A bright spring morning on Paris’s Left Bank and les flics are already out in force. You can glimpse the red bands on their kepis as they lurk behind bushes waiting to trap another speedster. Here’s one now, accelerating as he sees the path opening up in front of him.
Faster, faster and then a sharp blast from a whistle as he’s pulled over by at least three stationary policemen. They know offenders will come quietly, offering names and addresses in expectation of a caution, or even a fine.
Such heavy policing is to catch people jogging on the grass. There is a €33 punishment for breaking Luxembourg Gardens bylaws. Particularly antisocial runners might even earn a truncheon swipe to the chest.
This is law and order, Sarkozy-style. It was as ‘le tough cop’ that Nicolas Sarkozy styled himself during two terms as Interior Minister, producing a police force almost entirely in his own image, that is to say small-minded, awkward, at times extremely nasty, and – as far as keeping the peace is concerned – surprisingly ineffective.
As a young Frenchwoman of Algerian descent who has spent more time in Paris’s banlieues than its famed Latin Quarter, it’s clear to me that Sarkozy shows no sign of learning from his mistakes. Urban unrest will be a prevailing feature of his presidency, starting with rioting on the night he is elected. In the words of a friend: ‘It may be that thousands take to the street, but I can’t help feeling it’s going to be worse than that’.
A chilling blend of uncompromising brutality and extreme pettiness has dominated France since Sarko became Interior Minister in 2002. His first bill introduced prison terms for a vast range of petty offences from begging and ‘insulting security guards’ to ‘loitering in communal areas’.
Civil liberties groups said it was waging ‘war on the poor’; Sarko said it was fighting an ever-rising crime rate, one that is still escalating. A tough, intimidating police force was viewed as a priority by Sarko, and thousands more officers were put on the beat.
When Azouz Begag, the minister for equality, disagreed with the reactionary approach to the suburban riots of autumn 2005, he was threatened with a punch by the diminutive Sarko. Such aggression was in people’s minds when, last month, a riot broke out at the Gare du Nord after the police had laid into an alleged illegal immigrant who had not paid his metro fare. Witnesses said officers hit him ‘time and time again’.
The so-called ‘blacks’ and ‘beurs’ – those with African or North African backgrounds – are often singled out for physical reprimands. Sarko has made crackdowns on immigrants the cornerstone of his law and order policy.
Go to the suburbs at any time of day or night and you’ll see Sarko-style violence used to quell everything from unruly schoolboys to domestic disputes. Alleged offenders will be lined up against walls, handcuffed, and then punched viciously. This unofficial policy reached its zenith during the civil unrest of 2005.
It began in the Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, following the deaths of two teenagers attempting to hide from police. It was Sarko who at first described protesters as ‘hoodlums’ and ‘gangsters’, but it soon became clear they were victims of the police brutality he had done so much to encourage. In February, two officers were charged in connection with the deaths.
With an alienated, unemployed and largely immigrant underclass blamed for making a political protest through the disturbances, the ever tactful Interior Minister called them ‘scum’ to be ‘washed away with a power hose’.
In last year’s ‘circulaire Sarkozy’, Sarko proposed giving residency papers to immigrant families with children already integrated in French schools. Some 25,000 applied. It was then just a matter of refusing the vast majority and going to arrest those who remained. Parents were picked up as they collected their children from school.
The political establishment may complain about Sarko using his state-funded henchmen to investigate everything from political rivals to troublesome journalists, but it is those who are regularly victimised who suffer most.
There have been sops to immigrants, of course. Sarkozy is too smart to ignore a sizeable electoral power base. In 2002, he set up France’s first Muslim council, he opposed the ban on headscarves in schools and he favours positive discrimination. All small comfort for those who know that a Sarko presidency will be characterised by aggression towards those who do not fit his vision of an ordered, small-minded state. And there will also be no running on the grass in Luxembourg Gardens.