Magazine article The Spectator

Why the French Lock Up Immigrants

Magazine article The Spectator

Why the French Lock Up Immigrants

Article excerpt

Comparison is one of the ways by which we learn about the world; and yet how rarely do we make the kind of comparisons that would put our problems in a wider perspective. We prefer to live in a nationally solipsistic world, which is self-sufficient and flatters us into believing that it is unique: uniquely good or uniquely bad, as the case may be. Uniqueness is the quality that we value above all others, for it reassures us that we have a character or personality of our own.

Most people who write about the state of British prisons, usually with generous indignation, forget that our nearest neighbour is France, a country with a similar population (I speak only of its size) and of comparable wealth. Often, for example, the fact that we have more prisoners than any other western European country is cited as a symptom of the excessive and brutal punitiveness of our law.

While it is true that France has fewer prisoners than Britain, it is not by orders of magnitude: approximately 60,000 against approximately 70,000. When one considers that the number of recorded crimes in France is about 80 per cent of that in Britain, then assuming the official figures of either country have any connection with reality, which is far from certain - it follows that France actually has a higher prison population relative to the crimes committed than Britain does. Whether you consider this is a good thing or a bad thing depends, I suppose, on whether you consider that imprisonment is a cause of or a response to criminality. What is clear, though, is that France and Britain are not so very different, at least in this respect, as is commonly supposed.

What of the quality of French prisons? Are British prisons uniquely squalid, overcrowded, violent, and so forth?

No doubt French prisons vary as much as British ones. It is unlikely that small provincial prisons in France are as bad as the metropolitan ones. But a book published in 2000 by a French prison doctor, Véronique Vasseur, entitled Médecin-chef à la prison de la santé, exposed conditions that, if accurately described, are far worse than anything I have seen in British prisons. The book sold 200,000 copies at least, and turned its author into a media celebrity: everyone loves an exposer of institutional evil. The filth she described, the overcrowding, the brutality and violence, and the corruption among the warders were without parallel in the British system (at least in my experience of it). Of course there were furious denials in official circles, but most people believed that her portrait of life in Paris's central prison was essentially accurate.

There is another startling difference between French and British prisons, however, and that is in the vastly higher proportion of immigrant prisoners. The exact figures in France are not known, but are generally thought to be between 40 and 80 per cent. Overwhelmingly they are of north or west African, Muslim origin. While it is certainly true that Jamaicans and Muslims of Pakistani origin are greatly over-represented in British prisons (an over-representation for which I do not believe that racism is the principal explanation), they are not nearly so predominant in British jails as their counterparts in France.

There are many possible interpretations of these facts, not all of them mutually exclusive. The first is that France has been less successful than Britain in integrating its immigrant population into the mainstream of national life. This need not be because of any higher levels of xenophobia or racial prejudice: a more rigid labour market will prevent integration quite successfully. …

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