France: Sarkozy's tough and toothless war

Community policing, French style. A CRS (riot police) officer.
Community policing, French style. A CRS (riot police) officer.
15 September 2010 – Spiked (London)

The expulsion of the Roma is not a simple case of racism, but rather a policy that betrays the profound crisis of the French Republic, argues an English civil liberties campaigner.

President Nicolas Sarkozy’s expulsion of the Roma has sparked uproar both outside and inside France. Of course, the images of French police clearing Roma camps are shocking and objectionable: some 40 camps have been emptied and 700 people threatened with expulsion. Yet this campaign is not the product of some racist or aggressive complex on the part of the French president; instead, it is the result of the peculiar travails of the French state.

The French state was the most centralised in Europe; it turned bureaucracy into an art, constructing an intricate web of elite civil service institutions that ran from the presiding president down to the mayor in every town or village. Now, the French state has been severely weakened. There are many regions – known as ‘sensitive areas’ – occupied largely by immigrant populations, where the state has little or no presence and the police enter only heavily armed.

In these areas there is always a latent tension, ready to blow. It is just such an incident that lay behind the Roma expulsion. On 16 July, a young Roma drove through a checkpoint in Saint Aignan (Loire), carrying a policeman on his bonnet. As he passed through a subsequent checkpoint he was shot by the police. The following day, 50 Roma went on the rampage with axes, destroying a police station and other government buildings. It was in response to this incident that Sarkozy attacked a ‘certain kind of behaviour among the travelling people’ and said that residents of illegal camps would be evicted.

Twice as many Roma in Spain as in France

Another incident led to Sarkozy’s second high-profile summer initiative: his plan to strip nationality from French people ‘of foreign origin’ who commit serious crimes. This started after the police shot an armed robber in Grenoble, sparking several nights of rioting in the city’s working-class and immigrant district. ‘It’s Beirut! I swear it’s Beirut!’, exclaimed a local woman as police cars screeched by and helicopters hung overhead. Similar escalations threaten to occur at any moment in many areas of France. Even something as trivial as the police arresting a motorcyclist can lead to an escalating chain of events, where there is a pitched battle between people and the police.

These events are not the product of the inherent disorderliness of immigrant populations. In fact, there are nearly twice as many Roma in Spain as in France (725,000 compared with 400,000), and even 300,000 Roma in the UK. But only in France is there extreme tension between Roma and the state, and this is without doubt a product of the French state and its relations – or lack of – with immigrant populations.

Unlike Britain, France has failed to form new intermediary state institutions around government concern for social order. In the UK, the state has developed a veritable armoury of anti-social behaviour institutions, including new local state powers (anti-social behaviour orders, disorder zones, on-the-spot fines); new state officials (community support officers, neighbourhood wardens). While these arguably have little productive purpose, they have succeeded in reinstalling new kinds of contacts between disparate populations and the state, and serve a disciplining function.

Relationship with the sensitive banlieue a militarised one

When Sarkozy tried to bring through ‘local security contracts’, he complained about the woeful uptake: ‘22 signed in 2007, eight in 2008 and one in 2009’, a measure that in the UK would have been gleefully snapped up by local authorities. France has all the impressive architecture of the central state – all those high-class civil service institutions and networks – and yet they are marooned, cut off from society.

Where other attempts to bridge the gap failed, France has increasingly militarised its relationship with the sensitive banlieues. Where Britain has “community support officers” – who wander around in ill-fitting jackets telling people off for dropping their chewing gum – France has an ‘anti-criminal brigade’, which is basically a heavily armed force trained in streetfighting.

But people in sensitive areas look upon such armed brigades almost as a foreign invading army. It is not just young men who react in this way. ‘Go back home!’, an older woman shouted as lines of police filed through Grenoble. In another incident a mother was arrested for biting the leg of a police officer. These confrontations are literally ‘war’ between the heavy state machinery and a disconnected population.

A presidential gesture without real effect on people’s daily lives

As sociologist Denis Muzet pointed out, the Roma function primarily as symbols of disorder against which the state declares war. Meanwhile, the law stripping nationality from French people ‘of foreign origin’ demonstrates that it is specifically hostility towards the state that is at issue. Crimes for which people would be de-nationalised primarily involve attacks on state representatives, not only police officers but also other public officials.

Throughout the summer, Sarkozy and his ministers took part in media events whereby the state enacted a retaking of lost terrain. Interior minister Brice Hortefeux personally patrolled the streets of Grenoble with night police, as if he would personally bring back security to the nation. Images of the state reclaiming lawless areas were aimed at the general public. Hortefeux said as much in an interview: ‘In reality, the engaged action under the authority of the president of the Republic brings the French people together.’

The attacks on symbols of disorder – Roma or delinquents – are directed towards the majority, from whom the state is also estranged, but the trouble, as Muzet points out, is that this is just a ‘presidential gesture without real effect on people’s daily lives’. The opinion polls barely flickered throughout the summer offensive. Because it was just a performance that the French people watched on TV, it did not move them. The main result of these symbolic attacks is to further aggravate relations between the state and minorities, and to accentuate the distance between police forces and the people.

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