In response to riot Hollande repeats Sarkozy’s mistakes

The National - 22 August 2013

There is nothing new about riots in France, but the frequency with which they break out does not make them any easier to manage.

Just ask François Hollande. The newly elected Socialist president anticipated numerous problems during his first few months in office, but a serious urban disturbance was not one of them.

When parts of the northern city of Amiens exploded into violence early this month, Mr Hollande’s mind was meant to be on a compassionate social policy to replace years of policy based on ruthless conservatism.

The economics of selfishness and greed, along with repression of troublesome protesters, have caused widespread unrest across France in recent years. Mr Hollande was to be the antidote.

Many of his party colleagues in Amiens certainly viewed discrimination and underinvestment as the roots of the two days of rioting.

Nicolas Sarkozy, Mr Hollande’s predecessor, who originally made his name as “Le Top Cop”, seemed to view any antisocial behaviour as the work of delinquents.

Mr Sarkozy was an ambitious interior minister when, in the autumn of 2005, scores of cities and towns went up in flames as suburban estates became battlegrounds. A state of emergency was declared for a full three months. Damage totalled €200 (Dh 909mn), with public buildings destroyed, and around 9,000 cars.

It did not seem to matter to Mr Sarkozy that those who lived in those estates were profoundly alienated, with young people in immigrant families complaining that they had next to no opportunities, compared to their counterparts in more affluent areas.

Mr Sarkozy responded the only way he knew how – by sending in hundreds of heavily armed police with orders to be tough. They arrested close to 3,000 people.

His policies created huge antagonism between the forces of law and order and those living on impoverished estates, especially when he described some as “scum” who should be “blown away with a power hose”.

This kind of language fit the profile of a man who would become one of France’s farthest-right head of states, someone who, in his failed attempt at re-election this May, actively sought the racist, anti-immigrant vote.

Mr Sarkozy is an unreconstructed authoritarian who believes that truncheons and tear gas are as important to maintaining France’s social fabric as the deportation of “foreigners who don’t fit in”.

Many in France expected a left-winger like Mr Hollande to reject this legacy out of hand. Oppressive policies aimed at Muslims, like the burqa ban and moves to ban halal meat, seemed likely to be reversed immediately, and the Socialists were pushing for more resources for oppressed and underfunded communities.

In fact, since the Amiens riot Mr Hollande has had very little to say about revitalising the city. Instead he pledged “zero tolerance”, saying more police would be sent into any area that looked vulnerable to disturbances.

There was apparently very little interest in the fact that Fafet, the northern district of Amiens where the worst of the trouble broke out, is racked by unemployment and discrimination. There are numerous economic and social reasons why Fafet is designated a “priority zone”, but Mr Hollande seemed oblivious to this fact.

For every mindless troublemaker (and nobody can condone community buildings being burnt down, or buckshot and fireworks being aimed at the police) there are hundreds who feel shut out of mainstream French life by their disadvantaged backgrounds.

Discontent is intensified when successive governments focus on negative perceptions of the kind of immigrant communities found on the estates, and that seems to be just what Mr Hollande is now doing in his turn.

Look at the way France’s new Socialist leader has reinvigorated Mr Sarkozy’s attacks on gypsy camps. Roma caravans and makeshift huts have this month been destroyed in all major cities.

Many of those made homeless – including hundreds of women and children – have been deported, flown back to Romania or Bulgaria.

Mr Sarkozy infamously equated Roma camps with crime, suggesting that many of the sneak thieves and muggers in France were gypsies. Disease and poor hygiene were also associated with the settlements. The pattern of political attack was always the same – venomous words grouping gypsies with filth, illness and antisocial behaviour.

It is all part of a hateful, discriminatory narrative which Mr Hollande and his pugnacious Interior Minister, Manuel Valls, appear keen to perpetuate. The Socialists are convinced that playing up to calls from right-wing nationalists for a safe, disciplined and “traditional” country will somehow make them more popular.

No matter that Mr Sarkozy was accused of ethnic cleansing in his treatment of the gypsies, or that he regularly stigmatised France’s six million Muslims.

Xenophobia is growing in many parts of Europe, as indigenous communities blame newcomers for recession and other unwanted change.

Such a parochial view is anathema to the global, inclusive outlook governments should embrace in this increasingly interconnected, competitive world.

By retreating into the blinkered, oppressive policies which contribute so much to riots in cities like Amiens, Mr Hollande will do absolutely nothing to reverse the years of decline presided over by unthinking reactionaries like Mr Sarkozy.

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