The fate of French Gypsies was unusual - and by the horrific standards of the time, less devastating than elsewhere in Europe.
Gypsies from other Nazi-occupied countries were sent en masse to death camps: According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, between 196,000 and 220,000 Gypsies were killed in the Holocaust.
France kept Gypsies in its own camps. The Nazis did not ask for them to be handed over, and only several hundred French Gypsies ended up in death camps. By contrast, about 75,000 Jews were deported from France, of whom only 2,500 survived.
Marie-Christine Hubert, a historian who co-authored a book about the Gypsies’ wartime fate, said the French rounded up 6,500 Gypsies and other wanderers for internment but were not “zealous” about tracking down the rest.
The French internment camps were not death camps, but food was scarce, disease was rampant, and many died untimely deaths. The last Gypsies were released in late May 1946, even after Nazi collaborators were freed, Ms. Hubert says.
For years, the camps were largely forgotten. Many Gypsies were afraid to discuss the ordeal, and because they had a mostly oral tradition, they didn’t put their stories to paper. Many of those still alive are reluctant to discuss the war.
France has had a difficult time coming to terms with its crimes under Vichy. It wasn’t until 1995 that then-President Jacques Chirac made history by acknowledging that France bore responsibility for deporting Jews, breaking with the official position that Vichy was not the French state.
Gypsy activists have promoted this year as one of remembrance about the internment. Awareness has grown, too, thanks to a recent documentary and a feature film addressing the Gypsies’ wartime fate.
France’s veterans minister acknowledged in July that the Gypsies had been victims of “racist crimes by the French state.” It was a long-awaited speech - so Gypsies felt even more betrayed when Mr. Sarkozy launched his Gypsy crackdown just days later.
Officially, the French government refers to French Gypsies who still lead an itinerant lifestyle as “gens du voyage” - traveling people - a status that applies, in theory, to many people with no fixed address. Several hundred thousand people are thought to fall into the category.