Right-wing French Presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy has built his political reputation on “getting tough with crime”. Since crime is generally unpopular, that seems an unbeatable theme. But Sarkozy’s approach to the problem is highly controversial in France, where it goes against established cultural norms in ways that can be called “American”. This approach can be summed up by Sarko’s “three Rs”: racaille, religion and repression.
The word has stuck to him, and he accepts it as part of his political persona. His notorious use of the expression “racaille”, best translated as “dregs”, occurred on the very eve of the spectacular car-burning riots that brought world media attention to France’s working class high-rise banlieues.
On October 25, 2005, publicity-hungry Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy’s media event of the day was a visit to a high-rise neighborhood in the Paris suburb of Argenteuil, accompanied by police and a swarm of photographers. Some local youths shouted insults and lobbed a few plastic bottles in his direction. A woman leaned out of a nearby window and shouted at the Interior Minister, “when are you going to rid us of these racailles ?” Sarkozy shot back: “You want us to rid you of these racailles ? Very well, we’re going to get rid of them for you!”
Here Sarkozy was speaking the local language, using a descriptive term current in the youth culture itself. But use of the term racaille was widely considered unbecoming for a government minister. Worse, it was characteristic of Sarkozy’s aggressive exploitation of social problems to project his own tough guy image. Although Sarko surely was not referring to all local youth as racailles — on the same visit, he attempted to engage in dialogue with young residents — the interpretation of the incident as indiscriminate served to bond local youth together against him–and against the police under his orders. It was blamed for helping to ignite the riots that inflamed the banlieues. In short, his spectacular approach was widely judged to be highly counterproductive.
Another public light on Sarkozy’s attitude toward delinquents was shed by an interview he gave to Michel Onfray, which appeared in the April edition of the magazine Philosophie. It may be that only in France could an interview in a philosophy magazine have an impact on a presidential election. In any case, this one did, and everyone knows someone who switched to the centrist candidate François Bayrou after reading or hearing about that interview.
In their exchange, Onfray, currently France’s most fashionable young philosopher, expressed the prevailing French left-wing view that “we are fashioned not by our genes, but by our environment, by the family and socio-historic conditions in which we evolve”.
Sarkozy replied: “I don’t agree with you. I would tend, for my part, to think that a pedophile is born a pedophile ; and moreover, it is a problem that we do not know how to treat that pathology. There are 1,200 to 1,300 young people who commit suicide in France each year, and it is not because their parents didn’t take proper care of them! But because they had a genetic frailty  Circumstances are not responsible for everything, the share of the innate is immense.”
Now, in purely scientific terms, this polarization between innate and environmental determinism is mere loose talk. Both factors come into play, in proportions that are far from being understood. Of the two men, Onfray was the more extreme in his certainty. But it is Sarkozy who has responsibility in the real world. His opinion that pedophilia is genetically determined was especially shocking because of the way it fits his methods of combatting crime. If the “bad guys” are born that way, and circumstances don’t matter, there is no point in trying to improve social conditions to prevent crime. The only thing to do is to catch the bad guys. And if there is to be prevention, it could take the form of “genetic profiling” of potential criminals to catch them before they do anything.
Sarkozy has in the past suggested legislation to diagnose “behavioral disorders” in children as young as three. This raises fears that he would turn France into a police state, with files on the “genetically flawed”.
Such an approach to crime is consistent with a policy of cutting social spending and giving all power to financial capital in an unrestrained “free market” economy. Such an economy widens the gap between rich and poor, breaking down the social fabric while inciting desire for consumer goods. That is the economic policy advocated by Sarkozy.
A related area in which Sarkozy is more American than French is religion.
Here the difference is profound, rooted in history. France is a nation that survived bloody religious wars between Catholics and Protestants, followed by Catholic reaction, followed by the enlightenment and social revolution. The result of a complex history has been to liberate both politics and–more profoundly–morality from attachment to religious belief. The United States offers space to all sorts of religious beliefs and practices. In contrast, France offers large, respectable space to people with no religious belief whatever. The major role accorded philosophy in the school system helps to separate moral and ethical considerations from religious tenets and enticements.
Sarkozy “the Hungarian-American” seems to understand none of this. Notably, he is foreign to any intellectual rigor, either for or against religion. He is in favor of religion not because it is true, but because it is useful especially for the underprivileged. In fact, it is not religion he favors, but a vague ” religiosity” without intellectual foundations.
For Sarkozy, oblivious to theological complexities, “religion” boils down to “hope for survival after death”, the “hope to have, after dying, a perspective of self-realization in eternity”. By calling for “recognition of a universal right to hope”, he transforms belief in life after death into a sort of “human right”. (See Nicolas Sarkozy, La République, les religions, l’espérance, Le Cerf, Paris, 2006.)
It is a right French people have not been clamoring for. A 1992 poll showed that 62 per cent of French did not belief in an afterlife. This includes a good number of professed Christians.
But Sarkozy believes such a belief is good for people. Or to be more precise, he suggests that hope in an afterlife is good for people who don’t have much to hope for in this one: “Throughout France, and above all in the banlieues where all sorts of despair are concentrated, it is altogether preferable that young people can have spiritual hope rather than to have in their heads, as sole ‘religions’, violence, drugs and money.”
Parenthetical remark: Sarkozy has also said that in a “meritocracy”, ” merit” must be rewarded by a lot of money, “otherwise, what’s the point ?” Apparently, he can scarcely conceive of any motivation for doing a good job other than money. In his own milieu, that is. But for youth in the banlieues, a “religion of money” might lead to activities such as drug dealing. For them, it is better to place their hopes in an afterlife.
And any afterlife will do. He sees this “hope” as the common denominator of all religions, at least the monotheistic ones, and dismisses the details separating them. He recommends a religious education of young people stressing “the convergence of religious messages” around the “spiritual fact: there exists a life after death, a sole and unique God, a meaning to history, a possibility of redemption, a natural morality common to all civilisations with reference to an absolute”.
Not averse to contradiction, Sarkozy also plays up to his conservative Catholic constituency by declaring his unflagging devotion to France’s “2000 years of Christian heritage”.
As Interior Minister, Sarkozy promoted the institutionalization of Islam in France with the establishment of the French Council of the Muslim religion. Islam is now the second largest religion in France and requires recognition. But beyond that, Sarkozy clearly wants a watered-down, luke-warm Islam to provide the banlieues with moral policing. He seems quite unaware of the risks inherent in implicitly turning social problems over to religious institutions–risks of dividing society along ethnic-religious lines and undermining the rationalist values which alone are able to offer a solid common ground to a diverse society.
“Pie in the sky when we die” seems to be the carrot of Sarkozy’s “carrot and stick” approach to the social problems of ethnically mixed, depressed neighborhoods. As for the stick
Nicolas Sarkozy’s principal stock in trade is repression of crime. He claims to be the only one who can provide “security”. However, the evidence indicates that his policies as Interior Minister have been counterproductive, raising the level of violence by needless provocation. The major proof of Sarkozy’s failure is, of course, the banlieue riots of October-November 2005. It is remarkable that he has managed to continue as number one “champion of law and order” after that catastrophic failure, for which his own policies were largely responsible.
A leading criminologist, Sebastian Roché, has carefully analysed both the riots and Sarkozy’s police policies. (See Le Frisson de l’Emeute, Seuil, Paris, 2006.) The conclusions are clear–and confirmed by testimony from ordinary rank and file policemen and their largest trade union, Alliance. Sarkozy’s repressive policies have exacerbated public hatred of the police and made their law enforcement job more difficult.
There is a strong tradition on the French far left of hostility to “les flics” (the cops), who are associated with political repression and violence against innocent persons. During the Mitterrand presidency, police behavior actually improved considerably. The left initiated–too timidly, it seems–a policy of “proximity police”, aimed at making the cop on the beat welcome in troubled neighborhoods. The right denounced these “proximity” police as softy social workers undermining the macho morale of the profession. Sarkozy’s policy was to remove police commissariats from problem banlieues, and instead, when trouble was reported, to send in squads of combat police to round up suspects for questioning. Drug dealers were a prime target.
Sarkozy’s approach to crime is statistical. This fits his philosophy. If criminals are born not made, then they are going to commit crimes, and what matters is to catch them. Even more, it fits his public relations strategy. Police were given quotas of arrests and interrogations. The larger the numbers, the more vigorous the ” war against crime”.
In short, Sarkozy abandoned certain banlieues to bands of minor delinquents, drug dealers and petty thieves (mainly stealing car radios and mobile phones), and then sent in police raids to catch them. Not knowing the neighborhoods, the police raiders got lost and arrested many of the wrong people. They took out their frustration by roughly treating the youth they questioned, especially those of African or North African background. The growing resentment was similar to the hostility that develops against a foreign invading army.
Such was the background of the 2005 banlieue riots.
Both left-wing and right-wing commentators have speculated on the causes based on their own wishes or prejudices. For the left, the sight of youths throwing projectiles at police and setting fire to cars conjured up visions of a new social revolution. For the right, the “barbarians” in the banlieue were probably Muslim fanatics, importing an “intifadah” into France.
There is no solid evidence for either of these hypotheses. The only serious studies carried out indicate negative correlation between riot participation and political conscience. The rioters themselves never developed any political leaders or demands, and after roughly three weeks of photogenic car bonfires, the riots petered out as weather turned colder.
Sebastian Roché argues persuasively that a main motivation of the rioters was the riots themselves: the excitement of out-manoeuvering the police, of impressing themselves and their comrades with their combat skill, of having a hell of a good time. It is characteristic of youth to want to test itself, often by courting danger. Compared to hanging out in dingy apartment hallways, this was challenging adventure. And the riot police–whose ordinary lot is to sit in parked vans waiting for something to happen–also gained personal and professional satisfaction from being in battle. The 2005 banlieue riots were a festival of testosterone. And it all happened without any of the participants being killed. Rich machos pay to go out in the woods and “play war”. The banlieue youth improvised their own free game (with the risk of ending up in jail, however).
The left and right ideological interpretations have both served to mask Sarkozy’s responsibility and failure.
And he has continued with the same policies. Police complain anonymously of the ” quotas” of useless arrests they have to fill, whose only effect is to make themselves hated by the population. The statistics allow Sarko to claim that arrests have increased and crime has decreased. But experts point out that crime has remained relatively stable for a long time, and that if instances of reported theft have decreased, it is partly because manufacturers have made cars and car radios harder to steal. Meanwhile, gratuitous violence against persons has increased–symptomatic, perhaps, of the very sort of “every man for himself” society advocated by Sarkozy.
Sarko’s false security
Human beings are fragile creatures whose need for security is real–both innate and learned. There are different kinds of security. The “hard right” represented by Sarkozy displays infinite concern for the security of victims, or potential victims, of crime. It has scant sympathy for victims of economic insecurity, who are admonished to “work harder and longer” — even in times of job scarcity. Efforts to help those victims are denounced as undeserved “handouts”.
The left, on the contrary, is by definition sensitive to the need for economic security. However, as its political base moves up the socio-economic scale, it has shown little sensitivity to the complaints of people, especially older people, who live in neglected neighborhoods where their daily life is marred by fear of being harassed by petty delinquents.
A reasonable policy is to respect the various dimensions of the legitimate need for security, and to seek realistic ways to improve them all. As for crime, some sort of repression is necessary once a crime is committed. But there is no evidence that repression can eliminate crime. Excessive repression may be counterproductive. The United States is vastly more repressive than France, and violent crime is far more prevalent.
Causes of crime and ways to prevent it are complex and far from evident. But it is reasonable to start with measures designed to create a social environment of mutual respect and consideration, by means of education in the fullest sense, plus opportunities for active integration into the constructive life of society. A policy of enhancing economic security and social equality may be the best way to improve other aspects of security. The Sarkozy approach goes in the opposite direction.
DIANA JOHNSTONE can be reached at email@example.com