France Acknowledging Government’s Responsibility For Roma Internment During WWII

Roma civilians waiting to be deported 1940. <a href=>Photo Credit</a>
Roma civilians waiting to be deported 1940. Photo Credit

France has historically been the home of large populations of Gypsies known as “gens du voyage,” or “travelers,” since they generally live in their caravans and move from place to place.  Most of them are French citizens and today they are generally known collectively as “Roma.”

During WWII, after the French surrender in 1940, Germany occupied France, and the collaborationist Vichy regime was set up in France – under the de-facto control of the Nazi.  This Vichy regime was responsible for interning thousands of Roma in camps within France itself. During this wartime internment, the Roma suffered from hunger, were subject to various diseases, and in many cases, were recruited for forced labor.  These people continued to be interned until the fall of the Vichy regime towards the end of 1944.  Even then, some Roma remained in internment within the French camps until 1946.  According to the Agence France-Presse, a total of over 6,000 Roma were interned in the 31 internment camps located throughout France.  More than 2000 were confined in the largest of these camps.

It was the decision of the Vichy Government, acting on German orders, to intern France’s Roma. The general public was seen to be indifferent to the fate of the people interned, even though more than 90% of these Roma were reported to be of French nationality.  With children making up approximately 35% of all these internees, however, it was noted that to a large degree, families were held together and thus – at the very least – the integrity of the family group was maintained.

Seventy years ago the main internment camp for the Roma, at Montreuil-Bellay in central France, was finally closed.  To mark this event, on 29th October this year, the French President Francois Hollande made the first presidential visit to the camp.  In his address there, he spoke of the need for France not only to tell the truth about this period of its history, but also to accept its “broad responsibility” for the internment of the thousands of Roma – both during the wartime Vichy government, and as the early months of the post-war government.

Hollande further acknowledged the French state’s role in the Nazi persecution of the French Roma and made mention that the Republic of France recognized the suffering of those who were interned in this way during WW II, and admitted its responsibility.  He further mentioned that he is of the opinion that countries are better when they admit to their mistakes, for he said, “A nation is always greater when it acknowledges its history and makes a place for all its citizens.”

United Press International noted that Hollande made hints regarding the possible repealing of various laws and regulations passed both before and during the time of the Vichy government. These laws and regulations, amongst others, placed severe restrictions on many areas of Roma life, preventing them from performing certain types of work, limiting their movements, and in some instances forbidding them to travel in France.  These restrictions, said Hollande, were based on the mistrust engendered by ancestral fears and prejudices, and were also as a result of misinformation and ignorance, Mail Online reported.

It has been estimated that between 15,000 and 20,000 Roma people live in the country.  Taking note of this speech with its acknowledgment of past discrimination practiced against the Roma, the head of the ‘France Liberte Voyage,’ expressed his satisfaction regarding this pronouncement.  He feels that this recognition was very important to all the Roma and would affect thousands of families.  Even though this treatment of the Roma was acknowledged over 70 years after the event, he said, “It’s late, but better late than never.”

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE