In France, an Evangelical Gypsy group shakes up the immigration debate

Chaumont, France - Even as French police deported hundreds of Gypsies to Romania in late August, a devout set of 26,000 Gypsy Evangelicals gathered in the heart of France for song, testimony, and scripture.

France’s high-profile deportations have put one of Europe’s oldest and most vulnerable groups in a rare spotlight. They may also be a miscalculation for President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Though debate in Europe about immigration is heating up, reaction in France to this policy has been withering: The Roman Catholic church, the Socialist Party, and even many in Sarkozy’s center-right party are publicly angered at a policy that appears to single out an ethnic minority as undesirable, in order to score political points.

The stereotype of the Gypsy doesn't work here

The Gypsy Evangelicals in Chaumont, France counter any stereotype. They park some 6,000 white trailers in neat rows on the grassy runway of a World War I air base. It is a “city” brought from “the north, the south, the east, and the west,” as signs replete with biblical language affirm, anchored by a tent that holds 6,000 and atop of which flutter the flags of France, Belgium, the US, the EU, Germany, and the UK.

The gathering joins these Evangelicals, whose numbers and faith have swelled to some 145,000 of the 425,000 Gypsies in France. Their tight organization, work and family ethic, regard for civil law, and stress on education has made them the “go-to” Gypsy group for French authorities, and a point of pride in a larger Gypsy community that has long suffered a stigma of criminality, drugs, and brawls. Beyond that, they help stabilize and keep a vanishing Gypsy identity intact, analysts say, as economic and legal pressures in post-industrial Europe are atomizing a nomadic life.

For example, they developed a model for negotiating lands to settle on. Many Gypsies, facing local bureaucracy, occupy land, then negotiate. But, “the Bible tells us to be wise and respect the authorities,” says Aladin Blivet, treasurer of this “Life and Light” gathering. “We call ahead, we do paperwork, we send a delegation, we do the organizing.”

Michel Lambert, a Gypsy organizer who runs a Gypsy postal service in a Paris suburb says, “the Protestants are a good example for us.” He continues, “they have shown how things can work.”

“These Gypsies created an organization with spokesmen.... They speak with [the] authorities, something new in France,” says Marie Bidet, a former Interior Ministry employee whose doctoral thesis is on Gypsy-state relations. “They are serious, respectable; they vote, they don’t want to burn cars, they want everyone living in peace. That’s opposite from the traditional image … it can be underlined that they succeed in their approach.”

There's a difference between French Gypsies and Roma

French Gypsies are known here as “travelers,” whereas Gypsies targeted for deportation come mainly from Romania and Bulgaria, and are known as “Roma.” Gypsy leaders and others critical of the policy, say the crackdowns on Roma tend to amalgamate them into a single negative public image. Last year France quietly deported more than 7,000 Gypsies. But this summer’s roundup of more than 8,000 were part of a get-tough-on-crime media campaign by the French government.

At the Chaumont gathering, deportation talk takes second fiddle to faith-talk. It is rare in secular France to hear open discussion of spiritual belief. But Gypsies are frank about why they gather: “Our faith unites us. What God has put in our heart – that’s why we are here. We are here to share experiences,” says Tino, a small tank of a man who wears a suit and open pink shirt as he tends a barbecue. His comments were repeated often.

Most believers speak in rich detail about being “touched” – how they went from a “bad” life of unbelief or woe into a new life they attribute to an active Holy Spirit. They quote the Bible avidly, and speak of healings or “cures” they have seen. A few “churches on wheels” in the 1960s have grown to some 240 fixed churches today. “I have four uncles, and each is pastor of our church for two months,” said a volunteer. “We are on the road the rest of the time.”

“Most Gypsies have a hard life, stealing, family problems. The Gospel has changed the mentality of many Gypsies,” says Rene Zanellato, a prominent prayer leader here who speaks six languages and led Gypsy missions in Russia. “The idea of 26,000 Gypsies coming together in peace and order used to be a dream. There was fighting and drugs … it was inconceivable to get together without problems.”

Much of “Light and Life” centers on family. The “caravans” sport satellite TV and computers. Gypsy women still cook stews of hens or hedgehogs, a Gypsy delicacy. “But we also like McDonald’s,” says a smiling matron. Indeed, the evangelical caravans regularly accept among them nonbelievers, Gypsies who are ambiguous about their belief, but travel along because they feel safe and there are programs to educate not only kids, but adults, according to Ms. Bidet.

'We are more French than Sarkozy'

French Gypsy leaders in Chaumont are “disappointed” in Sarkozy’s policy, implemented by interior minister Brice Hortefeux. In July, Mr. Sarkozy cracked down on some 128 foreign camps – home to 15,000 Gypsies from Romania and Bulgaria – after a riot spurred by the shooting of a young French Gypsy, not a foreign born Roma.

Prayer leaders insist Sarkozy knows the difference. He's has visited their meetings, they say, but is playing politics. “We are more French than Sarkozy,” says one, pointing to the president’s Hungarian heritage.

A new European Union report says the wholesale shutdowns of the makeshift camps violates EU law. French officials argued strenuously at EU Commission meetings in Brussels recently that France is not out of compliance with EU law, and is not targeting an ethnic minority. Roma have been part of a serious increase in crime in Paris and elsewhere in France, they say.

Darkening atmosphere about immigrants in Europe

Still, the deportations come amid a darkening atmosphere in Europe about immigrants and minorities in general. This week a former Slovak soldier and nationalist shot and killed seven Gypsies who lived in his apartment building in a rampage that shocked that nation. Current debates and politics extend to Muslims, Islam, Arabs, and Africans as well who are changing the complexion of traditional Europe.

As a matter of faith, Gypsies traditionally identify with the main religion in the country they inhabit. Those in Turkey are Muslims. In India they are Hindu; Russia, Orthodox; France, Catholic. But after the war, a young pastor from a fisherman’s family in Breton, Clément Le Cossec, healed “through Christ” the ill mother of a Gypsy who came to his church and a young Gypsy whose case was described as incurable. By 1952, Le Cossec was pushed by Gypsies to train them. He separated from the French Assemblies of God when a Gypsy-focused mission was frowned on. “He explained that Gypsies had a special need, were poor but had faith, but this wasn’t understood,” his son, Paul Le Cossec, told the Monitor. “So he started his own mission.”

Le Cossec went on the road, living with Gypsies, learning their customs, language, and “way of life.” He felt, he said in a 1996 interview shortly before his death, that Gypsies had a “childlike” faith, and that a full and unmitigated concept of the biblical Christ would transcend the collective image many Gypsies held of themselves: “Not for a minute was it a question of lecturing them with morals, telling them they should not drink, lie, steal, or soothsay anymore. I knew that by receiving the message of Christ, everything would change in their lives,” he said.

By the mid-1990s, some 6,000 Gypsy pastors were working in Europe – part of an overall spread of this form of evangelicalism to a world Gypsy community that claims 2 million in 44 countries. The French town of Gien is home to a Gypsy Bible college. Marc Bordigoni, a Provence University anthropologist and author of “The Gypsies,” says Le Cossec’s approach paradoxically enabled Gypsies to keep their identity through a faith, Christianity, that asserts what he calls a universal character.

“The strength of Gypsy Protestantism lies in the fact that Le Cossec initiated, because he had to, an organization from within the community. Their faith is led by their own people.”