Never again and no more! It is time to call a halt to racism!

02 August 2017

By Radost Zaharieva

On a day when we commemorate the hundreds of thousands of Roma who perished at the hands of the Nazis, and the destructive impact of racist ideologies on Romani lives then and now, I wondered about the impact of racism on individual lives and how it affects a person’s future. I decided to reply to this question through the personal story of a victim of racism in France.

Laying wreaths for the Romani victims at Auschwitz concentration camp.

Racism against Roma communities has existed for centuries expressed through rejection of the Romani culture, discrimination and persecution. Racism and racist ideologies led to the deaths of 500,000-750,000 Roma during the Second World War. It has been a topic drawing the attention of the European and international bodies aiming to guarantee human rights across Europe and the world. In spite of the common efforts of the states for securing human rights and prevent any form of racism through international and European conventions, protocols, charters etc. antigypsyism is still a current issue in the EU, nourished by populist messages promoted by far-right parties and movements in several countries, including France, leading to many forms of discrimination and human rights violations. Moreover we still observe political discourses influencing the public opinion by presenting Romani communities as a common threat to public order, transforming the Roma question into a security issue.

On 30 March 2017, 37-year old Angélo Garand, a member of the French Traveller community was killed during a police intervention in Seur where he lived with his family. Angélo was preparing a lunch with his extended family when the police forces came to look for him because he did not go back to prison after receiving an authorisation to visit his family. This intervention turned into a nightmare for the whole family because Angélo was hit during the intervention of the national police and elite force called GIGN, whose missions include counter-terrorism, hostage rescue and surveillance of national threats and protection of government officials. According to the information provided by the public prosecutor, police forces used their guns in legitimate defence against “a dangerous individual armed with a knife”. Two police officers were initially held in custody, but were released after the conclusions of the prosecutor.

The testimony of the victim’s family, witnesses to what happened that day, provides another account. The sister of the victim, Aurélie Garand, agreed to share her story with the ERRC during an interview conducted on 7 July 2017, despite all the pain that it causes to her to speak about the death of her brother. For her, Angélo’s murder is a result of a long process of rejection, discrimination and daily experienced racism targeting the Traveller community.

 “We are part of the Traveller community in France, which is a population subjected to numerous form of discrimination and stigma. If something bad happens somewhere and Travellers are around, they are immediately suspected to be the perpetrators. Thus, we are subjected to police searches, mockeries, humiliation, but we have never rebelled against the police forces or such searches. Travellers are often placed in custody, condemned to prison more often than other people because we are perceived as dangerous people, which is completely false. The fact that my brother was member of the Travellers community made him an ex officio criminal”.

In fact Travellers, also called “Nomads” in the past have been subjected to very specific and discriminatory treatment including persecution for centuries. During the Second World War Nomads were explicitly been designated as “a major threat1” to the national security and placed in camps under surveillance, in conditions similar to concentration camps. Moreover between 1969 and 2017 they were subjected to a specific legislation having a direct impact on their political, social and economic rights. The law n° 69-3 of 3 January 1969 established an obligation for Travellers to present themselves periodically in police offices where they can get a stamp on their booklets, allowing to track all movements of Travellers within the country.2

Even if this law has recently been abrogated, Travellers, often perceived as Gypsies (Gitans) continue to face hostility. In its annual report published on 30 March 2017 the National Consultative Commission for Human Right highlighted the presence of “intensified racism” leading to violations of fundamental rights which victims are Roma.3 According to the Commission, antigypsyism is expressed by the perception of Roma as a “threat to the national [security] order [...]”.4 This same logic is evident in Angelo’s case. He was described by the authorities and media as a “potentially dangerous individual” who had convictions for robbery. The presence of GIGN personnel, whose regular duties include high profile anti-terrorist action, in the raid on the family home shows how this exaggerated perception took hold.

“In the beginning we did not believe that they were members of the police forces. We thought that it was a terrorist attack. It is difficult to say how many GIGN forces came to my parents’ farm in Seur the day of the drama, but I think their number was 15-20 officers armed with machine guns,” recalled Aurélie Garand, while “five adults, including two women, and one child were on the farm. Shortly after the GIGN left the place some gendarmes came to the farm to make sure that my family members could not contact and inform anyone about what happened that day, as well as to prevent my family from taking any action. Only my sister-in-law was allowed to contact me by phone asking me to take her children from school and look after them at my place because the police were at my parents’ home. She did not tell me anything else because she was under the control of police officers. I did not know that my brother had been killed”.

Police sources said that the investigation does not exclude “the possibility of an eventual training” explaining the joint operation of national police and elite forces which lead to the death of the young man.

The biological racism of the past, which claimed millions of lives in the Nazi genocide and resulted in the systematic murder of over 500,000 Roma, while less visible today, has not completely vanished. Today it survives in a more concealed form, rendering some people belonging to a specific ethnic group more vulnerable than other populations. Contemporary racism depicts Roma as “dangerous” or “criminals”, a message promoted through political discourses across Europe and amplified by media narratives.

In France, three cases of deaths at the hands of police were registered since the declaration of a state of emergency following the terrorist attacks. Each case involved individuals belonging to ethnic groups or minorities even if they are not legally recognised as such: Adama Traoré  (African), Liu Shaoyao (Chinese) and Angélo Garand (a Traveller). The common between three of them are that they are perceived as “external” to France, coming from abroad and two of them, Liu Shaoyao and Angélo Garand, were “armed with a knife” and “showed resistance”. It should be stressed that both individuals were cooking when the police entered their homes which can explain the presence of knives.

The testimony of Aurélie Garand shows how in practice Travellers are perceived by the authorities. 

“They [GIGN] were wearing hoods hiding their faces, which made it difficult to recognise them. They told my family members to raise their hands and force them to the ground. Immediately they handcuffed my father, my youngest brother, my uncle and put their machine guns to the heads of the handcuffed men. GIGN shouted orders that nobody was to move. Everyone felt in danger because of the machine guns. They were aware that police officers can shoot and kill if anybody moves or says something. My father who is a person with disabilities, needing an oxygen mask, was deprived of it, which is dangerous for his health and life”.

Aurélie Garand described the behaviour of the authorities as being totally contemptuous, and how all the family members were subjected to verbal and physical violence, men as well as women. The GIGN showed no respect toward the Traveller family, which included one person with disabilities, two women and one child. Aurélie told me that the family received no explanation in response to their questions about the police intervention as they try to understand the reason for such violence. “The police replied to the family’s question with ‘Shut up’ ” and Aurélie described the way the GIGN communicated with the Traveller family was disrespectful, harsh and impolite “more like street talk.” The police shouted at them and used threatening gestures and “All the family members felt threatened by the behaviour of the GIGN officers armed with machine guns”.

Aurélie said that a few minutes later Angélo was hit with seven bullets in an isolated part of the farm where he tried to hide in fear of the police. It was the last day of Angélo’s life, and a day of tragedy for the whole family. At the same time it is the beginning of a long fight for “justice and truth” for the family and the entire Traveller community.

Aurélie related how their first battle for justice began with the family’s request for information about what exactly happened on the farm, because they were forbidden to approach the scene of the crime. Family members present during the police raid were summoned to the police station but were not asked to testify about the circumstances leading to Angélo’s death. They were accused of being “accomplices” to his absconding from prison and were given no information about his death by shooting.

“In the meantime a reconstruction of the facts was organised at the family farm, in our absence, without informing us. We were deprived of our right to attend the reconstruction. We learned about it later through media reporting. We were informed about Angélo’s death a few hours later”.

Initial media reports about Angélo’s killing by police were based on the information provided by law enforcement authorities and the public prosecutor. France 3 contacted the family members to get their point of view.

“Most of the articles repeated the discourse of the prosecutor and presented only its version of the facts. Only France 3 contacted us and included our point of view in their report about the death of my brother. The other articles presented my brother as a delinquent, dangerous, drug-addicted person, which certainly influenced the public opinion about the death of my brother”. 

In fact in a video published by France 3 on 1 April the brother of Angélo presented a different version about what happened that day. He claims that the police came and shot at Angélo without warning. Also he contradicted the allegations that Angélo was armed with a knife: “He did not have any weapons, he was not a dangerous individual.” 

This case got lower media coverage and attracted less public attention than the other two fatalities involving police officers. Most of the media coverage presented Angélo as “a Gitan [Gypsy]”, “a fugitive”; “a delinquent”; “a criminal” focusing on the number of robberies committed by the young man. Certainly this approach and the accompanying narratives had an impact on the perception of the victim and the crime. People are most sensitive when the victim is an innocent person rather than a “potentially dangerous individual” or a “criminal”.

“When I listen to the authorities’ version, which has been presented by the media I clearly see the stigmatising image imposed on Travellers by society” said Aurélie. “A false image of my brother has been created and presented through media without knowing anything about him and his life. This is a farce because we [Travellers] have this nasty label! My brother hid himself because he was scared of the police. He could not have expected that this would cost him his life. How many victims might there have been on that day if one of us actually did or said anything?” 

Media articles highlighted that on many previous occasions Traveller riots broke out when a member of the community was shot during a police intervention. The intent once again was to reaffirm the perception of Travellers as dangerous people and impose upon them this negative label.

“Now I realise that we are victims of discrimination and racism. The police forces entered the barn and shot at him without even saying a word! My brother was hit with seven bullets in the chest and he died! When I saw what happened to my brother I thought about people in concentration camps. It is time to say stop!”

Aurélie’s fight is to combat racism and halt destructive and discriminatory practices which ruin human lives. Common joint action is essential to push back against racism, for racist acts not only cause individual harm but endanger everybody’s fundamental human rights.

“Angélo died just before having a lunch with his family. This can happen to anyone. We are all concerned by discriminatory police face control [control based on physical appearances[5]], police violence, Travellers as well as any other person living in working-class areas. This is a political game that can target everyone. When I meet other victims of police violence I feel like they are members of my own family because now we share the same destiny and we have the same fight!”

“We must stay together!” is the powerful message from Aurélie Garand to society. In spite of all the pain that Aurélie has faced, she has no place for hate in her heart. 

Angélo was a member of the Traveller community - he was also a son, a husband and father. I cannot imagine what kind of life lies ahead for his children growing up with the terrible memory of their father’s death. How can these children trust the authorities to protect and guarantee their rights when their father is died in such a way? How does a child feel when he knows that he will never see again his lovely father?

It is impossible to me to answer these questions. Only people who have experienced similar tragedies can reply in a meaningful way. But I what I do know is that racism has become more and more present in the daily lives of Roma, with discrimination and racist discourses targeting Roma communities; and tens of thousands being forcefully evicted and expelled. The constant rejection and exclusion has become an almost banal fact of life, but all the while it traumatizes human beings, inflicts physical suffering upon and can completely destroy their lives. This is why it must be stopped!


  1. Circular n° 75 adopted on 27 April 1940.
  2. Law relative on ambulant trade activities and people without permanent residence:
  3. National Consultative Commission for Human rights, report on fighting against racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia, 2016, p.18.
  4. National Consultative Commission for Human rights, report on fighting against racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia, 2016, p.18.


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