As a parent, you realise children are the future. FRA’s Nicole Romain shares the anxiety she has felt as the mother of a mixed race family living in predominantly white countries. She explains how the Fundamental Rights Charter delivers hope for an inclusive Europe where we all respect and celebrate our differences.
Richard Miron: This is the Fundamentally Right Podcast from the Fundamental Rights Agency, I'm Richard Miron. The FRA is part of the European Union and it provides advice on people's human rights as well as the obligations of the authorities to ensure that people are protected. The FRA's work is based upon the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which came into force 10 years ago in December 2009. In this programme, we're focusing on the personal stories of some of the people who work for the FRA. In their own words, they tell us about the experiences and memories that led them to work in human rights and why the Charter and a particular aspect of it is so important to them.
In this episode, we're featuring Nicole Romain, who's Head of Communications at the FRA. Prior to joining the organisation, Nicole worked as an author and editor. She also was a consultant for Eurofound, an EU agency which is involved in improving living and working conditions across Europe. Her personal story begins with where she comes from, her travels and where that's led her in her life and work.
Nicole Romain: I was always interested in the other and what is different, I mean, if you look at me, indeed, I'm blonde, blue eyed, so in Germany I was one of a lot. And I think that this made me interested in: how is it elsewhere? How do you live in other countries? When I decided in my studies to move to France, literally, I wanted to move to France to learn French. I wanted to go there for a year, but literally I was transported in a completely different way because I moved to southern France, to the Mediterranean coast. So where you have a mix of people, a lot of North Africans, but also, I mean, French people coming from the so-called DOM-TOM, the territories from Outre-mer, which means Guadeloupe, Martinique, La Réunion, but also people of colour, and it's true that the way of life, I really appreciated it. And the kind of stereotype in Germany, everything goes around the clock - I mean everything is timed - and there, suddenly time didn't mean anything.
And that's how I got to appreciate the way people were living in a different way, but also got to appreciate a lot of people from different cultures, and that's how I also met my partner. He was... he's dark, he's half Senegalese. And interestingly, we met in a music shop, in a classical music shop because I was working there to earn money for my studies, and he came in and that's how we sympathised. But in a way, it opened up a completely different lifestyle to me, because he was living with a family, where the father was also black, the children were half-black, half-French, but looked very African as well. And that introduced me to, how you're perceived in a society where the majority is white and then suddenly you're looked at completely differently.
We had been visiting my family in Alsace, because we were on our way to the wedding of my grandfather, so a little bit unusual, but with our six-month-old daughter in the back of the car. And we decided not to take the motorway, thinking it's easier, easier in the sense of travelling, because generally the German motorways in that area always, they always have traffic jams. So we drove over the countryside enjoying ourselves. And then we went over a very small, previous border station between France and Germany - Alsace. And suddenly I had a German customs car behind me - I was driving - and with the blue lights on, so I pulled to the side right away, I stopped. Two customs officers got out, one stayed right away in front of the car with a machine gun directed at us. I was kind of like sitting in the car, we were looking at each other. I mean, we were what? We were 30 years old. This is 1998, where you don't, you didn't have any borders anymore, at least not between France and Germany. And the second one came to the car, looked at us. I mean, we had our passports ready. We pulled them out. I gave them to him because they always go to the driver's side, and so my partner had his French identity card and I had my German passport. He looked at it and then he looked into the car, looked at my partner and said: “Where's your visa?” Silence. My partner looked at him and he said: “But I am a French citizen, I don't need a visa to travel to Germany.” If he had been blond, blue-eyed, there wouldn't have been any question at all and we would have continued on our way. And they just said: “Normal border check,” and then he said: '”Oh, indeed,” but I was shocked by the fact, his job is to check papers in case he thinks there's something dubious going on, and apparently, a white Volvo with a black man, a white woman, was something dubious going over the border because otherwise, he wouldn't, they wouldn't have checked us.
I have three children and this anxiety of literally thinking they look different and something could happen to them, has only come when they became teenagers. When we moved to Vienna and when they grew up, I did alert my son that he needs to watch out and be very careful because if he would do something, he would be the first one to be picked out of a group of friends. He went to watch the final - France against Croatia - a few years ago of the world championship here in Vienna in a bar. And they actually decided to go to a bar where there were a lot of Croatians and I said: “Please watch out. If there's any comment just walk away, don't get involved.” And he looked at me and said: “But mum, I know. I'm aware of it. I always watch out.” So the children do have an awareness that they will not go into a fight or they will avoid fights, and if they experience discriminating or racist behaviour, they would rather walk away than get into it. However, my son loved to play football and he was the best in our family to actually imitate all the nice words he was called on the football pitch, because he was a good goal scorer, and he got really words thrown at him. I mean he only revealed that, I'd say, two or three years ago, I wasn't aware of that. So he kept it for himself as well.
So, some of the feelings I couldn't even have because I didn't know. On the one hand, it makes me really sad because I think that... I mean, I still remember 30 years ago, I was thinking: “Oh, we'll have a European passport by then and there will be no difference anyway.” I mean, I was really thinking we would rather move towards a very inclusive society, but actually it's different today. So, yes, I am anxious and I do alert them. On the other hand, I think working at FRA, my children grew up in a very privileged situation in a certain way. They are with other children from parents coming from various international backgrounds, so they really grow up in a very mixed culture. But what I really like is that in France, where we lived in the countryside, they have their French friends, white, not coloured, because in that village I think we are the only family with people of colour. They don't feel a difference. They felt very safe there.
Richard Miron: Nicole, we heard there all about your upbringing and all about your family and the experiences of your family. We're going to talk about the Title of Dignity from the Charter of Fundamental Rights. This is something that I know that you've reflected upon recently. Tell me about that.
Nicole Romain: One aspect is, being a German citizen you hear about dignity very early on, because the reference to dignity and that human dignity is inviolable is the first Article of the German constitution, which came into place in 1949, and I think I don't have to say exactly why. But when being brought up in Germany, it's something so normal, you learn you have to be respectful towards others. That's how I always perceived the concept of dignity. I know it has other connotations as well about being honourable as well, but for me it is always respectful treatment towards the other and that every human being is equal.
We are all born equal. I mean, this is also what is said in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted in 1948, so just a year before the German constitution was adopted. It's a basic principle for me - in that respect, more principle, I would say, than law. I mean, I started to reflect on it - why did it come into the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which is legally binding.
Thinking about the examples I mentioned earlier, of course, not everybody treats everybody on an equal footing. And when I mean that from merely showing every human being the required respect, we all have our prejudice based on perception, or what we see. For example, a black person in a sweat suit, jogging or running away, gives right away a different connotation than somebody in a suit. My partner told me the story in Paris. The first time - and he was a teenager as old as our youngest son is, 15 years - he got checked by the French police in the underground, and he was in sweat pants and he pulled out his purse to show his ticket for the metro. And the police looked at the purse, which was from Lancel, which is a good make, and said: “Where did you get that one from? That's not yours, is it?” So because he was coloured, in a sweat suit, they assumed he must have pickpocketed it. This, I can see it also with my children today. And this is when I think that dignity as the first Article of the Charter is so important, but not always respected. We look at people and then we may not bring the required respect towards them because we have a certain perception and image of them prior to actually talking to them.
Richard Miron: The question then is you have this articulated in a document, in the Charter. How can you make that phrase, those words, come to life and be meaningful in a way that will ensure that people aren't mistreated, that they are treated with sufficient dignity or the right dignity?
Nicole Romain: I mean, the Charter lays out that it's the prohibition of the most extreme forms of exploitation like slavery, and that all falls under dignity. These are the very extreme forms, I'd say, and those come into law, of course by forbidding the acts and then putting into law what people are not allowed to do. And that needs to be implemented. But I mean, there are many examples today where we have the law and particularly prohibition of slavery, or labour exploitation. I mean, the FRA has worked on that subject, showing that these cases still exist, although we have the legislation which is there in the European Union. So it means that there is a lack in implementation of legislation, and that legislation needs to be better enforced in the various countries where we come across these cases of torture, rape, slavery or severe labour exploitation.
Richard Miron: Do you feel optimistic or pessimistic that this particular Title of the Charter is one that we are progressing towards? Because those things that you mentioned there, unfortunately there is across Europe and elsewhere, we've seen modern day slavery continues to exist and some might even say, unfortunately or tragically, to thrive. We see racism as a phenomenon which appears to be rising up in Europe and we thought we were banishing it. So how do you see the current situation? And in a way, what can the Charter do to redress some of those phenomena and trends that we are seeing?
Nicole Romain: I mean, the Charter itself needs to be implemented within the scope of EU law, which means that the Charter itself directly cannot do anything in the Member States. I mean, it is a legally binding tool and then there is EU legislation which needs to be implemented in the Member States and the Member States need to respect the Charter when they implement EU law. So the fundamental right of dignity needs to be respected. But as any law, it doesn't mean that this is the case across the board.
I mean, you can have legislation and it is still broken - broken in the sense people do not respect it and do not follow it. And one aspect is that the awareness of where legislation is not forcefully implemented, makes it easier to follow up and possibly come to terms with situations where we have slavery, unveil them and then implement the legislation, enforce the legislation where this is the case. There are many instances, I think, where we are still on a path to try to do that, where the legislation is there, but it is not respected.
And then for political reasons, I think there's sensitivity about it. I mean, Jean Ziegler, the Swiss philosopher just said that, for example, the situation – and he's not the only one - in the various hotspots in the EU, in Italy and in Greece is completely inhumane. So in that case, we can say that the first Article of the Charter is not respected and that is where we come into, also into the political mill of it, because there are various interests pulling and of course FRA… What FRA does, is continuously reminding about the fundamental rights challenges with regard to the hotspots, for example, with regard to migrants being exploited in various labour conditions, but the implementation as such comes back to the state authorities, to do something about it, and that is where the Charter provides a legally binding framework.
Richard Miron: And ultimately, it comes down to those same border officials, customs agents as well, understanding that they can presumably, or cannot behave in a particular way towards individuals.
Nicole Romain: It does come back to the individual to behave in line with the Charter and in line with laws - that is true. There are many tools you can provide to border guards on how to ensure that they treat everybody in line with their fundamental rights. But that also requires training because in some stressful situations, I'm pretty sure that this is not easy to always keep in mind and act accordingly. Whereas I would like to say the situation we had with my partner 22 years ago, that was clearly not a stressful situation for the border guard, I'd say, because there was a car which stopped right away. I mean, there were not thousands of people around. So I think there's also a mentality issue which plays a role, but including, I think, education.
Richard Miron: That was Nicole Romain, the Head of Communications at the FRA, giving a personal and professional perspective on the power and importance of dignity in the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights. In other episodes in this series, we'll hear a range of stories, including how growing up behind the Iron Curtain shaped a young girl's outlook on freedom. This podcast has been presented by me, Richard Miron and produced by Anouk Millet. This is an Earshot Strategies production.