France's Feeble Napoleon: Social Unrest Is Growing and the Founding Ideals of the Republic Are Being Tarnished as a Desperate President Sarkozy Struggles to Hold on to Power at Any Cost

By Derbyshire, Jonathan | New Statesman (1996), September 13, 2010 | Go to article overview

France's Feeble Napoleon: Social Unrest Is Growing and the Founding Ideals of the Republic Are Being Tarnished as a Desperate President Sarkozy Struggles to Hold on to Power at Any Cost


Derbyshire, Jonathan, New Statesman (1996)


In late July, I spent a week with my family, as I do several times a year, in a small flat in the nth arrondissement in Paris. Fifteen years ago, I lived in the same neighbourhood in the east of the city when I was a graduate student at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales.

Today, the quartier is much as it was back then, scruffy and boisterous, and still more or less a "citadel of tolerance", as Richard Cobb, the great English historian of Paris, said of the neighbouring district of Belleville, which lies a mile or so to the north. This is where Sephardic Jews and Muslims of North African origin live among immigrants from West Africa and "bourgeois bohemian" refugees from more prosperous milieux.

Writing in 1985, Cobb predicted the imminent death of this "traditional Paris", of areas such as Belleville or Menilmontant, with their mixed populations of "poor Jewish tailors, Algerians and long-limbed Senegalais". The "middle-class armies" were on the march, and soon, he thought, the capital would become a monoculture reserved for the "very affluent and the very ambitious". As for the traditional "Parisians" themselves, those Jewish tailors and Africans from north and west, they would be banished to Alphaville, Cobb's Godardian shorthand for the vast suburban agglomerations that proliferated beyond the peripherique from the late 1960s on.

He may have underestimated the tenacity of the esprit de quartier in the north-eastern areas of Paris, the combination of familiarity and gossip that was the social glue of these urban villages (it's still there if you know where to look). But Cobb was certainly right about the dystopia that was being assembled beyond the boundaries of Paris proper. He wrote despairingly of the sprawling housing project to the north of the city at Sarcelles, with its "rectangular blocks", "concrete coils" and forbidding walkways. The social cost of this and other grands ensembles was obvious to him: "What can one expect of [them]," Cobb wrote, "other than inarticulate despair, vandalism and teenage violence?"

It was on these same estates that the accumulated frustrations of young men, mostly descendants of North African immigrants, excluded by geography, culture and religion from mainstream French life, exploded into violence in the autumn of 2005.

Many of the suburbs or banlieues that burned five years ago were products of administrative fiat. Sarcelles itself, Cobb pointed out, was an "initiative of the Prefecture of Police", while "prefects" (local representatives of central government appointed by the president of the republic himself) were created for several neighbouring areas where tower blocks now adhered to what had previously been small, ragged jumbles of houses--if, by doing so, new towns could simply be willed into existence. A "very 18th-century concept", Cobb observed. (The prefectoral corps was created in 1800 by Napoleon Bonaparte, after the coup of the 18 Brumaire the previous year.)

I was reminded of this when, still during our stay, President Nicolas Sarkozy gave the now notorious speech at Grenoble discussed by Nabila Ramdani in her Letter from Paris on page 25. It is worth remembering that the occasion of this address, in which Sarkozy launched a "war on delinquency", was the appointment of a new prefect in the department of Isere, in the south-east. The previous incumbent, Albert Dupuy, had been summarily stripped of his functions after rioting in the Grenoble suburb of Villeneuve earlier that month. He was replaced by Eric Le Douaron, a former head of the French border police who, as Sarkozy put it, had "exercised the highest responsibilities in the area of security".

In April, the president had done the same in the department of Seine-Saint-Denis, northeast of Paris, where he appointed as prefect Christian Lambert, a former director of the CRS (the national riot police). In both cases, he said, the aim was to take "targeted action to ensure that conditions of republican order were restored".

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