France’s feeble Napoleon

The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has been playing rough and tough again, targeting immigrants

In late July, I spent a week with my family, as I do several times a year, in a small flat in the 11th arrondissement in Paris. Fifteen years ago,
I lived in the same neighbourhood in the east of the city when I was a graduate student at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales.

Today, the quartier is much as it was back then, scruffy and boisterous, and still more or less a "citadel of tolerance", as Richard Cobb, the great English historian of Paris, said of the neighbouring district of Belleville, which lies a mile or so to the north. This is where Sephar­dic Jews and Muslims of North African origin live among immigrants from West Africa and "bourgeois bohemian" refugees from more prosperous milieux.

Writing in 1985, Cobb predicted the imminent death of this "traditional Paris", of areas such as Belleville or Ménilmontant, with their mixed populations of "poor Jewish tailors, Algerians and long-limbed Sénégalais". The "middle-class armies" were on the march, and soon, he thought, the capital would become a monoculture reserved for the "very affluent and the very ambitious". As for the traditional "Parisians" themselves, those Jewish tailors and Africans from north and west, they would be banished to Alphaville, Cobb's Godardian shorthand for the vast suburban agglomerations that proliferated beyond the périphérique from the late 1960s on.

He may have underestimated the tenacity of the esprit de quartier in the north-eastern areas of Paris, the combination of familiarity and gossip that was the social glue of these urban villages (it's still there if you know where to look). But Cobb was certainly right about the dystopia that was being assembled beyond the boundaries of Paris proper. He wrote despairingly of the sprawling housing project to the north of the city at Sarcelles, with its "rectangular blocks", "concrete coils" and forbidding walkways. The social cost of this and other grands ensembles was obvious to him: "What can one expect of [them]," Cobb wrote, "other than inarticulate despair, vandalism and teenage violence?"

It was on these same estates that the accu­mulated frustrations of young men, mostly descendants of North African immigrants, excluded by geography, culture and religion from mainstream French life, exploded into violence in the autumn of 2005.

Many of the suburbs or banlieues that burned five years ago were products of administrative fiat. Sarcelles itself, Cobb pointed out, was an "initiative of the Prefecture of Police", while "prefects" (local representatives of central government appointed by the president of the republic himself) were created for several neighbouring areas where tower blocks now adhered to what had previously been small, ragged jumbles of houses - as if, by doing so, new towns could simply be willed into existence.

A "very 18th-century concept", Cobb observed. (The prefectoral corps was created in 1800 by Napoleon Bonaparte, after the coup of the 18 Brumaire the previous year.)

I was reminded of this when, still during our stay, President Nicolas Sarkozy gave the now notorious speech at Grenoble discussed by Nabila Ramdani in her Letter from Paris on page 25. It is worth remembering that the occasion of this address, in which Sarkozy launched a "war on delinquency", was the appointment of a new prefect in the department of Isère, in the south-east. The previous incumbent, Albert Dupuy, had been summarily stripped of his functions after rioting in the Grenoble suburb of Villeneuve earlier that month. He was replaced by Éric Le Douaron, a former head of the French border police who, as Sarkozy put it, had "exercised the highest responsibilities in the area of security".

In April, the president had done the same in the department of Seine-Saint-Denis, north-east of Paris, where he appointed as prefect Christian Lambert, a former director of the CRS (the national riot police). In both cases, he said, the aim was to take "targeted action to ensure that conditions of republican order were restored".

These were provocative appointments, not least because, until now, senior policemen have seldom become prefects. Usually the appointees are chosen from the ranks of the administrative elite, the graduates of the École Nationale d'Administration or the École Nationale de la Magistrature, say. This is because a prefect's responsibilities do not lie solely in the domain of "security" but, as Article 72 of the French constitution puts it, extend to the protection of "national interests, [the carrying out] of administrative checks and [ensuring] respect for the law".


The day after the Grenoble speech, Le Monde devoted the cover story in its weekend magazine to the role of the prefect and the way Sarkozy exploits it. The president's "natural Bonapar­tism", the paper declared, made him particularly adept at "manipulating this [prefects'] army invented by Napoleon". Sarkozy expects "total commitment" from his prefects, and, as the experience of Dupuy showed, if he doesn't get it, the consequences are severe.

This is characteristic of the Sarkozy system of government more generally. It is his style to govern by patronage and to surround himself with those who are indebted to him. As the commentator Bernard Girard points out, the appointments of Le Douaron and Lambert show the importance that Sarkozy attaches to having advisers and collaborators who "owe him everything", and in whom he places the kind of trust he rarely, if ever, shows to his ministers.

In this arrangement, the adviser plays courtier to Sarkozy's prince. But while it certainly allows the president to delegate with confidence (even a politician as hyperactive as Sarkozy cannot be in control of every brief and issue), it also means that his advisers cannot disagree with him without endangering their position. This often leads to grave errors of policy. Girard suggests that the recent victimisation of and punitive measures taken against the Roma are a case in point.

The dismantling of Roma settlements and subsequent deportations of hundreds of them to Bulgaria and Romania, not to mention Sar­kozy's threat to deprive French citizens of "foreign descent" of their nationality if they are found guilty of certain serious crimes, were desperately populist measures intended to shore up the president's waning popularity (a recent Sofres poll put his approval rating at 30 per cent, down from a historic high of 60 per cent). The aim was to shift media attention away from the stories that were dominating the front pages of the newspapers when we arrived in Paris in July: the Liliane Bettencourt affair, in which Sarkozy's labour minister Eric Woerth had been implicated, and the fallout from the mutiny of the French football team at the World Cup in South Africa (a squad, it should be remembered, comprised largely of young black men born and brought up in the banlieues).

However, Sarkozy's wager appears to have failed. As well as attracting predictable criticism from the left, his gamble on "security" has alienated his more conventional constituencies on the right: the Catholic Church and Jewish organisations, previously supportive of the president, have come out in opposition, as have several leading right-of-centre politicians.

The former prime minister Alain Juppé declared that reasonable anxieties about law and order did not legitimate "exaggerated responses barely compatible with our fundamental values", and Dominique de Villepin, foreign minister during the run-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003 and an old rival of Sarkozy's, pointedly reminded the president of Article 1 of the French constitution. This guarantees equality before the law, "without distinction of origin, race or religion". To distinguish, as the president has done, between "French citizens" and "citizens of foreign origin" is to offend against "the republic and against France", said de Villepin.

The terms of de Villepin's rebuke are significant. Earlier this year, when Sarkozy proposed a bill to ban the wearing of the burqa and the niqab in public places, he drew explicitly on the very "republican" conception of citizenship and nationality that he is now accused, by left and right alike, of betraying. This is an idea of "civic", as opposed to ethnic, citizenship that has in fact been in crisis for some years, since long before Sarkozy's attempts to manipulate the electoral cycle by starting a "national debate" on French identity.

“Culture wars"

These arguments over what it means to be French - France's very own "culture wars" - extend back as far as the early 1980s. This was when Cobb was composing his lament for the old Paris, and when the historian Pierre Nora (himself the descendant of North African Jews) began editing Les lieux de mémoire, a multi-­authored work on national memory that was also a defensive effort on behalf of forms of French self-identification that he believed were beginning to unravel.

According to the political theorist Cécile Laborde, this long-running dispute has pitted proponents of the "classical" republican model of citizenship, which entails "integration in a common national culture" (one grounded not in blood or soil, but in the universal values of liberty, equality and fraternity), against those who insist that the model has historically been undermined by ethnic and racial discrimination. The critics reject a republican ideology of "assimilation" that dates back to the Revolution, when the attempt began to create a nation from a fissiparous collection of different peoples, each with its own language. The problem, they argue, is that this ideology leaves no room for any formal, public recognition of the status of ethnic and cultural minorities.

Sarkozy's unwitting achievement this past month is to have united in opposition against him both sides in this long-running intellectual and political dispute. And, with the rentrée politique, his problems will only deepen. On 4 September, tens of thousands of people marched through Paris to protest against the president's security policies. Three days later, there were strikes and demonstrations across France against the government's proposed pension reforms. "Power," Napoleon once said, "is my mistress. I have worked too hard at her conquest to allow anyone to take her away from me." Whether Sarkozy will be able to protect his conquest between now and the election in 2012 remains to be seen.

Jonathan Derbyshire is culture editor of the New Statesman.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, France turns right

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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”


A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.


Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.


Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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