Readings — From the December 2015 issue

Invisible City

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By Justin E. H. Smith, from a work in progress. Smith’s fourth book, The Philosopher: A History in Six Types (Princeton), will be published in June.

At the end of August, the oldest Roma camp in France, known as Le Samaritain, was evacuated under the threat of force. The three hundred people living there — a quarter of whom held regular jobs and some of whose children were enrolled in school — were given three weeks’ notice. Their expulsion took a few hours. The decision to evacuate, which ignored much community resistance, was representative of France’s cynical attitude toward the tens of thousands of Roma who began arriving in the country after the European Union absorbed Romania and Bulgaria, in 2007. Since 2012, France has ignored the censure of the E.U., the United Nations, and human-rights groups, and evicted no fewer than 40,000 Roma living inside its borders.

Le Samaritain was in the municipality of La Courneuve, just north of Paris. When I visited for the first time last winter, I encountered a white metal wall, about six feet high, that stretched off into the distance. Peering over it, I saw piles of rubbish and scattered, leafless trees. I worried that I had come to the wrong place until a boy appeared and pointed me to a small passage. On the other side, I found what I was looking for: an encampment, a slum, a shantytown, a bidonville. These are the terms the media uses. The residents there, and those of similar communities throughout Europe, refer to where they live simply as a platz: the German word for “place.”

This platz, which had been carved out of a junk depot seven years before, was laid out like a small city. It featured two main rues, parallel to each other and paved with scraps of linoleum and carpet. The thoroughfares were connected by several side streets. The place was a perfect grid, as right-angled as midtown Manhattan. Many of the houses had glass windows and doors that swung on hinges. Family names were often written on the doors. As in any neighborhood, some homes were better kept than others. I saw bicycle frames, bed frames, shopping carts, refrigerators. I saw strollers and defunct fax machines. Most of these objects seemed to hover between ornament and instrument, but whether aesthetic or useful, nearly everything had been recycled, repurposed, torn from its ordinary context.

To the outsider, this material dimension to the life of the platz could easily trigger an ambiguous judgment. What glorious ingenuity! And yet, what deprivations occasioned it? This ambiguity echoes the mixed feelings that many Roma described to me: they complained about Le Samaritain and said they did not wish to be there. But nothing could be worse than to be chased from the camp by government authorities who not only saw the repurposed objects as junk but failed to appreciate that such a place could be experienced as home.

There was unmistakable circularity in the officials’ reasoning. One resident told me that Le Samaritain had asked for a mailbox, but the city denied the request. If residents put out five bins of trash, the municipal trash collectors, as if grudgingly, would pick up two of them. And so the trash piles continued to grow, and so the perception of a nuisance, and so the threats of expulsion grew, too. When I called the mayor’s office to seek an explanation for the city’s actions, the receptionist put me through to a representative of what I was told was the “security” department, who claimed that all along both sides had understood that the Roma encampment was “of a provisional nature.”

On my first visit to Le Samaritain I was invited to the hardly provisional — indeed quite permanent feeling — home of Bogdan (not his real name), one of the leaders of the platz and also, at the time, the presbyter of its Pentecostal church. He was in his forties, possessed of a gut and a mustache, and already a grandfather of four. His house was warm and orderly, with a kitchen, a salon, and smaller rooms off to the side of the main ones. A woman was preparing chicken at the kitchen table when I arrived. Pots and pans hung on the wall behind her. A jerry-rigged satellite dish on the roof brought Romanian cartoons to a TV that sat on top of the refrigerator.

Bogdan invited me to sit on a plush sofa in the salon. He complained, over a cup of extremely sweet coffee, about the ineffectiveness of the “associations” — the NGOs and the churches, which are made up mainly of well-intentioned French people, along with some Roma, who bring prepackaged meals, diapers, or school supplies, all of which are received with relief but which act as palliations rather than solutions. Bogdan said that there was never any follow-through, that the associations had their own interests at heart. I had to go to some lengths to convince him that I was not from an association myself.

A sixteen-year-old boy named Jozsef sat down with us. He took the presbyter’s infant grandson on his lap and began to play with him, to the baby’s great delight. Jozsef explained that he worked for an association — Bogdan cringed — as a cultural mediator for Roma dealing with the French hospital system. But Jozsef’s true calling, I was told, showed itself at the Sunday-morning church service. In addition to a beautiful singing voice, he was held to have the gift of vision, and at the climax of every service he reported what he had seen to the elderly, prostrate parishioners who begged him for news from the future. He told me he wanted to be a doctor, though he lacked the proper papers for school and had not been able to attend classes since arriving in France two years earlier.

A couple of days after meeting Bogdan and Jozsef, I returned to Le Samaritain for the church service. I arrived late and made considerable clatter trying to open the door on its uneven hinges. The congregants turned and examined me, though not with annoyance or anger. There were forty or so people in attendance. The men were seated to the left of the center aisle, the women to the right. A small girl ran back and forth between them, searching for adults to amuse her. She looked at me and made a gesture of falling asleep, and then of having her head cut off. I sat down on a sofa in the back.

The pastor holding the sermon that morning did not reside in the platz. He was short, round, and on fire with the Lord. He called on us to stand up, to sit down, to kneel. He invited us to pray out loud, on our knees, which the congregants did with relish. They shouted and moaned their personal supplications. Several parishioners took turns singing; they held the microphone too close to their lips and alternated between modern synthesizer music and folk songs. At some point Jozsef took his turn. His voice was unworldly — high, pure, searching. When he finished, the pastor called on others to come up and give it a turn, but no one dared to follow the boy. The pastor called out individuals by name, goading them, and they mumbled excuses about how they’d left their songbooks at home or had sore throats.

Though built from junk — and soon to be returned to junk by bulldozers — the chapel could not but call to mind for me the churches of the early Christians of Rome. Under siege and in danger, their members practiced an effervescent faith while remaining indifferent to local laws and customs. They were moved only by a passionate commitment to their idea of the universal. But the devotion of the people who lived in Le Samaritain — or their ambitions or affections or frustrations — was not what the French officials chose to see.

The obtuseness of the La Courneuve municipal authorities is perhaps surprising, given the city’s long-standing political orientation, a set of sympathies that is reflected in the names of the streets and complexes in the area: the Boulevard Lénine, the unironic Centre Commercial Karl Marx. The Communists in the city government are not mainstream socialists like France’s president, Francois Hollande. By their own lights, they are revolutionary egalitarians. The mayor, Gilles Poux, has been a union militant since 1982. As is customary for elected officials who belong to the French Communist Party, he returns to the party coffers whatever salary he earns beyond what he made as a unionized technician at Babcock, an engineering firm. What he takes home is enough for him and his family to live in public housing, like half of the residents of the municipality he represents.

In 2005, after eleven-year-old Sidi-Ahmed Hammache was accidentally killed in a fight between Tunisians and Comorans, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French interior minister at the time, said that the solution to ethnic strife in La Courneuve and similar banlieue neighborhoods was to “clear out the filth.” Poux stood up bravely against him. The mayor believes that he represents the immigrants and the marginalized working-class members of French society. But for Communists who hold elected office in France there is a fundamental boundary, it seems, between the proletariat and the subproletariat, between the people who live their lives (and vote) at the bottom of the hierarchy and those, such as the Roma, who exist largely outside it, often without proper papers, typical schooling, or a recognized address.

One of the only members of the La Courneuve government who tried to save Le Samaritain was Mehdi Bouteghmes, a municipal councillor in his twenties. In addition to his government work, Bouteghmes is a graduate student in philosophy at the Sorbonne, and with his stylish leather briefcase and horn-rimmed glasses he looks more like a young Left Bank intellectual than a banlieue activist. And yet the banlieue is what Bouteghmes, the child of Maghrebi immigrants, knows best. Bouteghmes says that he has no particular interest in the culture and history of the Roma, and until he became a councillor he was largely unaware of them. His desire to defend them flows from what he describes as Kantian principles, in particular, a belief in inherent human dignity. His disagreement with his peers in the city government revolves around the question of whether a slum can “succeed” and become a proper neighborhood of a city. He had hoped to bring architecture students to Le Samaritain in order to help the Roma turn their camp into a proper habitation, with real structures, running water, and electricity. Others in the mayor’s office immediately accused him of seeking his own financial gain from the project, and it never went anywhere. “I don’t know why anyone would bother to have a financial interest in a slum,” he said to me. “But never mind.”

Bouteghmes’s idealism had been hardened rather than balanced by his strict commitment to the legal mandate of elected representatives. “The city has legal obligations to provide people housing, education, and roads,” he told me. “If you can’t do this, then why do you go up for election?” The reason for the raid, he suspected, was the United Nations conference on climate change that is taking place in Paris this month. No one wanted the arriving heads of state to see slums, not in this city. Everyone knows that São Paulo has them, Lagos has them, but Paris was not prepared to join those ranks. Better to evict now. If Bouteghmes is correct, then La Courneuve’s slum policy, such as it is, fits within a broader pattern of greenwashing and cynical branding tactics. “They do little things,” he shrugged. “Last year they had Roma Week, or Roma Month, I don’t know. They do things like that, and afterward they pull back. It’s intentional.”

I asked Bouteghmes if he was a member of the Communist Party. “I’m an independent. The Communists are bastards. It’s clientelism.” He paused, then doubled down: “They’re the worst. I prefer a right-wing guy who insults me to a Communist who talks about values.” Communism, he argued, was the source of the values that would enable us to resolve the political problems of the present era, but if the party was to survive, it needed to “stop being a place for people whose hair is whiter than their skin.” It needed, he said, to “be more in step with the people who are actually there” — which is to say, people who belong to religious communities and have no interest in converting to atheism, who have never set foot in a factory, who are likely engaged in temporary labor for which no hope of unionization can be entertained.

In late September, three weeks after the bidonville was destroyed, I returned to La Courneuve for the first time in several months. Some of Le Samaritain’s former inhabitants had disappeared, and many had set up tents in a park in front of the august old city hall. I spotted Jozsef and rushed over to greet him. He was as ebullient as before, in a hurry and full of news. I showed him on my iPhone a New York Times article that described the evacuation and called him “plucky.” I tried to find an equivalent term in French but could not. He told me about all the exciting things that had happened recently. He said that he had passed an audition to appear on The Voice. He had met someone who knew someone in Dallas who knew Beyoncé, and she had heard a recording of him, and she wanted to meet and sing a duet. Jozsef had been practicing her hit song “Listen” in preparation. Meanwhile, Bogdan had gone away for good, after a conflict with Jozsef and some others, and as a result Jozsef had been launched into a leadership role at the new site. As we walked, he confidently bellowed news and greetings to the older women who were squatting or lying in their tents along the park’s main promenade.

No one on either side of the issue expects that the city-hall tents will someday develop into permanent structures. Yet from the municipality’s point of view there is no ontological difference between Le Samaritain and the tent city that came after it. A saying that the mayor favors has it that “une ville n’est pas un bidonville qui a réussi”: a city is not simply a slum that has succeeded. The very word bidonville means, roughly, “fake city.” From the official point of view, you cannot get a thriving community to develop out of a settlement that began illegally or surreptitiously. This, perhaps, is what remains of Communism in La Courneuve: the idea that communities do not grow, they are built, and not from the small spontaneous acts of individuals, of families and friends, but from the top down, from large decisions made by those in positions of power.

In the world of these Communists there is no room for the Roma or the sans-papiers — the illiterate poor who cannot sign their papers, the refugees who show up with falsified documents. The Communists, like France’s ruling Socialists, want you to have your papers in order. In this way, the approach of a municipality such as La Courneuve can be seen as a microcosm of the politics that are currently dictating Europe’s response to the refugee crisis. As Bouteghmes joked to me, “Right now it’s Syria Month.”

The connection between the plight of the Roma and that of the Syrian refugees was made explicitly, if speciously, by Traian Basescu, the former president of Romania, whose failed economic policies the Roma of La Courneuve are, in part, fleeing. “It’s not our game,” he said on September 1. “It’s not our problem. There are others responsible in Europe.” He added: “We have been struggling to integrate Roma people for so many years; how could we succeed in integrating these?” (Basescu has cleaned up his language; in the past he referred to at least one reporter who displeased him as a “stinking Gypsy.”)

On the face of it, Basescu’s position may seem reasonable: We are overwhelmed; we have too many internal problems to bear any responsibility for international difficulties. Yet the explanation is entirely disingenuous. Only on the most skewed understanding of history and of current policy could Romania be said to be “struggling to integrate” the Roma. In parts of southeastern Europe the Roma’s enslavement endured into the second half of the nineteenth century. There has been no major reform since then, no influential civil-rights movement, and no serious proposal for true economic and social justice or for the rectification of past wrongs. A more honest appraisal of Romania’s policies would admit that the country is too preoccupied with perceived internal enemies to accept responsibility for the humanitarian crises in other countries, whose inhabitants are, in any case, enemies of another sort. Elsewhere in his comments Basescu revisited a familiar specter in European populist politics, the mosques that will soon blight the continent’s towns and cities. Such anti-Islamism has become, of course, a familiar feature of European politics. On September 7, Yves Nicolin, the mayor of the Rhône-Alpes town of Roanne, declared that his municipality should not take in Muslim refugees. A cartoon quickly became popular on the French Internet, in which a character resembling Nicolin tells a huddled group of refugees that they cannot stay in France, because they are not Christian. “Neither are you” is the reply.

Many people in Europe and the United States have objected to the euphemistic description of Syrian refugees as “migrants,” which implies that they have some choice in the matter of their movement, but the case of the Roma suggests that no matter which side of the terminological distinction a group of people find themselves on, their plight and obstacles will be substantially the same. One cannot help but notice that the Christianity of the Roma has not helped them to secure any warmer welcome than the Syrians. Faith is invoked when convenient, but when the faith of an undesired group overlaps with that of the majority, some other marker of identity will do just as well. If you are not the right variety of “the same,” you may as well be “the other.”

The perceived nomadism of the Roma may in fact violate a feature of European self-conception that is even more deeply rooted than its supposed Christianity. Europeans, it is generally held, are people who stay put, on a plot of land; they do not move back and forth in horse carts or minivans. This prejudice forgets that nomadism has always had as much to do with external obstacles to a group’s settlement as it does with a way of life. And the hostility to transience is strong, perhaps even stronger than that against other faiths, whose members may be bellicose or fanatical, but at least aspire to settle down in one place.

The Roma of Le Samaritain made their best effort at sedentism, at convincing outsiders that this was the form of life toward which they aspired. But they were interrupted in this aspiration, on the city’s orders, by a hired wrecking crew.

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