Why French politicians can’t stop talking about crime
By Norimitsu Onishi and Constant Méheut
In the Babel Tower of French politics, everyone agrees at least on this: Crime is out of control.
The leader of the far right warned recently that France was a “security shipwreck’’ sinking into “barbarity.” A traditional conservative conjured up the ultraviolent dystopia of “A Clockwork Orange.” On the left, the presumed Green Party candidate in the next presidential contest described the insecurity as “unbearable.’’
And in the middle, President Emmanuel Macron’s ministers warned of a country “turning savage” — the “ensauvagement” of France — as they vowed to get tough on crime and combat the “separatism” of radical Muslims.
The only catch? Crime isn’t going up.
The government’s own data show that nearly all major crimes are lower than they were a decade ago or three years ago. Despite a one-year spike, the 970 homicides recorded in 2019 were lower than the 1,051 in 2000. Overall, crime rose in the 1970s through the mid-1980s before declining and stabilizing.
But like elsewhere, and mirroring the campaign in the United States, the debate over crime tends to be a proxy — in France’s case, for debates about immigration, Islam, race, national identity and other combustible issues that have roiled the country for years.
The intensity of the current rhetoric comes after a spate of incidents over the summer — including violence on Bastille Day and the beating of a 44-year-old man after he asked a customer at a laundromat to wear a mask — that for many typified a particularly terrible year for France.
The economy is still reeling from one of Europe’s strictest coronavirus lockdowns this spring, and its traditional social fabric is being increasingly challenged by racial and ethnic minorities and by women who have protested injustices such as sexual abuse and police violence.
“Let’s put it bluntly: For France, this summer has been a murderous summer,” said Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Rally and Macron’s main rival in the last presidential election, and his presumed challenger in the next one, in April 2022.
But notably, even at the height of the Yellow Vest protests two years ago, when looting and rampaging through wealthy districts of Paris had become a weekly occurrence, there was very little talk of crime as a major social issue.
The Yellow Vest movement was overwhelmingly white. This year, many of France’s largest demonstrations, which were mostly peaceful, were inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and the killing of George Floyd in the United States, which forced the issue of police brutality to the front of the political agenda.
In Le Pen’s view, the current insecurity stemmed directly from the “systematic targeting of the police by the anti-police campaigns of racial activists.”
In a poster for a by-election later this month in northern France, Le Pen appears next to the local candidate with the message: “During the summer of 2020, several French people have been killed by scum stemming from immigration. Without political action, this could happen one day to those close to you, your brothers, your sisters, your children …”
More than any other French politician, Le Pen has zeroed in on the issue of crime. She and her supporters in the National Rally have tied it directly to immigration from Africa, which they fiercely oppose, and framed it as a threat to French civilization with words like “ensauvagement” and “barbarity.”
“In Rome, barbarians didn’t have the same values as the Romans,” Philippe Olivier, a close aide to Le Pen and a member of the European Parliament, said in an interview. “Romans admitted the barbarians: Rome ended up collapsing.’’
As the idea of “ensauvagement” — long a dog whistle of the far right — has been adopted even by Macron’s own ministers, Olivier described it as “an ideological victory.”
“This theme can take us to victory in the regional and departmental elections, and then in the presidential election,” he said. “We’re on our ground. It’s a home game.”
According to a poll published last week, 70% of respondents said the use of “ensauvagement’’ was justified in describing France’s security situation. More significantly, positive assessment of Macron’s handling of crime had dropped to 27% — down from 32% last October and from 41% in April 2018.
The importance of crime among voters has put Macron in a dilemma: how to appear tough on crime without embracing the loaded language of the far right.
So far, Macron has avoided pronouncing judgment on the term. Last week, he appeared visibly annoyed when a reporter asked him about the word “ensauvagement,” replying that “actions are important.”
“You’ve done the Kama Sutra on ‘ensauvagement’ for the past 15 days,” Macron added, meaning that the media had analyzed it from every possible position.
In July, Macron, acutely aware of the electoral importance of crime as an issue, chose as his new interior minister and head of the national police a very close ally of Sarkozy, Gérald Darmanin. Darmanin, who has become the government’s face against crime, has also unapologetically defended the use of the word “ensauvagement.”
In the prelude to the 2017 presidential election, Macron portrayed himself as a progressive candidate and successfully dodged the themes of crime that pervaded the discourse of his main opponent, Marine Le Pen.
But over the past year, he has been moving progressively to the right, in an effort to appeal to an electorate that has become “more conservative, more right-wing,” said Vincent Martigny, a professor of political science at the University of Nice.
“He is being careful not to lose points in a presidential race that has already started,” Martigny said.
Presidential contenders across the political spectrum are jumping on the issue of crime.