent past.

Another boon toward Golden Dawn’s increasing legitimacy has come in the form of costly blunders made by mainstream politicians. Cabinet secretary Panayiotis Baltakos, Samaras’s chief of staff, was forced to resign in April after he was secretly filmed in a private meeting with Kasidiaris during which he accused the Greek premier of instigating and influencing the judicial inquiry against GD for political gain.

“The Baltakos incident and the approval by the Supreme Court of Golden Dawn’s participation in the European elections both served as an alibi for the party’s voters who were looking for a way to justify their choice,” Rori says.

Speaking in an interview with To Vima newspaper on Sunday, Baltakos was adamant that there is a kinship between ND and Golden Dawn voters. He said his party should continue to court GD supporters.

“The leaderships of the [right-wing] parties cannot merge. That is evident. But the voters can. That too is evident,” said Baltakos.

Banality of evil

With Golden Dawn polling just under the 10 percent threshold, pundits are still debating how much of their support comes from protest votes and whether there are still misguided voters out there who have little stomach for neo-Nazi ideology.

“With 66 party members facing charges and 29 – including six deputies – sitting in jail pending trial, it would be rather naive to speak of misguided voters,” says Rori. But classifying all of these voters as neo-Nazis is a different matter altogether, she adds.

“Some of them do not think that the criminal charges against Golden Dawn hold any water; others do, but don’t really mind. Some condone violence or may even be attracted to it, because they are charmed by the display of power, the imposition of order or revenge.”

More disturbingly, there are those she classifies as free riders: “people who like violence without personal cost since they do not exercise violence, nor suffer from it.”

Vasilis Lyritsis, managing director at the refugee reception center run by the Hellenic Red Cross in Lavrio, on the eastern coast of Attica, also disputes the concept of the ignorant voter.

“I do not believe any Golden Dawn voters were ‘misled,’ as it were, or that they did not know what they were voting for,” he says.

Lyritsis, who ran as a regional candidate on a center-left ticket backed by the small Democratic Left (DIMAR) party, believes the mainstream parties must stand against Golden Dawn using clear political discourse on everything from human rights to the protection of minorities and other vulnerable groups.

“Politicians should not make any ideological concessions in the hope of stealing voters away from the neo-Nazis. The European elections demonstrated clearly that this does not work,” Lyritsis says.

A stumbling block in that direction is that political polarization regarding Greece’s bailout agreements with foreign lenders has prevented mainstream parties from forging a unified response. At the same time, experts say, the political class must work to rebuild the institutions of the state, because Golden Dawn has shown its adeptness at squeezing through the cracks and infiltrating basic functions of government.

“Golden Dawn exploited the absence of institutions like the police, welfare and justice against the more vulnerable groups of the population in order to weave its web,” says Lyritsis, who deems the party should have been outlawed because it is a threat to democracy.

However, analysts agree that the safest way to curb the influence of extremist ideas in the long run is to educate the voters of tomorrow. Lyritsis maintains the country needs to move beyond a nation-centric education.

“Portraying the ‘other’ as an enemy who is nearly by default blamed for all the nation’s woes has caused a great deal of navel gazing and an overblown national ego created around the idea of a chosen people,” says Lyritsis, who is also a trained historian.

“Greek schools must not operate like ivory towers. They must open up to multiculturalism and difference. They ought to promote the country’s contemporary history instead of finding comfort with the cozy identification of pupils with Greece’s ancient and Byzantine legacy, which may look safe but is dangerous in the long term,” Lyritsis says. “What we now get is a form of intellectual fascism.”

And while extremist ideas continue to gain traction and voters, Greece’s two traditional political parties, wedded in an uneasy coalition government, are shedding voters apace. The question is, who will replace them if they perish?

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Including Samuel

By Harry van Versendaal

Big shocks change perceptions. Shortly after he became a father for the second time, New Hampshire resident Dan Habib falsely received a near-death diagnosis for his newborn child, Samuel. No surprise, little seemed the same after that.

Samuel, now 11, was eventually found to suffer from cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that makes it very difficult for him to control his muscles. Apart from being a very supportive father, or maybe because of it, Habib, a professional photojournalist, reacted to the news by doing what he knows best. He made a film about the family’s efforts to include their mobility-challenged son in every aspect of life — including a regular school.

The result is a 58-minute documentary advocating the merits of inclusive education, i.e. incorporating children with disabilities in typical schools and classrooms. “Including Samuel,” which has already been screened on a number of national television networks, at universities as well as in theaters across the United States, will be shown next week at the “How I Am: Challenging Perceptions” section of the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.

“Samuel brought the disability rights movement into our own home,” Habib said in an interview with Kathimerini English Edition.

Apart from providing snapshots of Samuel’s experiences over a span of four years, the film also features enlightening interviews with teachers, pupils, therapists and parents. Habib does not shy from the hard stuff. Including Samuel is a process that involves small, everyday triumphs as well as painfully sobering setbacks. But the overall message comes across strong: Inclusive education is worth striving for.

A beaming boy with emphatic eyes, Samuel moves around on a power-assist wheelchair and his speech is labored. He loves baseball and, like many kids of his age, wants to become an astronaut.

In spite of the daunting challenges for everyone involved, Habib never tires to point out that inclusive education is not a zero-sum equation. “Samuel will never tie his shoes or make a sandwich,” he said. “But people have told me he’s made a bigger impact on them that anyone else they’ve ever met in their life.”

How did you get the idea to make this documentary?

When Samuel was 3, he got very sick: He had a tonsillectomy and aspirated blood and developed pneumonia. I’d started taking some photos in the hospital and his doctor knew I was a photojournalist and said, “Why not tell the story of what it’s like to be the parent of a child with a disability?” It was cathartic — to have something to do other than worry. And then I was showing my still photographs to a group of high school students and they said, “We like your pictures, but without seeing video we can’t connect.” That’s when I started to do a film.

What did you aspire to achieve with this film? What has been the reception of the movie so far?

My hope is that my film will inspire the public — especially anyone connected to education — to talk about inclusion in a more informed and innovative way. I also hope they will get to know Samuel at the same time.

By honestly portraying a story I had intimate access to — our own – I hoped that Samuel would open hearts and minds to see a larger truth: disability is a natural part of the diversity of our society.

When I was making it, my public hope was that it would have a big impact in New Hampshire, and my secret hope was that it would have an impact nationally. The impact has far exceeded anything I hoped for. It’s been broadcast on national public television, shown at film festivals around the world and translated into 17 languages. I’ve given over 200 presentations in 30 states and several countries.

“Including Samuel” is sparking action around disability rights and inclusion from Miami to Maui and Australia to Iraq. The DVD and viewers’ guide are being used in thousands of hospitals, schools, nonprofits, parent groups and state agencies to spark system change in communities nationally and internationally. It’s been an amazing journey.

What were your main challenges in shooting this film?

Making this film forced me to look at my own prejudices. Before I had Samuel, when I saw people who couldn’t walk or talk, what crept into my head? It’s painful to admit, but I often saw them as less smart, less capable, and not worth getting to know. Now I wonder if that how the world sees Samuel.

Also, I really work hard in the film and my presentations not to blame teachers. A lot of teachers, once they try inclusion, are astounded that it’s not as hard as they think it’s going to be and they believe they become better teachers as a result. Some teachers have told me this is the most rewarding experience they’ve had. But it only happens with supportive leadership, so that if a teacher is struggling, they get the training or supports they need. Universal Design for Learning curriculum and technology are important.

Lastly, I continually had to decide when to pick up the camera and film, and when to pick up a baseball mitt and “just be Dad.”

What has been the impact of the whole experience on your family and you personally?

Making this film helped me envision the life we want and expect for Samuel. We have a supportive network of teachers, therapists, relatives and friends who help us work toward that goal every day. And there is Samuel himself, whose smile and persistence make clear his own vision of happiness.

Samuel brought the disability rights movement into our home. It came with lots of questions: Can we continue to fully include Samuel as he goes to middle and high school? What about the times when illnesses force Samuel to miss weeks or months of school? As an adult, will he find a mate? Will he get a job that he likes?

I don’t know the answers to those questions right now. But I do know that Samuel loves life. He loves to laugh and he loves NASCAR racing. He’s determined to keep up with his brother and to be a part of everything that we do.

Has your experience over the years strengthened or shifted your views on inclusive education?

Our belief in inclusive education grows stronger all the time. When we thought about what we hoped for Samuel, it was that that he’d be a participating and fully welcomed member of our community. That meant attending his local school.

From a personal point of view, school is the hub of our community. If the school is truly welcoming, as they should be to every neighborhood child, then a child can be successful in any environment with the right supports, which is what the law says in the US.

Attending the local school has a major social impact. Because Samuel goes to school with his friends, they’re over at our house every day, they know his DynaVox voice device, they know he plays baseball, they know he loves NASCAR and dinosaurs and volcanoes. He’s not the kid in the wheelchair. Everybody knows him and they talk to him and with him.

From an educational perspective, every piece of research we’ve been able to find shows better academic achievement for kids in inclusive settings. And we’re seeing that for kids without disabilities as well. At the University of Wisconsin, they’re working on a study that shows that kids without disabilities become much more engaged in the curriculum and retain more when they’re working in partnership with kids who need some support or mentoring. They also find behavior is better because kids become more patient and compassionate. When you’re in a truly diverse environment — not just ethnicities, but socioeconomic backgrounds and abilities — that’s how you develop social and emotional skills.

When I talk to audiences I ask them to think back to when they were at school: “What played a greater role in who you are as a person today — relationships or academics?” One-hundred percent say relationships. That’s a good thing to remind educators. A lot of school is about social-emotional development.

I’ve learned inclusion usually succeeds — not necessarily because of money or technology, although they help — but because of leadership from the top administrators in a district and attitude. And the attitude being that all kids deserve to be in a general education classroom and can benefit from it — and that all kids can achieve. It’s an amazing thing how many educators don’t believe that — how many teachers in regular ed and special ed don’t have high expectations for kids with disabilities. When inclusion doesn’t work, we blame it on the kids. It’s because of this kid’s particular qualities. In the US, the law is that you are in the least restrictive environment with the proper support.

You show me any kid who you say can’t be included, and I’ll show you a kid with similar characteristics being included somewhere else. It’s about the environment, not the kid.

I believe life skills are best learned when a kid is living life with his or her peers. You can’t sit and teach a kid life skills in an artificial environment. If we’re focused on getting a kid to tie his shoes and brush his teeth, we’re placing the bar too low. Samuel will never tie his shoes or make a sandwich, but people have told me he’s made a bigger impact on them than anyone else they’ve ever met in their life.

What is the situation now in the United States? Is there a momentum toward inclusive educational practices?

Definitely. Every year more and more children are fully included in typical schools and classrooms, and the current leadership in Washington seems supportive of this momentum. I think there will come a time when we look back on the segregation of kids with disabilities like we do now on segregation by race. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s very strange and artificial. Some people ask me, “’What are the limits of inclusion?” We haven’t even tested that theory yet. We’re doing such a bad job of it in most places in the US and internationally. Parents have to make tough choices. They’re often forced to accept a segregated setting. I’ve never met a parent who said, “My first choice is not to have my child be part of the community school.”

How is Samuel doing at the moment?

He’s 11 and in the 5th grade at the same school. Throughout elementary school, inclusion has worked really well for Samuel. Samuel is doing theater. One of his friends suggested that Samuel would be able to drum. So he’s doing drumming in music at school. He played baseball in the spring and went skiing this winter. He’s done karate and judo and rides an adapted bike. He loves video games, PlayStation and YouTube. In most ways, he’s a pretty typical 11-year-old.

For more information about the movie visit http://www.includingsamuel.com

Spoiled by the gods

Photo by Harry van Versendaal

By Harry van Versendaal

What does not kill you can make you stronger, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote. Or, at least, a little bit richer.

Last week, Ukraine announced that the area around the Chernobyl power plant, the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster, will be officially opened to tourists. The former Soviet republic’s emergency situations ministry, the Guardian reported, is planning to offer visitor tours inside the 30-mile no-go zone set up after reactor number four of the powerhouse exploded on April 26 , 1986, sending a radiation cloud over much of Europe – and swarms of panicked consumers here in Greece to the local supermarkets as tons of Dutch-made tinned milk flew off the shelves in just a few hours.

Perhaps Ukraine’s toxic theme park might have a lesson or two to offer us about how to turn disaster into opportunity. Sure, Greece is not some deserted wasteland quite just yet, but it has long been in the “accident-waiting-to-happen category.” A mammoth 110-billion-euro bailout package signed with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund earlier this year was generally seen as a last gasp effort to prevent this once-proud eurozone member from defaulting – a lot like patching up a nuclear plant’s cracked sarcophagus. Will the patches hold? No one knows for sure.

One thing everyone agrees on is that the nation has all but hit rock bottom. It is, therefore, all the more surprising that so many of us still refuse to change the way we do things. The crisis, the biggest since the end of the military dictatorship in 1974, has presented us with an unprecedented opportunity to break with the rigidities, habits and babble of the past. But very few people have seen the crisis as an opportunity, or better, the opportunity behind the crisis.

Our gods are dead, as Nietzsche would have it. But, as the late German philosopher would also say, zero-hour moments like this are not necessarily a cause for despair, but, instead the first step for a reevaluation of our old values. Sadly, no inner readjustment appears to be in the cards here as we still look to the same old gods for succor: populism, nepotism and self-interest.

Take the education sector, traditionally a test site for political experimentation by socialist and conservative governments alike, which is once again being shoved into surreal territory. Only this time it’s the fingers of the academics that hover over the self-destruct button. A government campaign to overhaul the administration of the country’s higher education system is going nowhere as university rectors have rejected every single proposal put forward by the Education Ministry. Rectors said they will not accept any new measures unless these also guarantee a free flow of funds and full independence for the recipients of the cash, i.e. themselves. Rectors, in other words, demand that the state has no say over where its own money goes. The rectors – yes, the nation’s intellectual elite, not some bunch of heavily indoctrinated Communist Party activists – went even further by warning that if the state decides to put its proposals into law, they will refuse to implement them. Adhering to the law, we are told, is a matter of personal preference.

So, before signing a financial memorandum, the Greek government should perhaps have first signed an educational memorandum obliging us to modify the anachronisms that have reduced state schools and universities to a pathetic mess. That does not mean to say that the measures requested by Greece’s lenders – a daunting mix of tax hikes and wage cuts – are not painful, and even brutal at times. In fact, the innocent are the first to suffer as too many babies are being thrown out with the bath water. Like modern-day Stakhanovites, we are told to work harder, for less. But even so, it’s hard to see how we can trim spending and raise enough money to fix the situation, when we have failed to pocket the money that was offered to us in the first place. Last month Greece received a final written warning from the European Commission – the last step before legal action – over hundreds of illegal landfills that are still in operation across the country. Despite the looming fines and an offer by the European Union to fund the construction of new sanitary landfills, Greece has so far failed to deliver. Last week, the dump saga took an ugly turn as angry residents of Keratea, southeast of the capital, clashed with riot police in a bid to halt plans for a landfill. Keratea and Grammatiko, northeast of Athens, were designated some 10 years ago as the sites where Attica’s new landfills would be built, but the projects have been stalled by legal wrangles and local protests. As a result, Greece is in serious risk of losing the European funds. One would hope that our ostrich-like bureaucrats would, at least, be able to dig a hole in the ground.

The list is endless. This deleterious mix of incompetence, corruption and malgovernance has left nothing unaffected: the judiciary, military, police, church, media, soccer and this miserable excuse for a city – everything is bankrupt. Nietzsche liked to describe truth as “a mobile army of metaphors.” This is something our homegrown bureaucrats know all too well. For years, they have used myth to sustain their mojo, cynically clawing their way up the greasy pole of politics. They were not alone in this. It took a huge army of cheerleaders that eagerly blocked streets, waved cheap plastic flags and packed public squares and smoke-filled conference halls, basking in the glow of the like-minded. Now the party is over. But some are still dancing to the tune of yesteryear.

Unwanted masses on the move

 

Photo by Natalia Tsoukala

 

By Harry van Versendaal

Unwanted: There is no better word to describe European attitudes toward Roma communities. As France began to flatten some 400 camps hosting Roma migrants and to deport more than 8,000 back to Central Europe, President Nicolas Sarkozy became the latest prominent European figure to personify the continent’s prejudices against those forcibly nomadic people, also known as gypsies.

With his ratings shredded by unpopular pension reforms and budget cuts – a recent poll found that 62 percent of French voters do not want Sarkozy to seek reelection in 2012 – the French president is after a scapegoat. He has done it before. Unrest five years ago in the Parisian banlieues, the troubled suburban housing projects, shook the nation’s perception of itself. Sarkozy’s tough response as interior minister was hailed by conservative voters and was crucial in propelling him to power. Therefore, it was no surprise when after the July riots on the outskirts of Grenoble, Sarkozy replayed the law-and-order card that won him the 2007 election.

“The recent acceleration of expulsions and the fact that expulsions have been made more visible is part of a refocus of French policies on security, and probably an attempt to win votes from the extreme right,” Sophie Kammerer, policy officer for the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), told Athens Plus.

Because the Roma people are widely associated with petty crime, pickpocketing and aggressive begging, a police clampdown has been mostly welcomed by urbanites increasingly worried about public safety.

Also, gypsies are poor. The large number of 86 percent of Europe’s Roma live below the poverty line. Ivan Ivanov, of the Brussels-based European Roma Information Office, thinks the Roma are being targeted because the French government does not want them to be a burden on the welfare system. Their lifestyle makes them particularly vulnerable. “As Roma come in large groups and tend to live together in barracks, under bridges and in parks, they are more visible and easier to target,” Ivanov, a human rights lawyer, told Athens Plus.

Numbering some 12 million, the dark-skinned Roma are the largest minority group in the European Union. Until the EU’s eastward expansion, most lived outside the contours of the bloc – mostly in Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Seen as originating from northwest India, their European history has been one of slavery and persecution. About half a million Roma are estimated to have perished in the Nazi Holocaust.

Despite European laws on free movement, the expulsions were, technically speaking, legal. Most of the Roma who have been deported are citizens of Romania. As an EU newcomer, Romania  is subject to an interim deal that limits their nationals stay in France to three months, unless they have a work or residence permit.

However, group deportations are restricted by EU law. European Commissioner for Justice Viviane Reding originally attacked the Roma expulsions as an act of ethnic profiling and discrimination. “You cannot put a group of people out of a country except if each individual has misbehaved,” she said, drawing parallels to Vichy France’s treatment of Jews in the Second World War that made the French cry foul. Brussels, however, eventually decided to take legal action against France’s perceived failure to incorporate EU rules on free movement across the bloc – not on discrimination. Reding’s admission that there was “no legal proof” probably raised some malign smiles in the corridors of the Elysee.

Do as I do

The truth is France is not alone on this one. Denmark, Austria, Sweden, Belgium and, to a larger scale, Italy have also been deporting Roma immigrants. Apart from working toward stripping racism of any guilt in France – the proud home of liberte, egalite and fraternite – as well as in other nations, the clampdown by Sarkozy threatens to make the expulsion of unloved minorities official policy across the continent. “After France, other countries will try to deport Roma as well, citing all sorts of reasons but mainly the security issue,” Ivanov said. The campaign spells trouble for other minorities as well – if only for tactical reasons. “They might adopt such policies toward other minorities as well to avoid criticism that they are only targeting Roma,” Ivanov said.

Some critics say that there can be little progress unless it is first acknowledged that Roma not only suffer from but also cause problems. Writing for the Guardian, Ivo Petkovski said that higher crime rates among Roma may indeed be due to institutional as well as societal factors, such as poor education but integration into the mainstream “may mean letting go of some historical and cultural practices” – an issue often lost in the haze of political correctness.

It’s hard to disagree that a rigid patriarchal structure and controversial cultural habits, such as early or forced marriages and child labor, are out of tune with modern Western life. But the stereotype of the lawless nomads who want to keep themselves on the fringes of modern society is exaggerated.

“Let’s face it,” Ivanov said. “If the Roma have failed to integrate it is not because they do not want to. Who would choose to live in a miserable ghetto with no running water and infrastructure, such as normal roads, regular transport, shops, pharmacies and schools,” he said.

Integration is a two-way process. “Society should not wait for the Roma to integrate themselves and the Roma should not wait for society to integrate them,” Ivanov said. But although the Roma should follow the rules of mainstream society, he said, this should not take place at the price of their own culture, traditions, lifestyle and language. “Integration should not be confused with forced integration and assimilation. If they have to respect the culture and ethnic specificities of the mainstream society, theirs should be respected as well,” he said.

Kammerer agrees that, like every citizen, Roma have both rights and responsibilities. But the first step, she said, is to ensure that these people are able to fulfill these responsibilities. “If you argue that Roma parents should take responsibility for sending their children to school, you should first ensure that their children have access to school,” she said.

Blackboard politics

Empowerment is key. Roma hardly vote in elections. Education and training is the only way to offset centuries of abuse and exclusion and make sure that the Roma can integrate into the surrounding community and play a meaningful part in local life. “Without proper housing, healthcare or education, it is unsurprising that many people are forced to live a marginal lifestyle,” Nele Meyer, a Roma expert at Amnesty International, told Athens Plus.

Roma are often placed in schools for the mentally challenged – and many are not allowed to attend classes at all. Three primary schools in Thessaloniki, northern Greece, were recently shut down by parents protesting the presence of gypsy pupils in the classroom.

France has tried to persuade its eastern peers to do more to tackle the problem at home before it becomes a French problem. But it has found it hard to motivate their governments, particularly in a Europe without borders. Most rights activists, like Ivanov, are calling for a European Roma strategy. But Roma issues do not win elections – so it’s hard to see how national politicians will be persuaded.

Ivanov does not despair. He says it would be great to one day see Roma travel across the continent not as luckless nomads searching for a better life “but for pleasure, like any other European citizen.”


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