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Bernard-Henri Lévy

Bernard-Henri Lévy

Posted: August 4, 2010 10:57 AM

Nicolas Sarkozy's Three Errors

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In the space of eight days, thanks to the summer break and its accompanying torpor, the President of the Republic has made three mistakes.

The first was to call for a summit at the Elysée on July 28th in the wake of very serious acts of delinquency that took place in the city of Saint-Aignan, its purpose being to "review" the "situation of the Roms and the gens du voyage".* First of all, it is by no means certain that the Elysée is the best place to debate questions of delinquency. Second, there can be no doubt that the very concept of such a summit suggests a way of lumping together foreigners whose papers are not in order (some of the Roms) and full-fledged citizens (the men and women more or less unwillingly classified under the statistical and administrative category of "gens du voyage") who have been French for several generations and thus subject, as such, to the laws that govern all of the French. But it is manifestly evident that the very fact of convoking this meeting, of referring to the Roms or the gens du voyage, when certain individual Roms or gens du voyage have been responsible for certain crimes or misdemeanors, in short, of blaming a community for the actions of some of its members, invites a risk of collective stigmatization which is contrary to republican practices. Public opinion was not mistaken in what it perceived as the resurgence, from the heights of government ministries to the gutter of populism, of the clichés about "chicken stealing" or "high-powered Mercedes owning" gypsies we thought worn out, having seen them put to atrociously murderous effect in the recent past. And as for those concerned, as for the honest people (since that seems to be the current expression, according to the President and his ministers) who live their nomad culture in honest economic precariousness or tax-paying opulence, as for these French citizens of long standing or of adoption who, community for community, (since they are being treated as one or rather two communities), had the additional surprise of discovering that no one even thought to invite a representative or witness of said communities, today they are in a state of shock. No one would have dared to treat another group in this way. Any other social category -- and it's a good thing -- would have been granted the elementary courtesy (or precaution?) of seeking their advice. As it happens, no one did so. And the fact that so few leaders find that disturbing, that this slip, this oversight, this contempt should occur so openly and so innocently, that even the left seemed to judge the cause scarcely merited its programmed indignation, can only add to the anger, the sorrow and, alas, the pity.

The second error, in a speech given in the city of Grenoble, was the proposition to strip all persons of foreign origin who may have "voluntarily threatened the life of a policeman, a gendarme, or any other agent of public authority" of their French nationality. I shall gloss over the ubuesque character of the idea of foreign origin. Just where does foreign origin start? In the spirit of the measure in consideration, after how many generations will one be protected from possible loss of nationality? Does the President have a criterion in mind? A test (perhaps DNA)? And in the hypothetical case that the wise men of the Conseil Constitutionnel, the Conseil d'Etat, or simply the Parlement should validate this insane proposition, what would become of those deprived of nationality? Since, like nearly everyone, they haven't a spare nationality, into what legal abyss would they tumble? Ex-French? Stateless? On the pretext that, as the President puts it, the citizen-making machine "worked" but "no longer works", shall we replace it with a machine that makes people without a country? The worst of it, and the heart of the matter, is that if the proposition is a serious one and not just a way of going through the motions in an attempt to grab some of Marine Le Pen's Front National electoral base, it would blatantly contravene an axiom that is thrice-honored, for it is triply engraved in the marble of the three texts that make up the foundations of life in the French Republic: the March 15th, 1944 program of the National Council of the Resistance, the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights, and the Constitution of 1958. This axiom expresses the basic premise of all citizens' «equality before the law" (regardless, precisely, of their "origins"). It states that one is French or one is not, but starting from the moment when one is French, we are all French in the same manner. It insists: one becomes French or not, but as soon as one has become French, it is prohibited to distinguish between us as more French or less. We can discuss the conditions that allow access to becoming-French in other terms--multiply them, tighten them, refine and solemnize them. But to allow an insinuation of a shadow of the idea that there are two classes of French citizens, those born French and those who have simply become French, to let ourselves go and imagine an order of things whereby there would be trial Frenchmen and permanent Frenchmen, suspended Frenchmen and confirmed Frenchmen, Frenchmen who remain so even if they have committed delinquent acts and those who cease to be so because, really, they were only semi-French -- if France is France, this is quite simply inconceivable. It's a question of principle. And this kind of principle remains untouchable, even by ruse or by tactic. For if we take the risk of playing with this fundamental premise, it is the very base of the republic, this good that is common to all Frenchmen, that begins to become shaky. Off we go, flowers in our rifle barrels, to hunt the vandals of the police stations. Once arrived, we find ourselves taking on the role of one who vandalizes what the police are also supposed to protect: the spirit of the laws, the sense of right, the letter of a Fundamental Law intended to tell us what being French means. And I am not even mentioning the followers who (the imagination of the imbecile being no more limited than anyone else's) have plunged into the breach of a policy that, as incessantly drummed into them from on high, should be without taboos, a policy that, indeed, breaks the last taboos of honor and common sense by issuing, for example, this astounding, almost insane proposition: that the parents of delinquent minors who have failed, in particular, in their "obligations in terms of scholastic results" should be thrown in prison!

And finally, the third error comes in the mere use of the word war in the President's declaration, also at Grenoble, of a "national war" against the new hoodlums. The word was already problematic when George W. Bush used it in the United States to declare a war on terrorism his predecessor Bill Clinton had observed, in a timely fashion, would be just as well served by the classic but implacable methods of a police hunt. The word was problematic, as well, in France, during the riots in the suburbs in 2005, when then-Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin exhumed a decree dating from the Algerian war to impose a curfew in those neighborhoods, it was instantly clear, the highest authorities of the State -- those whose mission it was to calm people down, to reject any escalation of violence, to temper repression and discussion in order to isolate and eventually punish the delinquents -- considered enemy territory. Well, it is equally shocking when President Sarkozy uses it again and, in so doing, confirms the idea that France may be engaged in a real internal war --in short, meeting outrage with outrage, escalation with another form of escalation, taking a double, even triple risk: that of instilling a sort of tension, a fever, perhaps fear and, basically, insecurity in the country by dramatizing the situation; that of coming to hoodlum territory, accepting the challenge they throw at him and, consequently, consenting to this racheting up to extremes which is the fruit of their imagination as well as their secret project; and finally, that of engaging in a battle that democracies, these kingdoms of law and scruple, have always known they are ill-equipped to conduct and which, as a result, they are by no means sure to know how to win. When hoodlums talk about war, it's a provocation. When a State says, "we're on, it's war!" it's called a civil war. And it is precisely because there is a threat of civil war, precisely because social ties are becoming strained everywhere, that we must do everything possible to prevent what the mafia-toughs present as inevitable. And we must tirelessly repeat: delinquents are not the enemy, they are criminals; the people charged with the task of neutralizing them are not soldiers, they are policemen. And if this neutralization proves difficult, if the systems of modern incivility have become more sophisticated, compelling those who oppose them to use greater skill as well as increased firmness, the very worst of solutions would be to return to the rustic, martial and, once again, highly risky language of the militarization of police actions. To speak of the war on hoodlums is to have already lost it.

Well then, these are words, we say. They're only words, probably dictated by political considerations. Except that, in the mouth of a President of the Republic, the words are always more than just words, conveying to a society its inspiration, its rhythm, its reflexes. Faced with the rise of insecurity and hatred, faced with the necessity, as Michel Foucault put it, to defend society against those whose entire program consists of nihilism, faced with the burning obligation, whatever the current naïve optimism, to combat public hoodlums and their unlimited violence, there are really two solutions. Either push things to the extreme, using the decadent language of war, of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. This will never be anything more than a sophisticated version of the unhappily famous «piss off, you lousy jerk»**. And since the example was set on high and citizens mysteriously but constantly take the princes' behavior as the standard for their own, it's the guarantee of a feverish, unassuaged, confrontational society where resentment and hatred will rapidly become the last ties of the social contract. Or we can avoid this trap, cease to launch attacks of thundering and supposedly powerful declarations which, I repeat, merely underline the impotence of States, leave the ranks of the swaggering braggarts and their burning passion for mimetic rivalry and the mindset of revenge and find our place in another body. This one, according to the great historian Ernst Kantorowicz, is made not of passion but of the distance required to find audacity, firmness, but also wisdom, finesse, measure, and, most of all, sangfroid. In this case, these are the sole worthwhile virtues. But it is such qualities that, these days, Nicolas Sarkozy seems most tragically to lack.

*"Itinerant populations » (gens de voyage) is a legal classification of French citizens of three major groups, varying percentages of whom (15% to 100%) lead a basically nomadic existence, travelling throughout France. Roms are a gypsy population, most of whom are not French citizens, with origins in Rumania.

**In February, 2008, at the Agricultural Fair in Paris, Sarkozy told a man who refused to shake his hand, "Casse-toi, pauvre con!" This can be translated in several ways, all of them extremely vulgar.