Why Sarkozy has declared war on his own population

The expulsion of the Roma is not a simple case of racism. Rather, this act of aggression speaks to the profound crisis of the French Republic.

Josie Appleton

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President Nicolas Sarkozy’s expulsion of the Roma has sparked uproar both outside and inside France, with condemnation from everyone from Pope Benedict XVI to the United Nations, and marches last Saturday in 140 French towns and cities against ‘hate and xenophobia’.

Of course, the images of French police clearing the Roma camps are shocking and objectionable: some 40 camps have been emptied and 700 people threatened with expulsion. Yet this clearing of the Roma 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 centre of the presiding president down to the mayor in every town or village, adorned with the flag of the Republic. Now, the French state has been severely weakened. There are many regions – known as quartiers sensibles or ‘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, which is easily sparked by a local incident. It is just such an incident that lay behind the Roma expulsion. On 16 July, a young Roma man drove through a checkpoint in Saint Aignan (Loire), carrying a policeman on his bonnet, and 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.

Another incident around the same time led to the other high-profile summer initiative from Sarkozy: his plan to strip nationality from French people ‘of foreign origin’ who had committed serious crimes. This started after the police shooting of an armed robber in a district of Grenoble; there was first a car chase and then the robbers opened fire on the police car, and the police opened fire back. The death of the robber sparked several nights of rioting in the working-class and immigrant area of Grenoble. ‘It’s Beirut! I swear it’s Beirut!’, exclaimed a local woman as police cars screeched by and helicopters hung overhead.

These were two particular incidents, but a similar escalation is threatening 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. In some cases this leads right to the president of the Republic himself who steps in to declare ‘war’ and introduce some measure in reprisal.

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 there are in France (725,000 compared with 400,000), and there are even 300,000 Roma in the UK. But it is only in France that there is extreme tension between Roma and the state, and this is without doubt a product of the French state and its relations – or lack of relations – with immigrant populations.

‘Today, integration has broken down’, admitted a Parisian deputy from Sarkozy’s Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) in Le Monde. ‘The Republic has lost its values. Who can deny that France is disorientated?’ Of course, the failure of social integration and the loss of national identity has afflicted the rest of Europe, too. Yet there are a few distinguishing features of the French situation.

First, France – unlike Britain – has failed to form new intermediary state institutions around the elite’s concern for social order. In the UK, the central state has developed a veritable armoury of anti-social behaviour institutions, including new local state powers to discipline the population (anti-social behaviour orders, disorder zones, on-the-spot fines); new state officials (community support officers, neighbourhood wardens); new bodies (community safety partnerships). 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.

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’. This is exactly the kind of measure that in the UK would have been gleefully snapped up by local authorities, where by the third year there would have been hundreds signed up. So 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.

The peculiar tension results from the contrast between the heavy architecture of the centralised state par excellence and a population with which it has little relationship. Where other attempts to bridge the gap failed, the French state has increasingly militarised its relationship with the sensitive banlieues. Where Britain created new police forces of community support officers – who wander around in ill-fitting jackets telling people off for dropping their chewing gum – France created an ‘anti-criminal brigade’, which is basically a heavily armed force trained in streetfighting.

On a day-to-day basis, the French state has withdrawn from sensitive areas, but then it periodically sends in heavily armed forces, almost as a guerrilla attack. The people of the area look upon the police 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.

As the sociologist Denis Muzet pointed out in a column in Le Monde, the Roma function primarily as symbols of disorder (along with the delinquents, scum, scoundrels, and all the other colourful Sarkozian terms for disorderly individuals) against which the state declares war. Meanwhile, the law stripping nationality from French people ‘of foreign origin’ was an attempt to exile hostile and disorderly elements. It is specifically hostility towards the state that is at issue: the crimes for which people would be de-nationalised primarily involve attacks on state representatives, not only police officers but also other public officials in pursuit of their duties.

Throughout the summer, Sarkozy and his ministers took part in media performances, whereby the state enacted a retaking of lost terrain. The interior minister Brice Hortefeux personally patrolled the streets of Grenoble with night police, as if he and the president personally would bring back ‘security’ to the French nation. More recently it was as if Sarkozy was himself dispatching the Roma on to buses and thereby exorcising the forces of disorder. The images of the state taking back these lawless areas were aimed at the general public; they were attempts to restore public faith in the state and to reconnect leaders with the mass of French people.

The interior minister said as much in an interview on 23 August: ‘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 – the minority Roma or delinquents – are directed towards the French majority, from whom the state is also estranged. The discontent of mainland France is more likely to be expressed in a vote for the National Front than in rioting, but it is nevertheless strongly felt by the French elite. Warlike imagery abounds here, too: commentators describe Sarkozy as ‘reconquering the electorate’.

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.

Of course, this aggravation is justified. The vast majority of the Roma had done absolutely nothing wrong; their rounding up was a senseless act of state aggression. It is illiberal and against all principles of equality to strip nationality from French people ‘of foreign origin’ who have committed certain crimes that come with a prison sentence of five or more years, when a French person of good Gallic stock would simply serve their time and rejoin society.

Crises in French state authority have arisen periodically throughout French history. Many times the armed forces of the state have lost control and people have taken back the streets. At some of these points – 1968, back to the 1871 Paris Commune and the Revolution itself – these sometimes little-organised masses bore a radical potential that was the inspiration of Europe. Is that the case today?

I wish it were – but so far there is no saving glimmer of potential in the pitched battles in French cities. On the rioters’ side, it is sheer lawlessness and a pure rejection of state authority – and on the state’s side, the sheer demonstration of symbolic authority. This lack of redemption means that the battlelines are likely to be hardened in the sensitive areas over the coming months. And it also means that more innocent groups – like the Roma – will fall victim to the state’s need to demonstrate its authority.

Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club, a civil liberties campaign group. Email her {encode=”Josie.Appleton@manifestoclub.com” title=”here”}.

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