Romeo Franz: Europe must be free of discrimination and racism
The following is an interview with Romeo Franz, a 46-year-old composer, pianist and violinist. He founded his first band, Romeo Franz Ensemble, in 1991 and in 2012 composed the piece "Mare Manuschenge", which has been played to commemorate the Romani victims of Nazism ever since.
In 2011 Franz joined the Green Party in Germany and became an active politician. Prior to that he had been the chair of the Rhineland-Palatinate State Union of German Sinti and a member of the board of the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma.
Franz ran in sixth place on the Green Party ticket during the elections to parliament on 22 September 2013. Unfortunately, he did not fight his way through to a seat in the Federal Assembly.
Q: What was the event or the moment that pushed you to become an active politician, i.e., to cross the line of engagement as an ordinary citizen within the options afforded by civil society?
A: I have long been active as a defender of civil rights and as vice-chair of the Rhineland-Palatinate State Union of German Sinti. Thanks to that activity I have accumulated a great deal of experience and worked with people who found themselves in difficult situations, who needed aid, etc. I learned a great deal during that period. I decided to join a political party when I learned that as a member of the Union I could achieve only limited changes - I wasn't going to get any further. One is always in the position of a supplicant, one can't decide anything for oneself. With time I decided it couldn't go on like this, that I wasn't going to achieve anything more this way. I decided to get involved in politics. Thanks to my work in the Union I had a great deal of experience with various parties and I had formed a precise image of each of them. The Green Party was the party with which I had the most in common.
Q: So there wasn't one specific moment when you decided to go into politics?
A: I gradually came to that decision. I had always sensed it was an option, for example, when I applied for support for various projects in the area of education, both for specific groups of people and for the general area of intercultural education. For years I applied annually for opportunities but none of my projects were ever approved. Because of this I was unable to implement those projects or to work with people, with the youth... It became clear to me that I was running up against a certain barrier.
Q: Why did you choose the Green Party in particular? In the Czech Republic, the Greens did not make it into the lower house this last time. Could you explain your decision to our Czech readers from the German point of view?
A: In Germany the Greens do get into Parliament. This is a party that has been in existence for more than 30 years. In Germany it has built up a good position with its voters. As I said, thanks to my previous work I had accumulated a lot of experience, and the Green Party basically meets my requirements best of all the parties when it comes to handling of the environment, human rights and minority rights. That's why I made the rather quick decision to join the Greens.
Q: In the Czech Republic there was also a total of nine Romani men and women on the Green Party candidate lists.
A: That is a testament to the fact that the Greens are a very important party for this minority, one that openly and sincerely represents their interests. Those candidates' decisions are clear proof of this.
Q: Prior to the elections, anyone going to the Green Party website in your electoral district of Ludwigshafen would have immediately seen your photograph. You were in a good slot on the candidate list, sixth place, even though you have only been a Green Party member for three years. Why is that?
A: It may be because I am rather well-known as a musician and thanks to my political activity both in German and here in my region. Thanks to my activism, I have a certain amount of experience. I think that it also why. Another thing is, and this is absolutely true, that during the elections within the party those from my electoral district voted as one. That means that in our party there was an enormous level of acceptance and a lot of political will to nominate a representative of the Sinti as a parliamentary candidate. Two weeks later, when I applied for a specific place on the candidate list during the state conference, I made it to third place among the men. That means the Greens have great understanding for the Sinti minority. They express this by not being ashamed to advocate for that minority's rights, by having Sinti representatives in their ranks, and by being open about this! I believe this is a fabulous message for society.
Q: Do you believe the Greens in Germany don't have to be concerned they might lose voters when they choose a Romani or Sinti person as a candidate?
A: In Germany the Green Party doesn't have to be concerned about that. The party is known for its efforts to protect the environment and for very strongly advocating for minority rights. Every Green voter knows this.
Q: That relates to my next question, which is that I see the Greens in Germany also have other minority representatives - the best example is that of the party co-chair, Cem Özdemir, who has Turkish roots. However, there are also representatives of minorities who have not lived in Germany as long as the Sinti have. Why are the Sinti so underrepresented in politics?
A: Here's the thing: We Sinti have been living in Germany for more than 600 years. Our lives were very strongly affected by the Holocaust. However, even after the Second World War we never received much recognition. The German Roma and Sinti who returned to Germany after the war were not accepted with open arms, on the contrary, they continued to be discriminated against. In Western Germany, the people responsible for caring for Holocaust survivors were often the very same people who had previously organized the transports [to the concentration camps]. The genocide of the Sinti was not recognized until 1981 by Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, and he did so because Romani Rose and other survivors went on a hunger strike at Dachau. As a minority, we have lost a lot of time because we did not participate in the life of society for a very long time. First we built up an active civic base. The Central Council of German Sinti and Roma, as well as the individual state unions, have been making sure those afflicted by the Holocaust received compensation, even though some people are still waiting to this day for their compensation. Now the Sinti and the German Roma are slowly acquiring enough self-confidence and even have the will to engage in politics. That's what is nice about my candidacy - thanks to this I have already convinced several Sinti to join democratic parties and be active in politics.
Q: How many German Sinti and Romani politicians do you know of whom you have inspired? Are you a model for them?
A: I know four Sinti and one Rom who are members of German political parties. One is in the Christian Democratic Union, one with the Social Democrats, one with the Left party and two are in the Green Party. I think this is a brilliant thing. I also have a counterpart in Bulgaria named Orhan Tahir who is a lawyer and Green Party member. He also ran for parliament just after I paid him a visit in Bulgaria this April. The signal that it is good to engage in politics is enjoying a good response within our minority. Others would like to achieve something are also joining us. I get e-mails and reports on Facebook in which people congratulate me and say they are getting to work as well. I consider this attention-worthy and I believe that my candidacy has been really successful for that reason alone, irrespective of the outcome.
Q: How are non-German Romani people faring in Germany, for example, those who have immigrated there from eastern or southern Europe? I read somewhere that you want to represent them in politics as well, but that you want to make it clear that non-German Romani people have had different fates and have different needs than German Sinti and Roma. If you, as a German Sinto, speak for Romani immigrants, won't that lead to further homogenization?
A: I see it a bit differently. The concept of Sinti-and-Roma exists in Germany only. Because we have this dual labeling, it generates the feeling that there are no differences between Romani people and Sinti, that we are a homogenous group, but that is truly a mistake. For example, the German Sinti have been living in Germany for more than 600 years, but the German Roma have been here 200 years. We also have Romani people who came here after WWII, or after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989-1990. They are not part of the German Roma and Sinti, there are many different, nationally heterogeneous groups. Each of them is a national minority who has lived in some other country for as long as 800 years - for example, in Serbia. In those countries they have their own Romani culture, just as we in Germany have the Sinti culture. Their language is also different. The majority society must be aware of these differences. It is not possible to automatically, immediately equate the issue of immigrant Romani people with that of German Sinti. I think this is often done and it produces further stigmatization for everyone. That is why I see it as my task to explain to people that there are differences between these groups.
Q: Integration and migration policy is your area, but even that isn't immediately self-explanatory - neither you nor your family are immigrants, if I may put it that way. That's not your direct personal experience.
A: I see my personal task as being to help people, and not just because they are Germans, or Romani people, or Sinti. I want to support immigrants and those who are newly arriving in Germany. I have this need because, thanks to my own adventures and experiences I have learned how horrible it is to have to undergo exclusion from society and racism. That is why I have given myself the aim of standing up for all minorities who are discriminated against or pushed outside of society without the opportunity to participate in it. I do not personally like the term "integration". I prefer to speak of inclusion, because that captures must better what minorities or socially excluded people basically want to achieve. They wish to be part of society, its rightful members.
Q: What do your family and your parents say to your candidacy?
A: My family really likes what I do. My family is one of the factors thanks to which I cultivated an interest in politics. My family members basically led me to this through the way they lived - they were my model. Nazism was a perpetual topic in our home. My family lost six relatives during the Holocaust and - how should I put it? We are obligated to those people in a certain way. On the basis of those events and experiences, I became interested in politics. That's why my family supports me so fully, approves of what I am doing, and gives me strength - and that is very important.
Q: As I said, we also have Romani men and women who have run for Parliament in the Czech Republic. In conclusion, I'd like to ask whether you would like to send them a message?
A: With great pleasure! I'd like to tell them that I consider it brilliant that they are politically active. I hope they stick together so we can jointly contribute to the development of European society. Europe must be a place for everyone and must be free of discrimination and racism.
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