The internment of the Gypsies in France during the Second World War

Montreuil-Bellay internment camp, 1944. Jacques Sigot collection
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By Marie-Christine Hubert[1]

Between 1940 and 1946, over 6 500 men, women and children were interned in thirty camps across France, solely because they were considered to be Gypsies by the German and French authorities. This story belongs as much to the history of racial persecution implemented by Nazi Germany as it does to that of the repression of nomadism, a policy pursued by a number of Western democracies, including France.

In 1912, the French authorities put in place a programme aimed at monitoring French and foreign itinerants. There was a particular focus on Gypsies, with the creation of the Régime des Nomades and the introduction of an anthropometric identity card to identify ”nomads” and monitor their movements. Around 40 000 people were identified in this way before the Second World War.

On 6 April 1940, the Third Republic introduced a nationwide ban on the movement of nomads for the duration of the war, and placed them under house arrest. On 4 October 1940, the occupying authorities ordered the prefects of the occupied zone to intern the Gypsies. The gendarmes detained primarily those families under house arrest since April, and holders of the anthropometric identity card. They also interned fairground people, itinerant workers, tramps and sedentary marginalised groups, i.e. all those suspected of being Gypsies by the German and French authorities.

Hurriedly assembled in quarries and abandoned chateaux, the families were soon transferred to more structured camps run by the prefectures and guarded by gendarmes, such as Mérignac (Gironde), Moisdon-la-Rivière (Loire-Atlantique) and Poitiers (Vienne). In late 1941, the Gypsies were brought together in regional camps like Montreuil-Bellay (Maine-et-Loire), Mulsanne (Sarthe), Jargeau (Loiret) and Saint-Maurice-aux-Riches-Hommes (Yonne).

Cold, hunger and lack of hygiene got the better of the more fragile, young children and the elderly. Families could leave the camp and live under house arrest nearby, but the conditions for doing so (fixed address, work, agreement from various authorities) were difficult to fulfil without outside help. Release, like internment, was primarily an arbitrary decision dependent on the goodwill of the prefects and the Germans.

In the Free Zone, house arrest was the rule. However, the Gypsies expelled from Alsace-Lorraine in the summer of 1940 were interned in the camps of Argelès-sur-Mer, Barcarès and later Rivesaltes. In May 1942, the Vichy government had a camp purpose-built for the Gypsies, at Saliers (Bouches-du-Rhône)[2]. The subject of propaganda and with a unique design, in autumn 1942 it received the Gypsies from Rivesaltes, together with any nomads which the prefects of the Free Zone regarded as undesirables. The Lannemezan camp in the Hautes-Pyrénées was for foreign nomads[3].

The Gypsies were not freed in 1944 like the other administrative internees. Internment was put in the same category as house arrest, and the decree of 6 April 1940 remained in force. It was not until the decree of 10 May 1946, which officially marked the end of the war, that the last nomads were released from the Alliers camp, in Charente - long after the collaborators.

Himmler's decree of 16 December 1942 ordering the Gypsies of the German Reich to be deported to Auschwitz did not apply to France. However, 145 French citizens arrested in the departments of Nord and Pas-de-Calais, attached to Belgium, were deported by Z convoy on 15 January 1944. Meanwhile, the men interned at Poitiers were deported in 1943 to the Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald camps as part of Operation Meerschaum, which combined a new policy of repression via the mass deportation of political opponents, with a supply of forced labour to the camps.

After the war, these destitute, despairing families were once more subjected to the Régime des Nomades. In 1969, the anthropometric identity card was replaced by a less restrictive, but equally discriminatory, carnet de circulation. It was not until 2010 and 2016 that France officially recognised its responsibility in the internment of a sector of its own population, for over 90% of the interned Gypsies were in fact of French nationality.

[1] Emmanuel Filhol and Marie-Christine Hubert, Les Tsiganes en France : un sort à part 1939-1946, Perrin, 2009.

[2] Mathieu Pernot, Un camp pour les Bohémiens. Mémoires du camp d'internement pour nomades de Saliers, Actes Sud, 2001.

[3] See the autobiographical works of Matéo Maximoff.

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