France’s racial intolerance comes from the very top

The Guardian - 02 August 2010

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Even by the standards of French “community” policing, it is a desperately harrowing video. Filmed by an amateur cameraman, it shows riot police in the notorious Seine-Saint-Denis suburb of Paris breaking up a demonstration by evicted mothers, some of them pregnant. Displaying the kind of respect and sensitivity normally reserved for prone drunks, the officers poke, manhandle and then drag the protestors along the road, along with their crying young children and babies.

The film was shot in the early morning on 21 July in a particularly volatile town called La Courneuve, outside a block of flats called Balzac. The decaying 15-storey building is set to be demolished, leaving dozens of squatters homeless. Many are young women originally from the Ivory Coast, and it was these who were mainly filmed as they were targeted while taking part in a sit-down protest. At least one pregnant woman faints, while a little boy is in hysterics as he is dragged along the ground under his mother. The armed, shaven-headed police meanwhile wear body armour and clearly display the badge of the CRS – the infamousCompagnie Républicaine de Sécurité, which made its name violently suppressing enemies of the state during the student and trade union riots of May 1968. Accompanied by a soundtrack of shrieks, tears and chants of “Leave us alone!”, the images in La Courneuve have provoked calls for an enquiry into police brutality, and punishment for all those involved.

Despite the focus on France’s legendary forces of law and order, however, there is no doubt that the man currently under greatest suspicion for inciting racial hatred and intimidation is President Nicolas Sarkozy himself. This is the politician, remember, who once described troublemakers from places like La Courneuve as “scum” who should be “washed away with a power hose“. As interior minister, he revelled in his nickname of “Le Top Cop”, sending heavily armed officers en masse towards the slightest sign of any kind of disturbance, no matter how trivial.

As predicted when he became president in 2007, Sarkozy’s administration has been characterised by widespread social disorder, up to and including the kind of riots which broke out in Grenoble, eastern France, last month. Street battles saw shops and cars destroyed by fire, and shots were exchanged between the police and youths. In a separate disturbance in St-Aignan, in the centre of the country, masked gangs stormed a police station after a Gypsy was shot dead during a car chase.

Sarkozy immediately blamed the disturbances on immigrants, announcing a wide-ranging initiative aimed at keeping them in their place. This meant a “war on crime”, with state-issue truncheons drawn to sort out what he described as serious “security problems” posed by “foreign-born” undesirables. Sarkozy, the ever radical rightwing thinker, also said he would withdraw French nationality to any immigrant involved in law-breaking as well as erring French citizens of foreign descent. Welfare payments to immigrants without official papers would be reviewed and minimum sentences for criminals would be raised. By the by, Sarkozy’s police also started razing Gypsy camps, as the president pledged to expel Roma travellers in an manner already being likened to ethnic cleansing.

“We are suffering the consequences of 50 years of insufficiently regulated immigration which has led to a failure of integration,” Sarkozy added helpfully, in case anyone was in any doubt as to whom he viewed as the greatest threat to stability within the republic.

Quite where pregnant women and their children rank amid that threat, Sarkozy did not say, but his silence about La Courneuve video is truly deafening. As he struggles to distance himself from the numerous problems engulfing failed administration, one would hope that the heartbreaking cries of persecuted young mothers and their babies might make him realise that attacking soft targets like vulnerable immigrants is no kind of solution to anything.

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