Sula Raxhimi on Stewart, 'The Gypsy "Menace": Populism and the New Anti-Gypsy Politics'

Michael Stewart
Enkelejda Sula Raxhimi

Michael Stewart. The Gypsy "Menace": Populism and the New Anti-Gypsy Politics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. xxxviii + 382 pp. $37.57 (paper), ISBN 978-0-231-80127-0; $47.75 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-70428-1.

Reviewed by Enkelejda Sula Raxhimi (Université de Montréal) Published on H-SAE (May, 2014) Commissioned by Michael B. Munnik

Populism, or Playing Extremism by Democratic Rules

The term “menace” often correlates with “danger” and with what Michel Foucault has called the “society [that] must be defended.”[1] Menace, threat, fear, and danger seem to be the keywords used by several political forces, mainly right-wing and populist, that have emerged across Europe in the last decades. Although this is not an exclusively European trend--there has been a resurgence of left-wing populist movements particularly in Latin America but also elsewhere--in Europe, members of these movements have used anti-Roma and anti-immigration discourse in order to enter the political scene and become stronger political actors. Such was the case of Silvio Berlusconi’s political party Forza Italia, which in 2008 promulgated and put into force a “law-decree” (decreto legge) on what was called a “Roma state of emergency” (Stato di emergenza Rom) (p. 82). This decree was nothing less than what Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben defines as a “state of exception”, where the constitution is suspended and in this case the central and local governments operated by law-decrees.[2] Populist discourses based on fear of immigration and the Roma are used by Berlusconi’s rivals, Umberto Bossi’s Northern League (Lega Nord), as well; Nicholas Sarkozy in France capitalized among other things on popular fears in his successful campaign for the presidency in 2007; and the main concerns of the xenophobic and popular National Front (Front National) in France have been security, migration, and the Roma. The essays in the book were first featured at a 2009 conference sponsored by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) held at the University College London.

Michael Stewart’s collection of essays shows that populism and racial and discriminatory stands against the Roma are becoming popular among the recent European Union (EU) members of eastern Europe. This political voice is expressed by the Jobbik Party in Hungary, the National Guard in Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic’s Workers’ Party. Several authors in this collection, on the one hand, rightly observe that the growing spectrum of right-wing political parties employ discourses based on the notions of “fear” and “danger” that the Roma and immigration represent for the majority populations. They also show, on the other hand, that the growing populist political parties criticize corrupt governing elites, failed social policies, and a growing gap between the people and the political elites. Their growing influence unfolds a political crisis in the midst of an economic one--a crisis of political representation, where the distance between the people and their democratically elected leaders keeps growing and the former no longer feel represented by the latter. Populist political forces use precisely these spaces of crisis to argue that “society must be defended,” to increase their popularity at the expense of another group, and ultimately to gain a large-enough constituency to allow them to achieve power. Hence, these populist and extremist forces target and alienate others, the undesirables, in our case the Roma. This discourse recalls Foucault’s idea of bio-politics, which, as Agamben notes in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1998), flourishes exactly by creating more outlaws and scapegoats. That leads us to ask whether populism and extremism are becoming increasingly the new ways to play politics by democratic rules.

Although political forces that draw on populism and anti-Roma, anti-minority, and anti-migrant policies have grown, there is little scholarly work engaged with these movements and even less so with the everyday consequences of these political movements on the life of the targeted populations. Hence, the timeliness of this book is to be appreciated. The wave of populism and xenophobia is currently cresting high across Europe in the midst of its economic insecurity and crisis. Yet the book demonstrates that “the anti-Roma politics today are not only, not simply, but are only barely the product of economic crisis” (p. 9). The roots of such policies can be found in the nature and the social bases of the new populist politics.

The book discusses precisely how populism and anti-Gypsy policies are used to gain power and how the Roma have become scapegoats in an intolerant Europe. Nevertheless, one should not confuse categories of immigrants with the Roma in Europe, as occasionally happens in the essays in this book. The Roma of Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, etc., are EU citizens; specifically, they are citizens that Europe does not want. The essays show that the Roma are welcome neither in the old western Europe nor in former Communist countries. Therefore, the rejection of the Roma shows the tension between the national and transnational European politics and the limits of the European political project. 

The Gypsy "Menace" is organized into three parts. The first presents a broad perspective and discusses the national politics of some European countries in relation to the Roma. Contributors examine anti-Gypsy politics and policies, showcasing new forms of social and political exclusion of Roma in Hungary, Italy, France, the Czech Republic, and Bulgaria. They try to unpack the intricate relationships between state policies, the rise of anti-Roma sentiments, and the manner in which populist movements capitalize on both. At the same time, these chapters demonstrate that the specificities of anti-Gypsy policies are context related, while showing their continuities and changes over time.

The second part discusses four case studies from Hungary, the Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, and Romania. These chapters display several cases of violence against the Roma, showing that the hostility, often driven by political discourses, toward this group has proliferated across Europe. The third part provides a set of policy recommendations to overcome this situation. Although the book reflects a human rights viewpoint throughout by articulating several cases of violation of Roma rights, this section in particular subscribes to a more explicit activist perspective by proposing solutions.

The book does not introduce theoretical novelties nor does it further develop concepts like “populism” or “populist-integralism.” Its importance lies in revealing that several current policies are discriminatory, exclusionary, and conducive to more violence and marginalization for the Roma. It also shows that anti-Roma sentiments among the majority populations have become a new way for extremist groups to enter the political scene in several European countries. In addition, the interdisciplinary contributions make this collection relevant to a wide audience. It will be valuable to scholars in the field of Romani studies; to undergraduate and graduate students in political sciences, sociology, and more broadly in social sciences; and to Roma activists and human rights groups.   


[1]. Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, trans. David Macey (New York: Picador, 1997) 259.

[2]. Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 104.

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Citation: Enkelejda Sula Raxhimi. Review of Stewart, Michael, The Gypsy "Menace": Populism and the New Anti-Gypsy Politics. H-SAE, H-Net Reviews. May, 2014. URL:

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