Johns Hopkins University
On July 16 a young member of a 'gens du voyage' (community of travelers) by the name of Luigi Duquenet was shot dead by police at a checkpoint in the small town of Saint-Aignan in Central France. Police allege that Duquenet, wanted for robbery, attempted to run through the checkpoint and in the process injured a gendarme. This incident provoked two nights of rioting by 50 or so of Duquenet's brethren in which shops, cars and the local police station were attacked. In the aftermath, President Sarkozy decided to turn his attention to the 'problem' of itinerant populations in France, especially the Roma, long viewed as being responsible for increased criminality, vagrancy and delinquency. Ordering his notorious interior minister Brice Hortefeux (who was recently fined by a court for making racist remarks at a party gathering) to step up the targeting of Roma populations throughout France.
French security forces have begun an attempt at permanently shutting down 'illegal' camps on the outskirts of major cities. By late summer, while 51 of more than 300 camps have been raided, the French government deported approximately one thousand Roma (of a current population of no more than 15,000) in this recent initiative (and many thousands more over the preceding years) back to Romania and Bulgaria even in the face of widespread criticism by the EU parliament, UNHRC and many public intellectuals in France. Some in France have even gone so far to refer to the deportations as mirroring the rafles (mass deportations) of Jews, homosexuals and Gypsies during the Second World War.
Of course, given that the Roma are in fact EU citizens, French policy is completely self-defeating since the Roma may legally return to France at any time. But what the Sarkozy government has done (and which ultimately makes the legal case for deportation from the point of view of the state credible) is to make it nearly impossible for the majority of the Roma, Gypsies and other itinerant populations from Romania or Bulgaria to apply for permanent residency permits which would preclude their deportation after their allowed three month stay.
To be sure, Sarkozy's recent policy of targeting itinerant populations is part of a larger 'l'ordre publique' (law and order) discourse that underpins the general political platform of his governing party, the UMP (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire). He makes it no secret his genuine admiration for the former mayor Rudy Guiliani and what he sees as Guiliani's success at 'cleaning up' New York City. While interior minister under Jacques Chirac during the 2005 civil unrest in the suburbs of Paris, he gained notoriety by referring to the rioters as 'racailles' (scum) and 'voyous' (thugs), vowing to clean up the streets with a pressure washer, only amplifying the rioters rage against the state.
He ran his 2007 electoral campaign for the presidency aiming to woo far right voters from Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front party by stressing his anti-illegal immigrant credentials and his desire to force the assimilation of immigrant populations into the French 'way of life'. Sarkozy's government has gone further than the banning of overt religious symbols in public schools. A major initiative in the last year was the banning of the burqa and niqbah in all public areas. More recently, legislation is being introduced in parliament that would strip French citizenship from any naturalized citizen that commits a crime resulting in a prison sentence of five or more years, or engage in female circumcision and polygamy. Such legislation would necessitate the introduction of an ethnic classification system that is wholly alien to the French model of republican citizenship and is clearly designed to target immigrant communities.
The temptation, however, is often to see Sarkozy's policies through the lens of forthcoming electoral calculations as some American commentators tend to do (here ). On the one hand, I think Alain Badiou, in his book The Meaning of Sarkozy, is correct to see Sarkozy as the latest manifestation of a specifically French phenomena, what he calls the "Pétainist transcendental." By that he means especially how Sarkozy resurrects a reactionary political discourse that emphasizes a prevalent moral crisis and political decline (for Sarkozy the event marking France's decline was May-68) and which translates into a growing process of racialization targeting anyone deemed a threat to la patrie. An obvious example was seen in the aftermath of the humiliating performance of the French national football team at the World Cup. Some right-wing commentators blamed the fiasco on the ethnic and religious plurality of the team itself.
On the other hand, I think that what is happening in France is part of a much larger phenomena of European xenophobia over the last decade. In fact, it is France's neighbor Italy that paved the way for the mass deportation of its own Roma population under Silvio Berlusconi. But we can also witness the Swiss referendum banning Islamic minarets; the rising popularity of Geert Wilder' s Party of Freedom in the Netherlands and the far-right British National Party; increasing rates of racism in Scandinavian, long a haven for refugees from all over the world. Or the prevalent racist chants against black football players in many European leagues, many making monkey sounds whenever a black player touches the ball.
One just has to have observed the discourse in Germany towards Greece at the height of the financial crisis a few months ago. With tabloids like "Der Bild" and "Focus" leading the way and many German politicians following suit a general perception emerged in Germany that Greeks did not have the same "European" work ethic as the Germans did, a traditional European perception of the 'lazy' non-European Other.
It is true that the great financial panic of 2008-2009 hit European economies hard in the last year and contributed to this rise in xenophobia across the continent. But it is the European Union's neoliberal path over the last two decades that has given sustenance to the perception that public disorder has become rampant and hence the need for more authoritarian responses in the face of migrations, changing cultural practices and persistent wage labor insecurity. Loïc Wacquant's Punishing the Poor (a book meant as a warning to France) captures this trend quite lucidly in his analysis of the neoliberal state in the United States. The contemporary American neoliberal state necessarily operates with an expansive penal system used to criminalize and manage the urban poor in the United States. To a certain extent, something similar is occurring in Europe as a whole with the proliferation of fear of public disorder and the resultant increasing penal apparatus of the state. Moreover, at a time when the welfare state is persistently under siege because of EU budget requirements, essentially deemed unsustainable over the long-term, a growing perception among people in Europe is that migrants are unworthy beneficiaries of a diminishing public good.
But the French case is interesting in another way. There is a growing militarization of how police interact with immigrant populations, how it begins to see the relationship as defined by ubiquitous urban warfare rather than traditional criminal management. The French political scientist Mathieu Rigouste in his book L'ennemi intérieur: La généalogie coloniale et militaire de l’ordre sécuritaire dans la France contemporaine (The Internal Enemy: A Colonial and Military Genealogy of Contemporary France's Security Order) convincingly shows how French security forces are readapting policing/military doctrines first devised in past French colonies against rebellious populations. This has naturally lead to more cases of police shootings of youths, as what happened in Grenoble over the summer, and itself leading to more rioting.
Almost thirty years ago Salman Rushdie published an essay "The New Empire within Britain" in which he wrote:
"Four hundred years of conquest and looting, four centuries of being told that you are superior to the Fuzzy-Wuzzies and the wogs, leave their stain. This stain has seeped into every part of the culture, the language and daily life; and nothing much has been done to wash it out."
What was the case for Britain then, in contemporary France, as the expulsion of the Roma demonstrates, this continues to ring true.