What’s the matter with France?

I haven’t posted about France lately, in fact I haven’t even been following the French news very carefully. But now it’s springtime, and I’m gearing up for my usual May-June research trip to Paris– back to the same Château Rouge apartment, the same libraries and archives, my old circle of friends. I’ve been hanging out with some of these people since the early seventies, so these are the oldest friendships I have anywhere; and France is now the place that’s mattered the longest in my life. With my parents both dead, I’m rarely back in the towns I grew up in, and it’s been a decade since I revisited the places where I attended university. Buffalo and Toronto now count as home, but I was over forty before I knew anything much about them.

All this to say, I’m eager to get back to Paris, and back up to speed about what’s going on there. It’s a big part of my life, a place I love and admire. But I’m also jumpy, because the news from Paris isn’t so great. The November 13 attacks strengthened France’s already-strong authoritarian tendencies, and the trend in the months since has been mostly downhill. Even worse, nobody’s who’s not directly affected seems to care.

Just the official measures are impressive enough. Since the November attacks, the French government has passed a series of laws setting up temporary “states of emergency,” now set to continue through May 26. The laws allow police to do pretty much anything, no judicial authorization needed– bust down your door, prohibit meetings and demonstrations, take you into custody, keep you under surveillance, check what you’ve been reading. Human Rights Watch reports that by early February there’d been 3,289 searches and at least 350 house arrests under the emergency laws– which my primitive math says comes to forty home invasions daily. Of course there’ve been plenty of dramatic mistakes and lots of collateral damage— apartments wrecked, teeth knocked out, a just-out-of-the-hospital eighty-something handcuffed and ordered to lie on the floor, erroneous addresses. You know, all the usual swat team mayhem.

Until two days ago, the government was also trying to push through a new citizenship law (a constitutional amendment, no less) that would have allowed it to strip dual nationals of their French citizenship– basically for terrorism-style offenses, but with lots of other possibilities added in; at one point the plan was to include even non-violent “advocating terrorism” offenses among the options. Not everyone born in France gets to be a French citizen, so this was a big deal– you could have lived your whole life there, speaking only French, but find yourself being deported to wherever your parents had been born.

The good news is, the government lost that one. There was an uproar among the political classes, a prominent cabinet minister resigned, the newspapers criticized, lawyers pointed out all kinds of problems with the plan. The bad news is, the project came from a socialist, left-wing government, not from nationalist crazies, and the government gave up only after two months of threats and struggle. When another cabinet member expressed doubts, threats were heard in the prime minister’s entourage “to cut that little asshole’s balls off”– this according to Wikipedia, no less.

The really bad news is, it’s all popular with the French public. In fact it’s probably the hope of winning votes that that got the government going on the citizenship-stripping project– at this point the president’s Socialist Party is hopelessly behind heading toward the next elections, and the other parties tend to look tougher in the law-and-order arena. Opinion polls say that two-thirds of the French favor some law for de-French-ifying those convicted of terrorism; right after November 13, the number was around 90 percent.

The state of emergency legislation enjoys even broader public support. Back in January, there were demonstrations against the measures, but almost no one showed up– 5,500 people marched in Paris— quite a contrast to the million who marched to protest the Charlie Hebdo killings, or the 390,000 who marched yesterday against a change in the country’s labor laws. The opinion polls tell the same story– there’s wide approval of the warrant-free, swat team tactics.

Obviously you can explain some of this response in terms of public panic and anger– dramatic acts of violence have that effect on everyone. But then you also have the fact that the French response goes way beyond what other countries have done following their own terror attacks. Bombings in London and Madrid didn’t generate anything like this, nor did the 9/11 attacks in New York. Plus, the French response isn’t the work of local demagogues or small town police chiefs. These decisions are coming from the top, from the highly educated, ultra-sophisticated French leadership, people you’d expect to be insulated from panic xenophobia.

So you have to confront the possibility that the police state tactics emerge from more basic patterns, rather than from short-term panic.   I’ve already written here about Parisian residential segregation, and the segregation is almost as striking in institutions like the university.  That by itself probably explains why mainstream French people don’t worry about police powers– that all happens in a completely different world. And from the news reports, actually understanding that different world– and worrying about the petty humiliations being visited on it– sure doesn’t seem to be a mainstream priority.

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