BORDEAUX- Almost every day I run a gauntlet of beggars in this wealthy French town, mostly old men and women but sometimes rather prim middle-aged ladies. They come from Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary, they are exceedingly polite and they manage a proud "Merci" for their contributors.
Some are simply heart-rending, as in the case of a 4-foot-5 prune-faced grandmother - I'll call her Maria -- who hobbles on a crutch at a busy intersection near a Bordeaux shopping center. Maria communicates in grunts and sighs as she extends a withered hand grasping a plastic cup. French drivers, at best a nervous lot, tend to roll up their windows, lock their doors and gun their engines. I usually give her a euro ($1.25), for which I get a sigh and a radiant, toothless smile - ample compensation for my money.
By some arrangement with her competitors, Maria clearly "owns" this intersection, occupying it from dawn to dusk, rain or shine. I often wonder how many more years she will be up to this gruelling work - for it is very much like work. She must be near 80 years of age. She will surely die of exhaustion if she doesn't get run down first.
Maria and most of the other beggars around here are gypsies, also known as roms, tsiganes and travellers. Since the expansion of the European Union just two years ago to include Bulgaria and Romania, the gypsies have fanned out into the richer countries, taking advantage of the free movement of people, goods and capital within the Union.
They now have the distinction of being the largest ethnic minority in Europe, estimated at between 9 and 12 million, depending on who is counting, and their numbers are growing steadily.
Maria is typical of the poverty-stricken souls who have come here hoping to find a decent life since their country was accepted in the new European superstate. In some cases, they are fleeing physical danger. In Hungary recently, armed men attacked a gypsy camp, killing a man and his wife. The camp was burned down in a shower of Molotov cocktails.
Instead, the gypsies find they are nearly as hated in France, Germany, Italy and Holland as they were at home, often subjected to verbal abuse and random attacks on the street.
To be sure, they pose a unique set of problems by their wandering nature and their desperate financial straits. Most of the gypsies live in house trailers grouped in muddy vacant lots around Europe's big cities.
Their children rarely attend schools, staying in the camps as their parents take up positions in busy streets to beg for coins from benevolent natives. Petty crime by members of their community is so pervasive that they are often considered as shiftless thieves. European children are taught by their parents to fear them, much like lepers. Because of this stigma, they are largely unemployable.
In France, a volunteer medical charity, Medecins du Monde, pays regular visits to the camps to provide minimal health care and to encourage the gypsies to integrate with the local population. But the right wing government of Nicolas Sarkozy is less tolerant, rounding them up and shipping them home.
In Italy, the gypsy problem is also the focus of government attention, sometimes so aggressive that a gypsy spokeswoman likens it to "the fascist ideology of Italy in the 1930s". The Italian police under Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi are making sweeps through the camps to record names in a census, in some cases taking fingerprints or DNA samples to try to prove or disprove family connections. Some parliamentarians have advocated GPS ankle bracelets to keep track of them.
Clearly it is unfair to brand all gypsies as a public danger. Their ancient origins in India and their gypsy song and dance are well known. Indeed, some manage to escape the exclusion spiral. One such celebrated case is Cecilia Attias, the ex-wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Cecilia is the daughter of Aron Ciganer (a corruption of "tsigane") who was half Jewish and half gypsy. Such success stories are rare, however.
A major issue in western European government is immigration, which has been in disarray since the opening of borders among the member states. A conference is planned in Paris December 12-13 to seek ways to improve the lot of the gypsies. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has called on the conference to find ways to get the gypsies into productive life and to see that their children are educated. And French minster of housing and urban affairs Christine Boutin wants voting rights and identity cards for them.
The problem of how to keep track of gypsies, upgrade their conditions with civil rights and normal humanitarian services, has beset European governments for decades. Only now, with the free circulation of Europeans in full swing, and gypsies arriving in large numbers, might Wester Europe's leaders be forced to integrate this proud people.
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