Their ancestors began leaving India over a thousand years ago, spreading far and wide across Europe. Today’s Roma people continue in the nomadic tradition.
Their alternative lifestyle has always brought discrimination. The French government’s current policy towards its foreign Roma communities has been criticised at home and abroad.
The clampdown followed rioting involving French Roma last month. Three hundred illegal camps and squats are being dismantled over three months. Illegal immigrants are being sent home.
France has been doing this for years: the government says last year 10,000 were sent back to Bulgaria and Romania.
But with the new hard line came tough words. President Sarkozy’s office said the Roma camps were “sources of illegal trafficking, of profoundly shocking living standards, of exploitation of children for begging, of prostitution and crime”.
The European Commission warned Paris to “respect the rules”.
“Let me remind you that Roma people are just like any other Europeans. They are full European citizens, they have the right to free movement anywhere in the EU,” said spokesman Matthew Newman.
Not only that, but next year Bulgaria and Romania will enter the Schengen border-free zone.
But despite the criticism, France is within its rights.
Special EU rules mean the Roma can only stay for three months unless they have work or residence permits. These are hard to get, and most Roma are thought to be in France illegally.
The French government also quotes an EU directive allowing free movement to be restricted for reasons of “public order, public security and public health”.
Much of Europe uses the word “Roma” to describe all gypsies.
In France there are estimated to be 400,000 travelling people.
The vast majority are French, from long-established communities. Only a few thousand are Roma from eastern Europe. In Romania they’re thought to number more than two million.
But since Romania joined the EU in 2007, more and more have been leaving home. There are plenty of reasons why.
Discrimination is rife. Some are rich, but the vast majority are poor. Many are illiterate and unemployed – the rate in some areas is almost 100 percent.
Human rights groups accuse France of picking on vulnerable people.
Paris replies that crimes committed by Romanian nationals in the capital more than doubled last year.
Criminals, victims, or both, Europe’s Roma people continue being kicked from pillar to post.