Has Someone Said the Unsayable Truth About the Roma?

There has been one single word in French headlines non-stop for the past week and that’s “Roma.” The French have a Roma problem and it is one of those intractable issues with no easy solutions and so loaded with taboos and unsayable truths that it makes everyone squeamish. It’s not a new problem, but it was set off again last week when France’s charismatic and very popular Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls, said in a radio interview that most Roma people in France “don’t want” to assimilate, and hence “are best off returning to Romania or Bulgaria.”

French Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls.

French Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls.

The comments set off fireworks of reactions, most notably from the Minister of Housing, Cécile Duflot (who is from France’s left-of-the-socialists Green Party). She accused Valls of betraying the “Republican Pact”. Those, in France, are fighting words—quite strong ones, the French equivalent of one senator accusing another of being un-American—and created a political stand-off between the two. Duflot is right, of course, on principle: it’s a terrible thing to stigmatize an entire ethnicity as being unwilling to assimilate, the kind of thing that was said about Jews, sixty years ago. In fact, if you replace “Roma” with any other ethnicity or race—Asian, Kurd, Arab, whatever—nobody would disagree that Vall’s statement was profoundly racist.

But the majority of French people tend—massively—to agree with…Valls. A poll this past weekend revealed that 77% of the French agree that the Roma would be better off going back to their countries of origin, and it’s not just France’s right-wing nationalists coming out of the woodwork to take advantage of a political opportunity: 98% of the French voters on the right agree, but so do 55% of voters on the left. Another poll yesterday simply asked who people thought was right, Valls or Duflot—and fully two-thirds of the French agree with the Minister of the Interior and just 28% with Duflot.

Valls has said out loud what more or less everyone, or a great majority of everyone, is thinking to themselves. He’s said in a—slightly—more appropriate way what the right-wing magazine Valeurs Actuelles said this summer on one of their August covers with the title, “Roma Overdose.”

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The August 22, 2013 cover title of this right-wing news magazine. “Roma Overdose,” reads the title, “Exclusive poll: the French have had enough.”

I probably could have told you that without seeing any poll numbers at all. Here’s why, the unvarnished, politically incorrect reason why: if you live in Paris, or a number of other large French cities, in any neighborhood but the most exclusive, then you too live with the Roma—a lot of Roma. Thanks to European integration, Romania and Bulgaria, the country of origin of most Roma people, are part of Europe. Romanians and Bulgarians are free to circulate throughout the European Union and it is legal for them to live and work within most of the 28 member states. They do not need a visa.

As a result, there are nearly 20,000 Roma in France, three-quarters of whom are concentrated in the greater Paris region, living in some 400 illegal encampments. France does not allow any race or ethnicity based census-taking, but the Roma are involved in two main rackets: organized begging and prostitution. Both the beggars and the prostitutes tend to be women and children. Because they live in squalid, makeshift camps with no running water or electricity, and because they don’t have jobs or income, they also run organized rings of garbage-pickers. In one encampment, with its own makeshift mayor and security force, every family pays a Euro a day into the “municipal” kitty for access to the day’s scavenged food. There are vans that, every morning at dawn, drop off teenagers and women all over the city, in Paris’s dozens of arrondissements: some women settle onto a street corner to beg, others set out to pick over trash cans, and bands of teenagers, often including pregnant girls, rove about tourist areas with pens and pads of paper waiting to hit up some foreigners. Their lives, frankly, sound awful.

A Roma encampment in Paris's 19th arroniddissement.

A Roma encampment in Paris’s 19th arrondissement.

I live in a diverse, gentrifying neighbourhood of northern Paris, and my apartment happens to overlook a broad open green space, like a small public lawn. For over a year now, except during the winter’s coldest months, there has generally been a large family, or a big extended family, sometimes a whole gang of a several dozen Roma, camping out: mothers with babies, fathers, pregnant teenagers, multiple strollers, spreads of food, men lounging, even an old accordionist who all summer long, every day, from 6am to 6pm has played the same song. I either want to kill him or teach him to play another song. He’s there now. This summer for a while they’d dragged an old leather couch under a nearby scaffolding and hung out there when it rained. It stayed for weeks.

I wouldn’t want to live on the street. It’s a terrible life. But frankly, I wished they didn’t live in my street. Who does want them to live on their street? What community wants to host their encampment? What city will offer them jobs, education, and healthcare?

Roma are the thorny and taboo topic, the nuisance about which no one dares speak, now a part of everyday urban aggravation, a familiar and unwelcome feature of street-life, the unspoken target of everyone’s animosity, the legal and social problem to which no one on the left has dared offer a solution, and which the far-right has enthusiastically placed high up on their electoral agenda.

In reality, Manuel Valls said in language that was tolerable to the left (“they don’t want to assimilate”…“best off returning to Romania”) exactly what the right said in language that made them sound friendly to the far-right National Front party (“enough, leave, go home”). And now that he’s said it, it’s made him even more popular: he has become his party’s favorite campaign trail accessory in France’s local election campaigns that are now going full swing.

And that’s what’s so troubling—that most of the political spectrum, from the mainstream Socialists to the right to the far-right actually seem to agree. That should never happen. And when it does, it makes for a very ugly confusion of genres.

Because eventually Valls will no longer be able to cloak his phrases in euphemistic suggestions of “better off”, he’ll probably have to speak a little more clearly about exactly what he means—and then what will he sound like?

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When a French Film Director’s Teenage Prostitute Fantasy Becomes Real

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In Jeune et Jolie, a well-to-do teenager prostitutes herself.

It’s hard to make light, or make art, of teenage prostitution. But that’s just what French filmmaker François Ozon has done with his recent film, Jeune et Jolie (Young and Beautiful in English). It’s the story of Isabelle, a Parisian high-schooler who secretly meets and sleeps with strangers in exchange for large sums in hotel rooms. And last week, in a tabloidish twist on this interesting and (interestingly unsexy) film, life seems to have imitated art. In Cannes (which is where Ozon’s film premiered at the Festival in May), two teenage girls, aged 14 and 15, were arrested for having worked—or played—as prostitutes for two months this past spring.

What most shocks, or perhaps just interests, French audiences about both of these cases, fictional and real, is that the girls come from bourgeois backgrounds. They’re not just good girls, they’re from the cultural elite, upper middle class, intellectual-bobo families. In Ozon’s film, she’s a doctor’s daughter and goes to the most prestigious public high school in Paris. News accounts of the Cannes teenagers describe them as highly accomplished students and their families as well-to-do. They could have been good middle-class girls getting a mediocre education in a small town in the provinces whose parents work at the post office, but…who would care?

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François Ozon’s film, Jeune et Jolie, or Young and Beautiful.

The contrast between the girls’ social status, between the idea that there’s no imaginable reason any of them would want to escape their gilded lives and the promise of a fulfilling future to which their class and culture naturally entitle them—and the absolute debasement of prostitution is what gives the whole thing a sense of a legitimate narrative. It’s what makes it interesting. Otherwise wouldn’t it simply be teenage girls being paid for the use of their bodies by older male strangers in hotel rooms? Imagine a horny middle-aged businessman having sex with a 14-year-old—your daughter, your neighbor’s daughter, whatever—it’s abject. It’s not hot. It’s not interesting.

But Ozon’s film has been greeted with critical acclaim, and the report of the arrest of the Cannes teenagers with great interest. People are intrigued, not repulsed. For the French it’s more a story of class and culture than (for once) of sex. No one has found any of this repugnant or gross as, perhaps, might have been the case if this were all taking place in the United States, on New York’s Upper West Side or in Boca Raton. There’s mostly just a sense of wonder that these girls—good students, well-behaved daughters from educated families—would have somehow chosen to test the boundaries of authority and adolescence in such a consummately adult way. Like an extravagant game of dress-up, but with real johns and for a fee. Filmic, for sure.

But there is a huge, fundamental difference between the film version and the real version of these teenage prostitute stories. If Ozon’s story is enthralling it is precisely because he produces this heightened contrast between Isabelle’s class and her acts, a highly aestheticized (male) fantasy of innocence willfully drawn to the extreme sexual taboo. The actress playing Isabelle, Marina Vacth, is heart-stoppingly gorgeous (worth seeing the film just for that), all fresh peaches-and-cream sensuality, the perfect French cliché of natural beauty and style, wearing jeans and no make-up, bursting with the erotic potential of her childish curiosity and good breeding.

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The stash of accessories that the Cannes teenagers used to dress up before meeting clients includes stilletos, wigs, leather gloves and handbags.

The two teenagers in Cannes don’t fulfill that fantasy at all. When they were arrested, it was stepping out of a Mercedes convertible in front of a luxury hotel in Cannes (which famously becomes an eldorado for high-end prostitution every year during the film festival), wearing wigs, heavy make-up and high heels. When police searched the home of the car’s driver (a 40-something man who is being investigated for pimping), they found a whole stash of clothes and accessories: stilettos, erotic lingerie, leather gloves, hair-pieces, and sex-toys. It turns out these girls, the real teenagers, weren’t dressed like girls, they were dressed like whores.

When police questioned them as to why they did it, they allegedly said it was “for the fun, for the sex, for the money.” One of the two girls even claimed to have made 50,000 Euros in two days and, according to police, she said she planned on earning enough to get her breasts augmented with the goal, ultimately, of going to the United States to become a porn star. So that’s what she wants to be when she grows up and it’s not because she flunked out of high school or comes from a tough background. One of the teenagers appeared, with her face blurred out, in a sensationalist investigative TV show called Enquête Exclusive, and in response to a detective’s question about her main motive for prostituting herself she replied, “mostly it was for the money—money is my little guilty pleasure.” She didn’t seem to think it needed any further explanation.

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A screen shot of Enquete Exclusive’s footage of one of the Cannes teenagers being questioned by a detective.

These real teenage prostitutes are the pure products not of a French film director’s fantasy, but of a generation of digital natives brought up on the Internet and reality television. They watch porn online after school like another generation watched Little House on the Prairie reruns, and retweet graphic sex pictures for the banal thrill of it. They naturally know their way around the online protocols of anonymity and false identities, at ease with the dichotomy between real life and virtual life—that’s a Facebook generation’s normal life. The stars of today’s globalized teenage culture include Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton, sex-tape celebrities with $1500-dollar handbags and rich boyfriends, and no real identity other than celebrity.

In that context, in the life of the average, hyper-connected, affluent teenager with an iPhone and a laptop, craving money for money’s sake, dressing up as women and getting paid for sex in luxury hotels–none of that seems all that unimaginable.

As far as we can tell, for these good girls in Cannes—and this is what I find disconcerting—it doesn’t even seem all that transgressive. It was just fun.

Big Trends at GEN 2013 News Summit in Paris (or, I have seen the future of media and it’s pretty radical)

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Paris’s city hall where the Global Editors Network News Summit took place last week, from June 19 to June 21, 2013.

If there was a revolution being tweeted at the Global Editors Network 2013 News Summit that just wrapped up in Paris last week, it’s that content, once king, is no longer.

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That was the gospel being preached by many different media actors from across the spectrum, from CUNY journalism professor and media guru, Jeff Jarvis, to Shafqat Islam, CEO of NewsCred, one of the most successful recent media start-ups, to Mark Little, co-founder of social media news agency, Storyful.

“We are not in the content business,” Jarvis expounded, “It is a trap. Content is a fine thing, but if that’s all we do, we are missing out.” To an audience of mostly journalists he declared that, “we are in the service business…it’s about building relationships.” Which for most journalists is a dramatic (and not entirely comfortable) paradigm shift, in which the consumers of news take precedence over the providers of news – those erstwhile journalists.

Jeff Jarvis likes to shock, but there seemed to be consensus among the players at the GEN summit around the heart of his argument: that content, today, is…easy. Technology has made content ultra-accessible, broadcastable and consumable, and if media aim solely to produce great content—as we all once did—then they’re missing the point. Consumers are drowning in content. What consumers want are better ways to access the content that interests them most. What makes the difference today is the curation, packaging and design surrounding the content. In 2013, content and container are officially on equal footing.

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Replacing content as king is, thus, the consumer. This was another big theme at GEN 2013: that the key to success in the new media ecosystem is being able to find out and anticipate what consumers want, and many of the media technology start-ups present at the summit were focused on just that. “You need to know your audience and how to get to them,” explained Benoit Raphael (@benoitraphael), co-founder of the start-up Trendsboard, a tool to help editors to predict what will be trending next. “Media should behave like brands,” he said. This was an echo of a common refrain, heard often throughout the several days of the conference, that media companies need to be technology companies – and to behave like brands. For Dennis Mortensen (@DennisMortensen), the founder of Visual Revenue, another tool to help editors makes strategic choices about the content they put forward, the rationale for media companies to develop tech tools and behave like brands is simple: why not make editorial decisions that also, incidentally, make money? Why not “optimize” editorial?

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Storyful’s Mark Little (@marklittlenews, a former foreign correspondent himself) drew a slightly sharper line between media and tech when it comes to the core purpose of journalism today. “It’s not about technology,” Little explained, “It’s about the change in human behavior that technology liberates.” Which still speaks to the same revolution driving so much of the change in media today: because technology has enabled new forms of news production (amateur content, crowd-sourcing, real-time updates) and news consumption (mobile, downloadable, aggregated), the expectations of consumers have changed. And news media—this seemed to be everyone’s over-arching message at #GEN13—had better learn to listen.

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Listening to consumers is what brands do best, which is why so much of the media strategy discussed at the conference sounded like brand strategy. Building relationships, trust, loyalty. Giving consumers what they want and how they want it. This is what Jarvis means when he talks about news today as a “service business”.  It’s also the way today’s new hybrid tech media start-ups are thinking. As David Cohn (@digidave), the director of news at Cir.ca, a recently launched and much-hyped mobile-news-app that breaks down news into its essential quotes, facts and data, explained: Circa is not about summarizing the news, but about “atomizing” the news, so that people can consume the news particles as they wish.

Journalism 3.0 is here.