Governmentality and the Deportation of Eastern European Roma in Italy and France

By Carmen Radu
2011, Vol. 3 No. 04 | pg. 2/2 |

Questioning the Validity of France and Italy’s Discourse

A closer look reveals that it is not the inherent, ethnically or culturally driven inability to integrate or the notion of nomadic lifestyle that explains the current Roma situation, but complex developments in history that have trapped most Roma in poverty. This entrapment takes a life of its own. As Khan states, “acknowledging that some groups are being left behind highlights the current impact of historical experiences of racism.”14 The poverty that most Roma experience today is explained by the complex history of ethnic discrimination and global political developments. Critical junctures in their history include enslavement, Nazi extermination attempts, the Soviet era, and the post-communist transition. Historical evidence places the Roma in Eastern Europe as early as the 4th century B.C.E. By 1700 A.D. historians were able to trace their origins to Northern India. During the 14th to 19th centuries many of the Roma were enslaved in the empires that controlled Eastern Europe. Those that lived in free areas contributed to society as smiths, musicians, or soldiers. However, the fear of enslavement led some to often change location.15 This created the perception of the nomadic lifestyle that is taking root today in Western Europe.

Slavery of the Roma ended in the 19th century. The second critical juncture came during World War II when the Nazis killed approximately 1.5 million Roma. These events played a significant role in the Roma psyche; many fear officially revealing their ethnicity today. The fear further compounds the problem of lack of data on how the Roma fare in Eastern Europe in terms progress in development. Nevertheless, some data is reliable. There are an estimated 7-12 million Roma in Eastern Europe today. An average of 70-80% of Roma have less than primary school education; unemployment averages at 40%.16 During the Cold War, most Roma were absorbed by the Soviet system that plagued Eastern Europe. They were not considered a separate ethnicity, and were granted industrial jobs, apartments, and welfare within the context of the limits of the Soviet system. The relative poverty of Roma was evident during Soviet times, but was compounded by the post-communist transition. The transition to a free market economy led to the closing of factories. Along with many others, Roma lost their jobs. Many ended up living in disastrous conditions in slums on the outskirts of the city, or in rural areas. Additionally, because Roma did not have the levels of education required for the market system, they did not secure jobs.17

Recent experience of Roma in Eastern Europe is complex. Some Roma are middle class public servants, intellectuals, professionals, or school teachers. Some are very wealthy and live in luxurious houses. In the case of Romania, for example, discrimination has not been driven by status as a different ethnicity per se. Some of these complexities were revealed during an interview with former Romanian schoolteacher, Domnica Radu. She explains that in the period immediately preceding communism, Roma were respected because they were hard workers that engaged in various trades, such as brick building. Industrialization ended the need for many of these trades, and some Roma were pushed into more poverty. However, other Roma proceeded to work in the factories. These variations led to different classes of Roma, and their different experiences were evident in the school system. Roma children originating from economically stable or even wealthy families fared well in school. Friendships between Romanian and such Roma are common and not looked down upon. Roma children originating from families living in slums in dire poverty were shunned by other students, including by other Roma students, because of their dirty clothes, etc. Many had difficulty coming to school because of lack of shoes and other basic supplies.18 These insights question the perception that Roma are unwilling or unable to integrate into modern society. Rather, their identity has been shaped by their participation in the history and unique experience of various Eastern European countries. Roma civil society organizations agree on the rejection of the terms gypsy, gitano, tigan, cigany, or gitane, because these associate them with the romanticized image of the nomadic lifestyle.19 As stated above, the nomadic lifestyle was more of a solution for some Roma to escape potential enslavement preceding the 19th century and no longer applies today. This image hinders efforts to address the social inequality of the Roma.

Government of Poverty and the Criminalization of the Poor

The Roma deported from France lived in slums. Their experience of criminalization and exclusion is embedded within slum experience all over the world. There are more than 1 billion people living in slums in both developed and developing nations. These came about as economic needs led growing numbers of people towards the cities: rural-to-urban migration. Unable to afford city housing, they settled in slums, which are considered illegal. Conditions there are inadequate and unsafe; there is poor drainage and poor electricity. Such high, concentrated levels of poverty along with police indifference to the protection of those living in slums create vacuums in which criminal gangs flourish. Consequently, slum dwellers are viewed as criminals by state security forces. State responses worldwide overwhelmingly involve mass forced evictions without due process of law.20

States today, especially those of the developed world, abide by free market ideologies without taking into consideration their duties to protect economic and social rights. The belief is that economic growth and the free market will automatically solve problems related to poverty such as inadequate housing. Low-income housing is insufficiently provided throughout the world. Moreover the improvement of slum conditions is not an objective of state housing agencies. Neither is there a concerted global effort to address the problem of slums. Often times, societal discrimination leads certain ethnic or religious groups to be overrepresented among poor people. Poverty itself then traps people in a cycle of deprivation, insecurity, exclusion, and a lack of political voice. Poor people are ignored and not consulted in matters pertaining to them because of the powerlessness resulting from their poverty.21

The migration of Roma to France and Italy can be paralleled with the rural-to-urban migration phenomenon. However, given that the poor were Roma, criminalization became ethnically charged. The security excuse was then used as a basis for mass deportations. Due to the cross border component, mass eviction became mass deportations. The European Union’s response to the actions of France and Italy is a reflection of the global context, whereby states are able to get away with ignoring socioeconomic rights and criminalizing the poor. My previous discourse analysis shows that prior to the release of the memos, the EU did not forcefully threaten France with punitive actions for not guaranteeing low-income housing, or for criminalizing the poor. Rather, the threats emerged as soon as the civil/political issue of ethnic discrimination arose. It is important to understand this conceptual difference. For example, discrimination in access to meager social services is different from the inherent right of everyone to a wider variety of social services. The EU quickly dropped threats to punitive action against France ethnic language disappeared from official records. In effect, this backtracking legitimized slum dismantlement of a non-ethnic character for purposes of public security. EU and civil society inadvertently participated in the criminalization of the poor.

It is the EU’s lack of power in the socioeconomic rights sphere that explains the governing of Roma deportations, based on the intersection of the criminalization of the poor and ethnicity. The EU’s most forceful undertakings in the human rights arena involve civil and political rights, especially non-discrimination. For example in 2000, the EU passed a series of non-discrimination directives, and established the principles of equal treatment between persons regardless of race or ethnic origin, as well as equal treatment in employment.22 In the area of social policy, however, motivations have not been of intrinsic. The directives have been contingent upon their contribution to the success of the internal market. In other words, human rights-oriented legislation has been a means and not an end. Economic and social rights are delegated to “national practices” in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.23

The power relationships whereby the EU is unable to induce state compliance in the arena of socioeconomic rights provides an understanding as to France and Italy’s behavior. Although non-discrimination in access to social services is an important component in the improvement of Roma conditions, the larger problem is that socioeconomic guarantees are inherently weak and the poor are criminalized simply because of their status as poor.


In response to the symbol of the European Union as the ultimate supranational, rights-based, compliance-inducing international organization, why have member states France and Italy escaped punishment for their violations of international law reflected? The findings of this paper, based on Foucauldian theoretical tools, are that the deportations were a site of governing because they were embedded within discourses and practices that revealed power relationships. Placed within the context of the governmentalization of international politics, a power struggle developed between the respective member states’ government of poverty, and the EU’s governing of member states. In this case, EU supranational socioeconomic norms were absent, and France and Italy escaped punitive measures.


Bernasconi, Robert. “The Policing of Race Mixing: the Place of Biopower Within the History of Racisms.” Bioethical Inquiry 7, (2010): 205-216.

Dean, Mitchell. Governmentality: Power and Rule in Modern Society. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2010.

Duvall, Robert, and Latha Varadarajan. “On the Practical Significance of Critical International Relations Theory,” Asian Journal of Political Science 11, no. 2 (2003): 75-88.

Greenberg, Jack. “Report on Roma Education Today: From Slavery to Segregation and Beyond.” Columbia Law Review 110, no.4 (May 2010): 923-931.

Kelly, Mark G.E. The Political Philosophy of Michel Foucault. New York: Routledge, 2009.

Khan, Irene. The Unheard Truth: Poverty and Human Rights. New York: W.W. Noron and Company, 2009.

May,Todd. The Philosophy of Foucault. Ithaca: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006.

Neumann, Iver B., and Ole Jacob Sending. Governing the Global Polity: Practice, Mentality, Rationality. University of Michigan Press, 2010.

Open Society Institute, Violations of EC Law and the Fundamental Rights of Roma and the Sinti by the Italian Government in the Implementation of the Census in “Nomad Camps.” Memorandum to the European Commission (May 2009): 8.

Procacci, Giovanna. “Social Economy and the Government of Poverty.” In The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, edited by Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon, and Peter Miller, 151-169. Chicago: the University of Chicago Press, 1991.

1.) Mitchell Dean, Governmentality: Power and Rule in Modern Society (Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2010), 17-30.

2.) Mark E. Kelly, The Political Philosophy of Michel Foucault (New York: Routledge, 2009), 1-31.

3.) Iver B. Neumann and Ole Jacob Sending, Governing the Global Polity (The University of Michigan Press, 2010), 1-46.

4.) Robert Bernasconi, “The Policing of Race Mixing: the Place of Biopower Within the History of Racisms,” Bioethical Inquiry 7, (2010): 205-209.

5.) Giovanna Procacci, “Social Economy and the Government of Poverty,” in The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, ed. Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon, and Peter Miller (Chicaco: the University of Chicago Press, 1991), 151-169.

6.) Neuman and Sending, Governing the Global Polity, 1-69.

7.) Open Society Institute, Violations of EC Law and the Fundamental Rights of Roma and the Sinti by the Italian Government in the Implementation of the Census in “Nomad Camps.” Memorandum to the European Commission (May 2009): 8.

8.) Ibid.

9.) Ibid.

10.) Ibid.

11.) Ibid.

12.) Migration Information Source, “France’s Expulsion of Roma Migrants: A Test Case for Europe,” (October 2010) (accessed December 8, 2010).

13.) Ibid.

14.) Ibid, 57.

15.) Jack Greenberg, “Report on Roma Education Today: From Slavery to Segregation and Beyond,” Columbia Law Review 110, no.4 (May 2010): 923-931.

16.) Ibid.

17.) Ibid.

18.) Domnica Radu, phone interview by author, December 5, 2010, Washington, D.C.

19.) Greenberg, “Report on Roma Education Today,” 931.

20.) Irene Khan, The Unheard Truth: Poverty and Human Rights (New York: W.W. Noron and Company, 2009): 147-171.

21.) Ibid.

22.) Jo Hunt, “Fair and Just Working Conditions,” In Economic and Social Rights Under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights: A Legal Perspective, eds. Tamara Hervey and Jeff Kenner (Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2003): 45-67. 

23.) Ibid. 

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