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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“I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”: why aren’t we taking mental health sick days?

Some employees with mental health problems fake reasons for taking days off, or struggle in regardless. What should companies be doing differently?

“I would go to the loo and just cry my eyes out. And sometimes colleagues could hear me. Then I would just go back to my desk as if nothing had happened. And, of course, no one would say anything because I would hide it as well as I could.”

How many times have you heard sobbing through a work toilet door – or been the person in the cubicle?

Jaabir Ramlugon is a 31-year-old living in north London. He worked in IT for four years, and began having to take time off for depressive episodes after starting at his company in 2012. He was eventually diagnosed with borderline personality disorder last January.

At first, he would not tell his employers or colleagues why he was taking time off.

“I was at the point where I was in tears going to work on the train, and in tears coming back,” he recalls. “Some days, I just felt such a feeling of dread about going into work that I just physically couldn’t get up ... I wouldn’t mention my mental health; I would just say that my asthma was flaring up initially.”

It wasn’t until Ramlugon was signed off for a couple of months after a suicide attempt that he told his company what he was going through. Before that, a “culture of presenteeism” at his work – and his feeling that he was “bunking off” because there was “nothing physically wrong” – made him reluctant to tell the truth about his condition.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem; the way they treated me amplified that”

Eventually, he was dismissed by his company via a letter describing him as a “huge burden” and accusing him of “affecting” its business. He was given a dismissal package, but feels an alternative role or working hours – a plan for a gradual return to work – would have been more supportive.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem. The way they treated me definitely amplified that, especially with the language that they used. The letter was quite nasty because it talked about me being a huge burden to the company.”

Ramlugon is not alone. Over three in ten employees say they have experienced mental health problems while in employment, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Under half (43 per cent) disclose their problem to their employer, and under half (46 per cent) say their organisation supports staff with mental health problems well.

I’ve spoken to a number of employees in different workplaces who have had varying experiences of suffering from mental ill health at work.


Taking mental health days off sick hit the headlines after an encouraging message from a CEO to his employee went viral. Madalyn Parker, a web developer, informed her colleagues in an out-of-office message that she would be taking “today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health – hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100 per cent”.

Her boss Ben Congleton’s reply, which was shared tens of thousands of times, personally thanked her – saying it’s “an example to us all” to “cut through the stigma so we can bring our whole selves to work”.

“Thank you for sending emails like this,” he wrote. “Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health – I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organisations.”

Congleton went on to to write an article entitled “It’s 2017 and Mental Health is still an issue in the workplace”, arguing that organisations need to catch up:

“It’s 2017. We are in a knowledge economy. Our jobs require us to execute at peak mental performance. When an athlete is injured they sit on the bench and recover. Let’s get rid of the idea that somehow the brain is different.”

But not all companies are as understanding.

In an investigation published last week, Channel 5 News found that the number of police officers taking sick days for poor mental health has doubled in six years. “When I did disclose that I was unwell, I had some dreadful experiences,” one retired detective constable said in the report. “On one occasion, I was told, ‘When you’re feeling down, just think of your daughters’. My colleagues were brilliant; the force was not.”

“One day I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”

One twenty-something who works at a newspaper echoes this frustration at the lack of support from the top. “There is absolutely no mental health provision here,” they tell me. “HR are worse than useless. It all depends on your personal relationships with colleagues.”

“I was friends with my boss so I felt I could tell him,” they add. “I took a day off because of anxiety and explained what it was to my boss afterwards. But that wouldn’t be my blanket approach to it – I don’t think I’d tell my new boss [at the same company], for instance. I have definitely been to work feeling awful because if I didn’t, it wouldn’t get done.”

Presenteeism is a rising problem in the UK. Last year, British workers took an average of 4.3 days off work due to illness – the lowest number since records began. I hear from many interviewees that they feel guilty taking a day off for a physical illness, which makes it much harder to take a mental health day off.

“I felt a definite pressure to be always keen as a young high-flyer and there were a lot of big personalities and a lot of bitchiness about colleagues,” one woman in her twenties who works in media tells me. “We were only a small team and my colleague was always being reprimanded for being workshy and late, so I didn’t want to drag the side down.”

Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which was then changed to anxiety and depression, she didn’t tell her work about her illness. “Sometimes I struggled to go to work when I was really sick. And my performance was fine. I remember constantly sitting there sort of eyeballing everyone in mild amusement that I was hiding in plain sight. This was, at the time, vaguely funny for me. Not much else was.

“One day I just felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen so I locked myself in the bathroom for a bit then went home, telling everyone I had a stomach bug so had to miss half the day,” she tells me. “I didn’t go in the next day either and concocted some elaborate story when I came back.”

Although she has had treatment and moved jobs successfully since, she has never told her work the real reason for her time off.

“In a small company you don’t have a confidential person to turn to; everyone knows everyone.”

“We want employers to treat physical and mental health problems as equally valid reasons for time off sick,” says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at the mental health charity Mind. “Staff who need to take time off work because of stress and depression should be treated the same as those who take days off for physical health problems, such as back or neck pain.”

She says that categorising a day off as a “mental health sick day” is unhelpful, because it could “undermine the severity and impact a mental health problem can have on someone’s day-to-day activities, and creates an artificial separation between mental and physical health.”

Instead, employers should take advice from charities like Mind on how to make the mental health of their employees an organisational priority. They can offer workplace initiatives like Employee Assistance Programmes (which help staff with personal and work-related problems affecting their wellbeing), flexible working hours, and clear and supportive line management.

“I returned to work gradually, under the guidance of my head of department, doctors and HR,” one journalist from Hertfordshire, who had to take three months off for her second anorexia inpatient admission, tells me. “I was immensely lucky in that my line manager, head of department and HR department were extremely understanding and told me to take as much time as I needed.”

“They didnt make me feel embarrassed or ashamed – such feelings came from myself”

“They knew that mental health – along with my anorexia I had severe depression – was the real reason I was off work ... I felt that my workplace handled my case in an exemplary manner. It was organised and professional and I wasn’t made to feel embarrassed or ashamed from them – such feelings came from myself.”

But she still at times felt “flaky”, “pathetic” and “inefficient”, despite her organisation’s good attitude. Indeed, many I speak to say general attitudes have to change in order for people to feel comfortable about disclosing conditions to even the closest friends and family, let alone a boss.

“There are levels of pride,” says one man in his thirties who hid his addiction while at work. “You know you’re a mess, but society dictates you should be functioning.” He says this makes it hard to have “the mental courage” to broach this with your employer. “Especially in a small company – you don’t have a confidential person to turn to. Everyone knows everyone.”

“But you can’t expect companies to deal with it properly when it’s dealt with so poorly in society as it is,” he adds. “It’s massively stigmatised, so of course it’s going to be within companies as well. I think there has to be a lot more done generally to make it not seem like it’s such a big personal failing to become mentally ill. Companies need direction; it’s not an easy thing to deal with.”

Until we live in a society where it feels as natural taking a day off for feeling mentally unwell as it does for the flu, companies will have to step up. It is, after all, in their interest to have their staff performing well. When around one in four people in Britain experience mental ill health each year, it’s not a problem they can afford to ignore.

If your manager doesn’t create the space for you to be able to talk about wellbeing, it can be more difficult to start this dialogue. It depends on the relationship you have with your manager, but if you have a good relationship and trust them, then you could meet them one-to-one to discuss what’s going on.

Having someone from HR present will make the meeting more formal, and normally wouldn’t be necessary in the first instance. But if you didn’t get anywhere with the first meeting then it might be a sensible next step.

If you still feel as though you’re not getting the support you need, contact Acas or Mind's legal line on 0300 466 6463.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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