Margaret and Dick   


September 2016: RIMBY

(Richard's story)

We were wondering about the recent encampment of a dozen small travel trailers in the shade of the trees that border the cemetery on the plateau just above Limoux. Tourists, Margaret thought. I did not think so: nobody would find the narrow road up to that isolated spot without knowing the area, and the site offers no amenities. Gypsies, I thought – gens de voyage (traveling people), a delicate euphemism that sidesteps the negative connotation that many people have about Gypsies.

Gypsy caravans are common in the south of France, and we have reported about their community in Perpignan. Some are sedentary, but many travel periodically in groups, setting down in large public spaces like parks or soccer fields that are not meant to accommodate campers. They tap illegally in to the power lines, and we can only imagine what happens to the garbage and waste. The neighbors typically hate the intrusion, but French solidarité with people of lesser means eliminates the obvious solution of just having the police move them out. Communities of any significant size are required to provide an improved space (electricity, water, garbage, …) to the gens de voyage so they don’t trample the public spaces. The periodic migrations are explained by Gypsy leaders as religious pilgrimages, and local authorities are not allowed to get in the way of religion. 

Our local newspaper La Dépêche cleared up the mystery about the cemetery encampment. “The problem does not date from yesterday. It happened in August 2014 and 2015 also, during the time when the official gens de voyage camp was getting its annual cleanup by city sanitation workers and all the trailers were forced to move for four or five weeks.”

But local homeowners are upset. Not in my back yard! The neighborhood organization says: "No health structure exists; children and adults have been forced to live in unacceptable conditions of hygiene, attending to their (toilet) needs on the outskirts of the cemetery, degrading a place that merits respect.”

The neighborhood association is surprised that local authorities have not acted on two suggestions they made when this happened in past years: (1) Shift the annual cleanup from August to October, when there are fewer caravans in residence, and (2) Let the caravans move during that period to the public tourist campground of Limoux, which has few tourists in October.

Oh yikes, it’s the classic camel’s nose in the tent: everybody knows that once the Gypsies are in the tourist campground, they’ll fill it up and never leave, and Limoux will lose valuable tourist dollars. 

The homeowners’ communiqué accuses the bureaucrats of tacitly accepting the temporary move to the cemetery by not interfering with the illicit electrical connections and by providing city garbage containers at the camp, “formalizing this state of fact.”

Here’s where the delicate French concept of solidarité enters the discussion. This is a country that prides itself on its generous but expensive social safety net. The president of the regional community government charged with this hot topic responded. 
“The town of Limoux is not accustomed to harassing its most vulnerable members, whose lifestyle differs from ours and who are confronted with vital problems of maintaining a daily life. Isn’t this a fundamental concern of the human order"?
A subtle and sensitive point, from the perspective of socialist local politics. 

A week later, I was astounded to see ten little camper vehicles, parked along the riverside two blocks from our house. They looked exactly like the gens de voyage campers we had seen up the hill next to the cemetery. RIMBY, right in my own back yard! Had they left the cemetery under pressure? Or were the campers on route back to their permanent improved campsite?  I drove up to the cemetery. The campers were gone and had indeed moved to the riverside. The little cemetery road where they parked had been completely cleaned up. Our tax dollars at work?

The next day I walked along the riverside with the intent of chatting with someone among those campers. You know, something along the lines of, “What’s it like being a Gypsy?” or “How is it living on the road all the time?” I was spared that awkward conversation: the camp was gone. I drove by the permanent site and found it full of camper trailers. The city had finished its annual maintenance. It all ended peaceably: the gens de voyage got their mobile camping sites free of charge (as is their right), and all the locals to express their opinions (as is their right).  French sociology in action. 

That’s the news from Limoux. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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