What the History of the Roma Can Tell Us About the Dangers of Surveillance Futures

by Émilie Herbert-Pontonnier

Illustration by Weronika Ziarek

Discussions about the pros and cons of surveillance societies have taken up more and more space these past few years. Daily, we find ourselves navigating a network of surveillance devices with cameras tracking our every move, cell phone apps tracing our contacts and locating our position within seconds, or loyalty cards recording our purchases—all for security and convenience. Technology is rapidly evolving, and the political and health measures that were taken globally against the spread of COVID-19 have included various forms of digital surveillance whose impact on privacy and freedom have rightly alarmed human rights activists around the world. Everyday people who, until now, never worried too much about the regulations, politics, and governance of surveillance have started to question themselves: should they feel protected, or threatened, by this relatively new aspect of modern life? One community that has historically been the subject of various types of monitoring and control can perhaps shed some light on this issue: the Roma.

Roma people, often wrongly referred to as “Gypsies,” form a large, diasporic, and heterogeneous community scattered in more than 65 different countries around the world. Recent research has shown that the Roma originally came from the Northern Indian subcontinent and migrated to Europe around 1000 years ago. The community is divided in various subgroups: Kalderash, Lovari, Romanichal, Gitanos, Boyash, Sinti or Manouche—where my own roots lie. A significant proportion of Roma live in Central and Eastern Europe, while in Western Europe they mainly reside in Spain, France, and the United Kingdom. After the fall of communism, the conflicts in the Balkans, and the entry of new Eastern countries into the European Union, new waves of Roma migrated and took refuge in the West. In the Americas, the first Roma men and women to arrive on the continent were enslaved persons, shipped by the Spanish to complete their colonies in the late 18th century. The end of the Second World War and the communist regime in the USSR also provoked minor waves of migration to the United States, and it is estimated that there are around one million Roma in the country today.

Many negative stereotypes surround Roma people; portrayed in popular culture as rootless thieves, beggars, fortune-tellers or promiscuous, exotic, and free-spirited individuals, the Roma have often been forced to hide their ethnicity to survive in a world that has historically been hostile to their prescribed “Otherness.” Although the image of the wandering “Gypsy” dancing around a traditional horse-drawn wagon seems to be a persistent trend in the popular imagination, it is estimated that only a minor percentage of Roma continue to lead a nomadic lifestyle. For those who do, it has become increasingly difficult to defy policies, legislations, and practices leading to induced or forced sedentarization. The supposedly inherent criminal nature of the Roma has prompted authorities to monitor these Travellers’ mobility through the creation of complex systems of surveillance, going back as far as the 17th century. France, in particular, has been obsessed with the constant monitoring of its Roma citizens and has developed a sophisticated administrative apparatus to control their every move. The media coverage in 2010 of the “M.E.N.S.” police files, an illegal and hidden database storing personal information about French Roma Travellers and their families, has proved that the country has continued to associate this population with crime and illegality.

Surveillance, Identification, Discipline: The Three Pillars of the Law of 1912

Let us go back in time to the early 20th century. In the summer of 1912, the French government passed a clearly discriminatory and disciplinary law with the aim of restraining the mobility of those whom society then preferred to describe as “nomads.” Mobility was not necessarily a characteristic of that period, but certain professions (such as rags sellers, basketmakers, umbrella fixers, entertainers, or photographers) required freedom of movement. Men and women who occupied these jobs were seen as itinerant merchants, not “nomads.” Surreptitiously, but in keeping with republican principles, the term “nomad” indeed aimed to describe most specifically non-sedentary Roma, without lending to racial identification. As it would later appear, one of the main objectives of the law was to force Roma Travellers, historically viewed as foreign to French society, off the road.

Receipts for new anthropometric cards, 1944. Departmental Archives of Maine-et-Loire, France

To ensure this, the government created the anthropometric card, an individual booklet which was mandatory for every Roma Traveller above the age of 13 and had to be signed upon arrival and departure from each stopping point by local agents seen as figures of authority (such as mayors, police officers, or even schoolteachers). The card contained two portrait photographs, the holder’s name, date and place of birth, his or her height, chest measurement, size of head, hair and eye color, length of right ear, length of left middle and little fingers, length of left arm from elbow to middle fingertip, potential distinctive signs, and all ten fingerprints. The last pages of the anthropometric card were focused on health: vaccinations, significant illnesses, and periods of isolation or hospitalization. Another booklet included information about the entire family, including children under the age of 13 who also had to provide fingerprints (including children as young as two years old). A tracking number was assigned to each person in possession of an anthropometric card, in order to facilitate administrative follow-up. Any event (such as a birth, a death, or even the change of a car’s registration number in the family) had to be officially registered within 24 hours under penalty. As one police manual of the time explained, the law could only be effective if Roma Travellers “[we]re the subject of a constant control and a continued monitoring.”

After surveillance and identification, discipline was the third pillar of the law. It was quite common for Roma Travellers to receive financial fines or even prison sentences for minor offences related to the loss or deterioration of their documents. French sociologist Jean-Pierre Liégeois gives several examples of such punishment: 15 days of prison for two Roma men who could not provide their anthropometric cards during a police check (even though it was the police themselves who had previously kept the documents for verification); a fine for painting a caravan in a way that, for a few days, did not match the general description offered in the family booklet, or for failing to declare an arrival in a village at night (because the town hall was closed).

Departmental Archives of Maine-et-Loire, France

At that time, no other community or group of people had ever been the subject of such intensive supervision. In fact, mandatory identity cards would only become a reality in France in 1940, under the Vichy regime. Anthropometric cards, inspired by the science invented to keep track of offenders and criminals, did not contain any ethnic identifiers. It was assumed that the Roma would not be able to provide enough evidence of their integration into French society—such as a permanent job, a settled residence, or substantial income—and would therefore be easy to identify as “nomads.” But the ambiguity that stemmed from the government’s reluctance to cite race as a specificity of the law enabled some Roma Travellers to avoid the constraints of the card and apply for a different travel permit, one that was reserved for traders at markets and fairs. If the term “nomad” was synonymous with vagrancy, thievery, and begging, Showpeople were expected to be respectable and responsible professionals…and therefore not of Roma ethnicity. For many Roma families, such as my own, being able to fit into this category was perceived as a potential strategy of resistance against administrative and police surveillance, because they could now introduce themselves under a professional and not an ethnic identity.

Administration Within the French Internment Camps (1940-1946)

When the Nazis rose to power, the French government did not want to see any potential spies on the roads and promptly passed a decree forbidding movement across the country. At the request of Germany, 30 internment camps for “nomads,” managed solely by the French administration, were built to accommodate around 6000 Roma. Families who officially held a travel permit under a professional status hoped at first to escape internment; after all, they belonged to a different administrative category. However, it appeared that municipal authorities had informal knowledge about who was of Roma ethnicity and who wasn’t, based on previous surveillance strategies, but also on denunciation by French villagers. Roma people administratively registered as Showpeople were to be detained, while non-Roma Showpeople could retain their freedom. The camps were, in turn, ruled by bureaucracy. Archives reveal pages and pages of prisoners’ names, receipts for new identity cards, and a frenzy of notes, stamps, and signatures, demonstrating the French administration’s desire to be kept up to date with every detail of the community’s life.

A group of Roma people about to be deported by the Nazis in Asperg, Germany, May 22, 1940. German Federal Archives

The constant surveillance to which Roma Travellers were subject since the 1912 legislation provided the technical and legal framework for their detention during the Second World War. The last persons interned within these camps would only be released in May 1946, nine months after the end of the war. The state of emergency declared in occupied France justified the deprivation of Roma Travellers of legal existence (even those who legally benefitted from a different status) and had disastrous consequences for future generations. It would indeed be very difficult before, during, and after the war to enjoy any of the freedom Roma Travellers are otherwise usually associated with, because a family could rarely escape the system; a child born into a Roma family after the war would often have his or her entire genealogical tree recorded in administrative archives. French Roma Travellers sometimes joke that they could be genealogy experts, as much information about their ancestors (from their height, their eye color, the kind of tattoos they had, or whether or not they’d contracted smallpox) has often been recorded for decades by the administration.

Lasting Consequences: The “M.E.N.S.” Files

Several countries across Europe have developed hostile monitoring in order to monitor GRT (“Gypsy,” Roma, and Traveller) communities, but France has often been exposed as a leader in this respect and certainly one that, more than the others, relied on a complex and blatantly racist bureaucratic strategy. The mechanisms created to physically constrain and contain Roma lives in France not only implied limitation of movement but also of political and citizenship rights. These restrictions were exemplified by the impossibility for most Travellers, up to 2014, to effectively exercise their right to vote, as municipalities would require them to reside in the same town for at least three uninterrupted years before being able to cast their ballot—something that would be nearly impossible for families living a nomadic lifestyle.

The law of 1912 is often considered to be the starting point of the legal and administrative mechanisms that have governed Travellers’ lives in France for another entire century (until the 2017 abolition of a mandatory travel permit). In reality, this legislation endorsed centuries of surveillance, identification, and control of Roma people in the country. This is why the denial by the French government in 2010 of the “M.E.N.S.” files is questionable. In the 1990s, the French police started to compile new lists of Roma Travellers, categorizing them by subgroups and—for non-French citizens—nationalities. The secret files, leaked during a police conference in 2004, contained large amounts of data, similar to what could be found in the anthropometric cards: fingerprints, photographs, family lineage, nicknames, vehicle registrations, and more. Like the term “nomads,” the acronym M.E.N.S. (which stands for Minorités Ethniques Non-Sédentarisées, or Non-Sedentary Ethnic Minorities) carefully avoided defining Roma in racial terms. However, the documents were riddled with explicit descriptions of various Roma subgroups (Gitan, Manouche, etc.), placing race once again at the heart of France’s obsession with the control and surveillance of its Travelling population.

If the files revealed the institutional racism of the police and the administration, they were not just discriminatory and disproportionate. They were also illegal; in France, statistical data collection related to race and ethnicity has been forbidden by law since 1978. The law on “information technology, data files, and civil liberties,” as it is named, aims to protect French citizens against the misuse of their personal data through IT activities. Allusions to one’s racial or ethnic origins, political opinions, religious beliefs, health status, or sexual orientation cannot be, under any circumstances, collected and treated by the administration. Yet Roma Travellers continued, for at least two decades after the law was passed, to be the subject of intense monitoring. The legal complaint lodged by various associations and Roma NGOs included leaked police reports which proved that, up to this point, Roma Travellers in France were still associated with criminality, fraud, and abuse of social benefits. The government denied the existence of the files and later contested accusations of having destroyed them when the scandal became public. Ultimately, there was no real follow-up on the story.

Departmental Archives of Maine-et-Loire, France

French Roma Travellers were never promised security or comfort in exchange for their personal details. Only two options were offered to them: they could either comply with this web of constant surveillance or assimilate within the dominant society by settling down and renouncing their lifestyle and, to some extent, their culture. That second option was the one chosen by my Roma relatives; exhausted from being under constant scrutiny, they eventually settled in the 1960s, leaving their caravans but also their traditional trades and family structures behind. The story of French Roma who, for centuries, were unfairly thought to be incompatible with French values, gives us a worrying and sordid glimpse into what surveillance futures might entail if they continue going in the wrong direction. Corporations and governments in Western society have shown a keen willingness to intercept, store, and analyze data about our daily experiences, as benign as these may appear to us. But surveillance is always about power; those who are watching can protect us, but they also hold the power to threaten our vital civil liberties. With the rise of far-right politics and neofascism across the world, some of us may find ourselves on the wrong side of the fence.

Our willingness to give away fragments of our identity has been intensified within our new networked environment: name, address, place and date of birth, profession, relationship status, pictures of our loved ones, political beliefs, or sexual preferences—we even donate parcels of our DNA so we can learn more about our origins. Of course, there are many ways through which we can resist and obfuscate unwanted surveillance. French Roma Travellers themselves were never completely passive and dominated subjects in the face of the French authorities. Nevertheless, the constant and methodical data collection amongst this population has had long-lasting consequences, affecting several generations by making them feel like second-class citizens. Their experience should be a general warning about the pervasive and intensifying surveillance of our every move; sometimes, privacy can also represent a form of security.

Dr. Émilie Herbert-Pontonnier is an independent scholar and freelance writer based in Belgium. She works in the fields of policymaking, gender, and cultural studies.

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