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13 September 2010

France’s feeble Napoleon

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

By Jonathan Derbyshire

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?”

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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.

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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.