The recent ministerial promotion of former budget minister Gérald Darmanin, appointed as interior minister in the French government reshuffle earlier this month despite being under investigation over allegations that he committed rape, was an insult to women victims of the abuse, violence and privilege of men.
By daring to say that he “I choke” when he hears talk of “police violence”, as he told members of the laws commission of the parliamentary lower house, the National Assembly, on Wednesday, the new interior minister has now added insult to the victims of such violence who have died from so-called choke holds (see this report by Mediapart’s Pascale Pascariello).
In between times, he has also insulted the vitality and diversity of French society, the mobilisations and youthful revolts it has witnessed, by speaking of such movements as a general “ensauvagement”.
[Editor’s note: Gérald Darmanin, in an interview earlier this week with French daily Le Figaro, declared that, "The en-savagement of a certain section of society must be stopped". The term ‘ensauvagement’ is defined by one of the French dictionaries of reference, Le Petit Robert, as meaning, variously, the “behaviour of a person who lives outside of human society”, a “return to a non-domesticated, wild and natural state”, and figuratively as “descending into wildness, barbarianism, violence”. It is a phrase coined by the far-right, and has obvious ethnic and racial connotations.].
As the last incarnation of a wayward political drift that began under the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, Gérald Darmanin is now the new symbol of savage politics, those that are violent and vulgar, which disengage from common rules. These have no line of sight other than that of occupying power, along with the abuse which that permits, the profit that comes with it and the protection it provides, unhinged by the increasing panic of a ruling class in secession, fiercely holding on to its advantages, indifferent to the collective fate and blind to the novel movements arising in the world.
“The time is out of joint,” said Hamlet in William Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. The product and face of this presently dislocated and disordered time is the political ascension of Gérald Darmanin, the young and ambitious Sarkozy ally now sitting high under the presidency of Emmanuel Macron. With a certain contempt towards the sincere will of those who, during the presidential elections of 2017, believed in a shakeup of traditional politics, that ascension illustrates the underlying tendency, the truth, of what lay behind it, as already illustrated by the violent repression of the “yellow vests” and an ideological conversion to identitarian refrains.
“That things continue as before is the catastrophe,” wrote the Jewish German philosopher Walter Benjamin in a warning shortly before the collapse of war-torn Europe in 1940. While in France the numbers of unemployed have now never been greater than since 1996, while factories are laying off staff left, right and centre, while the uncertainties over the Covid-19 pandemic fuel fear and withdrawal – in sum, while the social, economic and ecological catastrophe is already upon us – the powers governing us seek to continue as before, changing (almost) nothing of policies that serve the interests of a social minority.
Thus, they must produce a diversion, dividing and pitting society against itself, brutalising it and whipping up hysteria. Gérald Darmanin seeks to be the keen propagandist of this new presidential mantra of a declaration of war against a so-called “separatism” within the population. So it is that within a new “anti-France”, symbolically placed outside of a national community, are amalgamated every form of dissidence, those in which politics are renewed and invented as an emancipation, drawing upon the energies of the movements of society, its autonomous struggles and spontaneous resistance.
While the #MeToo movement marks a new age of feminism, shaking masculine domination all over the world, a politician who does not deny having sexual relations with two women who asked him to use his political influence to help them (one to obtain accommodation, the other to change the outcome of a judicial case) is appointed minister of the interior. Meanwhile, a lawyer who is well-known for his sexist tirades – to the point of challenging the use of the word “femicide” – is made minister of justice. All of this when the interior minister, and as such head of the police, is the subject of judicial investigations which, paradoxically, underline his presumed innocence before the law, because it is the justice system itself which must decide if he should face charges – or not.
While the fight against corruption and for raising moral standards in public life is essential in regaining the confidence of a population that is deserting the electoral urns, we witness the appointment of an interior minister who is a loyal ally of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy. The latter, speaking earlier this month on TV channel TF1, declared: “Gérald is a friend, I have been able to count upon his loyalty and solidity.” Sarkozy is the most legally implicated former French head of state ever, placed under investigation on suspicion of grave wrongdoing and already sent for future trial in two cases (one for corruption, the other for illegal election campaign spending), and who is the central figure in an ongoing judicial investigation into the suspected illegal funding of his 2007 presidential election campaign by the regime of the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Those who might be sceptical about the imbalance now created regarding both the functioning of the justice system and investigations by the police, would do well to look at Mediapart’s recent revelations about the network placed at the service of the former president by his ex-head of domestic intelligence, Bernard Squarcini (see the report in English here).
While condemnation of police violence that targets people because of the colour of their skin and social situation has become universal, notably mobilising young citizens in America and France, the new French interior minister is a politician who dismisses the issue to the point of denying its very existence, as in his comment to lawmakers this week that, “When I hear the term 'police violence', personally, I choke”. Recent revelations, meanwhile, of violence, racism, xenophobia and even corruption among a number of French police units, also including the infiltration of some by the far-right, have multiplied. The disclosures of a joint investigation by Mediapart and broadcaster Arte (here, in English ), of a report by French public radio France Info (in French), and online news site StreetPress (in French, here and here), demonstrate that the problem is not that of a few ‘rotten apples’, but rather that of a menacing gangrene.
Yet another move by interior minister Darmanin is both telling and worrying. He has announced he will launch legal proceedings over comments made earlier this month by Patrick Chaimovitch, the EELV Green party mayor of the Paris suburb of Colombes. Chaimovitch compared the active participation in 1942, during the German occupation of France, of the French police and gendarmerie in the infamous roundup for deportation of Jews at the Vél’d’Hiv stadium in Paris with what he called the “zeal” today of police who “hunt down migrants, those without legal documents, those disallowed human rights, these living beings who try to survive amid destitution”. Beyond the clumsiness of the direct comparison, the mayor did nothing other than underline precisely what we are threatened with: namely the descent, through habituation and indifference, towards the worst.
The historic truth is that France’s Vichy state resulted from the drift towards xenophobia and authoritarianism of the Third Republic as it drew to an end. Encouraged by a mostly lost political class, lost to the point of abdicating when parliament relinquished the republic, not by force but by vote, handing its police, its justice system and its prefectural administration to join, actively or in silence, collaboration with Nazism. The refusal to do so, what would later be called the Resistance, was the act of just a small minority of public servants. This has been amply recorded in what is now abundant documentation of the period, notably in the pioneering work by US historian Robert Paxton, in Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940–1944 (published in 1972), followed by the research of the late Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell on the “French origins of fascism” in La Droite révolutionnaire (1997), and the more recent work of French historian Gérard Noiriel, Les Origines républicaines de Vichy (2013).
“The police of Vichy was republican,” declared René Bousquet on June 22nd 1949 when he appeared before France’s High Court responsible for trying those accused of collaboration. Once a respected and renowned prefect (regional representative of the state), before 1940, Bousquet became the zealous head of police under the collaborationist Vichy regime, organising the roundup of Jews and the hunting down of Resistance members with an enthusiasm that surpassed even that of France’s Nazi occupiers. Yet he believed himself to be a republican, as also his loyal right-hand man Jean-Paul Martin, and Pierre Saury, his close collaborator at the interior ministry, believed themselves to be. Those men served Vichy to serve themselves, in an illusion of a continuity of the state which they used as an excuse for their descent into abjectness and abomination.
After the war, the three escaped punishment for their crimes and each pursued comfortable careers under a restored French republic, in the shadow, trail and friendship of a future French president: François Mitterrand. Beyond the far-right allegiance in his youth of he who was to become the first socialist elected as head of state by universal suffrage, it was the tardy revelation of Mitterrand’s links with the trio that allowed for the celebrated 1995 “Vél’d’Hiv speech” by his successor as president, Jacques Chirac, when, 50 years after the end of WWII, Chirac officially recognised the French participation in the destruction of Europe’s Jewish population.
Very shortly before leaving the Élysée Palace in 1995, at the end of his two seven-year terms as president, François Mitterrand finally and half-heartedly conceded, on the subject of the French republican state’s wayward wartime course, and notably that of its police – to the point of taking part in a totalitarian empire – that there had been “faults that led to crimes”.
The faults of today can lead to the crimes of tomorrow. There is no impervious frontier between a republic and an authoritarian regime if the republic abandons its democratic rules, its social solidarity and its ethical requirements. History is never written in advance, but indifference towards violence against women, and the encouragement of police violence, while not forgetting also a declaration of war against a society that is described as “ensavaged”, serve to open ever wider the door by which catastrophe will enter and take up its place.
- The original French text of this op-ed article can be found here.
English version, with additional explanatory notes, by Graham Tearse