Installment 8 of: ‘The Making of the Modern Internment Regime.’
The persecution of the Roma (previously known as Gypsies) has been a part of French history since the middle ages (Brearly, 2001, p.588–599). The Roma were discriminated against by virtue of their speech, appearance, religion, customs, and occupations. By the early 1900s, the Roma were stereotyped as “dirty beggars and thieves” and treated as a threat to the French State (Fogg, 2009, p. 86.) The public persecution of the Roma resulted in the development of laws that subjected them to unjust treatment, and severely limited their ability to travel and engage with society. These legal restrictions continued to intensify, and eventually led to the internment of the Roma in 1940.
1912 (July 16) — The Roma were required to carry anthropometric cards that extensively detailed their personal identification information, beyond what was required for other persecuted populations. These cards were designed to help track and limit the movement of the Roma people.
1938 (November) — ‘Special centers’ were set up for undesirable populations (including the Roma), where nationality could be stripped under the rule of law.
1940 (April 29) — Circular n° 75 gave prefects the responsibility to assign Roma people a regional location and to restrict travel out of those regions. They were confined within prescribed areas rather than interned. The French State recommended against the use of camps for the Roma due to the cost and logistical inconvenience of the strategy.
1940 (October 4) — As Germany occupied part of France, the Nazi state pressed to have all the Roma in unoccupied areas moved to camps under French police control, just as in the occupied region. The Vichy regime readily complied and began to intern the Roma populations across all of France(Fogg, 2009, p. 89–110).
Public Perception of the Roma
While the Roma had been discriminated against for many years, the Vichy regime dramatically changed how they were treated. The authoritarian and collaborationist Vichy regime was established after France’s defeat by Germany. In its disdain for minorities, it sought to assimilate the Roma into French society (Kapralski, 2009, p. 273).
“ They were blamed for every conceivable crime — thieving, pilfering, poaching, swindling, child abduction and even for spreading disease” (Marie-Christine Hubert)*
The Vichy regime declared that internment camps were an effective way to assist in the assimilation of the Roma population, and that they functioned in the reform process. The goal was for the Roma to be released from internment camps once they had changed their religious beliefs, speech, work ethic and lifestyles to coincide with those of French Christians (Fogg, 2009, p. 108–109). However, in reality the Roma were treated like any of the other interned populations. They were locked away under horrific conditions that promoted the spread of disease and malnutrition (“Conditions in the French Detention…”). The internment of the Roma populations began in the German occupied regions of France. However, in 1940, after Germany requested that Vichy do the same, many of the Roma in the unoccupied zone of France were interned as well (Kates, 2017, p. 38).
Internment: Regional Differences
While the Roma were interned throughout the entire country, there were some relevant distinctions between the occupied and unoccupied zones. In the occupied zone directly controlled by Germany, all the French people who didn’t have a place of residence were taken and put into camps under French guard. Even though internment was already underway in the occupied zone, the development of internment camps in the unoccupied zone sped up soon after the Vichy regime replaced the Third Republic in 1940. These camps were all set up urgently and poorly. Vichy sought to control minority populations quickly, so it built more and more camps in the south. (Kapralski, 1997, p. 272–276).
The internees were then concentrated further into a smaller number of camps. By 1942, in the northern — so-called ‘occupied’ zone — Montreuil-Bellay eventually held the largest Roma population (Kenrick, 2009). The camps in the unoccupied regions were populated by Roma from the Alsace- Lorraine region annexed by Germany, and by Roma from the south who were interned by regional prefects. Most of the camps in the unoccupied south were originally built to house Spanish refugees. These camps included Argelès Sur Mer, Barcarès, and Rivesaltes. Eventually, many of the Roma interned by Vichy in the unoccupied region were moved to a new camp named Saliers in 1942 (Hubert, p. 2).
Internment: The Unoccupied Region
The majority of the Roma in the unoccupied region were interned at the interconnected camps of Argelès Sur Mer, Barcarès, and Rivesaltes near the southeastern coast of France. These camps had a railway system that connected them to each other as well as other internment camps in France and Germany. Many of the Roma who were interned at the nearby camps of Argelès and Barcarès also ended up as internees at Rivesaltes, since the internees were constantly moved between these three camps. Rivesaltes was particularly important in the sense that it functioned as one of the main transit camps in southern France, and was the place from which Vichy deported many ‘undesirables’ to their deaths in Nazi extermination camps. Like Montreuil-Bellay, in the northern zone, Rivesaltes served as a node for managing and moving populations (Doulut, 2014, pg. 67–69). Roma were moved from both Argelès and Barcarès and concentrated in Rivesaltes. After the summer of 1942, most of the Roma were transferred from Rivesaltes to Saliers, in the Camargue region (Kapralski, 1997).
Saliers was the final destination for many of the Roma in the unoccupied zone. It was designed to be the primary internment center for Roma in the unoccupied region. It was built to look like a French village, and was located in an area with access to many resources. The camp at Saliers was built to advance the political claim that the internment of the Roma was for their own good. Unlike other camps, Saliers was promoted as model settlement that would transform the beliefs and lifestyles of the Roma so that they could be at one within French society. However, the camp at Saliers was not really focused on the assimilation of the Roma. In reality the Roma were just moved into yet another overcrowded and disease-ridden internment camp (Weiss-Wendt, 2013).
The Release of the Roma
The Roma remained in French internment camps through the duration of the war, and even after its conclusion. In August of 1944, after France was liberated, the Provisional French Government sent out a declaration to release all of the interned populations. Yet, unlike many other so-called “undesirables,” the Roma were not released after the declaration was issued. After they continued to be held under legally ambiguous conditions for a year, another circular was released in March of 1945. It stated that individuals who threatened the security of France needed to be detained until local government officials approved their release on a case by case basis. This allowed the Provisional Government of the French Republic to maintain control over the Roma population, and to extend the policies effectuated by Vichy even after the war was over. In May 1946, the Roma were finally released from the internment camps and allowed to return to their original places of residence.
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