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9 February 2021

From the NS archive: Prince of “flics”

12 July 1974: A French minister makes his mark, badly.

By David Leitch

In this piece from 1974, David Leitch highlights the dangers of a vainglorious minister determined to make a showy mark. On 14 June, France’s new interior minister Prince Michel Poniatowski – “Ponia” – announced himself with a huge police operation in Paris in which 5,000 policemen, the “flics”, flooded the streets and stopped 45,695 citizens. No cause was necessary but papers were checked and cars examined. As a result of the operation, the largest since “the height of the Algerian war or the activities of the Gestapo during the Occupation”, a mere 35 people were held, and most of those were quickly released. Rather than retire and lick his wounds, Poniatowski was unrepentant. It was, said Leitch, a “black comedy”.

***

“Le weekend anglais” so permeates the French snobbish imagination that only mugs or masochists attempt driving out of Paris on Friday evenings. The night of Friday 14 last month was nonetheless something quite special: traffic leaving the capital attained a kind of apogee of immobility. Seen from the Porte d’Italie the stationary cars apparently stretched as far as Lyons, if not to the Italian frontier itself. The next morning, it emerged, we owed this historic foul-up to one man: the new minister of the interior, Prince Michel Poniatowski no less.

“Ponia” (the nick-name implies scant affection) has spent his life in political intrigue. He is now only one step away from ultimate power in France. He is the president’s closest chum – perhaps since Giscard is a phoney aristocrat he admires the genuine article, Poniatowski’s princely creation dating from Napoleon. In any case wherever Giscard goes Ponia’s overweight shadow and Bosch-like countenance are always within whispering distance. His interior ministry job gives the prince enormous power. It does not, however, or in normal circumstances at any rate, stretch far enough to creating a kind of vehicular Armageddon to gratify an aristocratic whim.

Not, of course, when one made innocent inquiries about the affair, that the Ponia PR boys described the 14 June fiasco in precisely these terms. Rather they spoke of radical policies, of liberating innovation, of – and here is the crux – that Fortnum and Mason of authoritarian government, law and order.

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For the traffic chaos stemmed from a police exercise initiated by Ponia, whose ministerial post makes him, in the words of his intimate enemy and unlamented predecessor, Raymond Marcellin: “The first flic in France.” Depending on how long the memory of one’s informant, it is necessary to go back either to the height of the Algerian war or the activities of the Gestapo during the Occupation to parallel an operation on this scale. But, for once, the most eloquent description is statistical.

The 14 June operation started around dusk and went on into the small hours. Three distinct categories of enforcement officers – motorised police, special riot squads and friendly local gendarmes – achieved an impressive work load during this shift. They performed “controls” on no fewer than 45,695 citizens, mainly in four areas on the outskirts of the capital. Their basis was random: they did not, that is, select people who generated suspicion for some reason or another. They just happened to be there. Those stopped were required to show the identity paper French citizens are legally obliged to carry at all times, questioned about where they were going and why, and sometimes searched too. In the case of motorists their cars were examined as well. It was noted by the interior ministry computer that the controlees included 3,595 citizen under 21, and “4,500 foreigners” – the vast majority North African workers, rather than foreign tourists en route for the Costa Brava, although they were naturally not exempt either. Welcome to la belle France.

Ponia himself, plus cameramen (and, I presume, bodyguard) lent a hand on the Pont d’Argenteuil, a traffic black spot even without his help. He explained to the weekend drivers how lucky they were to have so dynamic a government. For those who missed his personal touch there was a printed letter with a facsimile of the ministerial signature. “I am persuaded you will recognise the necessity and utility of this operation, and accept the minor constraints involved…”

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In the interests, of course, of the crusade against crime. Well, since there were around 5,000 cops trawling the net, directed by skipper Ponia on the bridge, one might have expected a rich haul of malefactors on 14 June. The actual result might serve as a propaganda exercise for the law-abiding qualities of Parisians: 35 people in all were held by the police (several of whom were later released: I guess they had left their identity cards at home). Those charged broke down as follows: six drunk drivers; four car thieves; four possessing stolen property; four more carrying illegal drugs, and two cases of illegal weapons (the police are vague about the latter – it may well be the weapon in question were unlicensed sporting guns).

Undeterred by so many mackerels employed in hooking so few sprats, Ponia launched yet another similar drive the next night. This time the police swept through Lille, Lyons and the notoriously criminal city of Marseille in a “global operation”. It would be wearisome to spell out the details again. Suffice it to say that 100,000 Frenchmen were “controlled” by about 10,000 police over the weekend of 14 June. A grand total of 86 were held for further questioning; of these an undisclosed number (an educated guess would be one quarter of the total) were subsequently released without a court appearance.

After so paltry a harvest a lesser minister might have drawn a discreet veil and applied himself to some other aspect of abrasive government. But not Ponia. Instead he delivered a rousing, Agnew-esque harangue about the 173-per-cent crime increase since 1963. He dwelt lovingly on the 55,000 burglaries in Paris last year. He curdled the blood by describing the three hold-ups each day in 1973, the four attacks on solitary women in the street. Questioned in parliament, Ponia reluctantly conceded that French crime rates are in fact markedly lower than in almost any other comparable society. And within 24 hours, on the night of 21/22 June set up yet another rafle – a near forgotten word used for Gestapo sort-out during the war. He got 60 minor offenders this time out of 52,000 citizen controlled. Enough to call the whole thing off one might think, particularly as the over-worked police were hawing signs of restiveness? By no means. Sheriff Ponia continues to fire from the hip. His latest tactic is random controls on the Metro. Here I predict a more impressive kill rate. With luck many a criminal travelling first class on a second-class ticket will get his deserved comeuppance.

Ponia’s policy, stripped of rhetorical grace notes, is familiar, and even respectable: getting the cops back on the beat. He is right to insist that too many police are immobilised by guard duties. The Latin Quarter always seems in a state of siege. First-time visitors are often alarmed by the serried ranks of RS riot troops. Is there an armed insurrection in the offing, they ask? An imminent invasion?

The answer is that the CRS presence is strictly intimidatory. But as the jurist Gerard Soulier wrote recently in Le Monde, Ponia’s wild antics are swapping one form of intimidation for another. The scheme is partly designed to placate “Les braves gens”, the silent majority who elected Giscard, and as long as they are not controlled too often themselves it may work. But there is a secondary motive to consider, made all the more sinister since the French penal code, repressive though it is, provides no sanction for police interrogating private citizens when there are no grounds for suspicion. To quote Soulier again: “The policy is a question of habituation. To get people used to the habit of repression. To make it normal, just, necessary and finally legitimate. It is, a psychological operation. A new step in the technical and ideological apparatus of repression.”

There is also a sub-drama involved, a shade Deightonesque for Professor Soulier’s legal prose and Le Monde’s chaste columns. Here, besides the Prince, the dramatis personae include Jacques Foccart, the recently dismissed chief of France’s Dirty Tricks security department, Madame Mimi Santoni, who readers may recall was the intimate friend of a now defunct Jesuit cardinal, and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, whose wine needs no bush. But this black comedy must await a further gripping instalment.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)