The racist myth of France’s ‘descent into savagery’
A new word has entered France’s political lexicon: “ensauvagement.”
Or rather, this new word — which translates as “descent into savagery”— has made its way from the political fringes into the mainstream discourse.
When Marine Le Pen in 2013 first plucked the term from a book written by the far-right author Laurent Obertone, no one paid much attention. But since September 2018, the leader of the far-right National Rally has used it in every speech and TV appearance, painting a picture of a country under siege from a surge of uncontrolled criminal violence she blames on cities’ poor inner suburbs and the effects of “mass migration.”
That idea now shows worrying signs of gaining traction, following a rash of nasty incidents during the summer.
The use of the word “savage” is not accidental.
In July, a bus driver was beaten to death in Bayonne after telling a group of young men from a multi-racial cité (housing project) to wear face masks. Then, in Lyon, a young woman was dragged for 800 meters and killed after being struck by a car taking part in a “rodeo” — or illegal road race.
In the national capital, young supporters of the Paris Saint-Germain football club — mostly under 18 and mostly from the banlieues — burned cars and looted shops around the Champs Elysées last month to celebrate a semi-final victory, and then again to lament their team’s final defeat in the European Champions League.
Responding to the incidents — and to their wall-to-wall coverage in right-wing outlets and on social media — politicians on the harder end of the center-right embraced the term ensauvagement. Even President Emmanuel Macron’s new interior minister, Gérard Darmanin, spoke in an interview last month of the dangers of the ensauvagement of “part of society.”
To be sure, the recent attacks should not be dismissed or played down. Nor should the long-standing problem of violent and criminal behavior from gangs of mostly young men in the inner suburbs of French cities. Many of them — though not all — are of North African or African origin, though most are second-, third- or even fourth-generation. In other words, whatever Le Pen may say, they are not migrants; they are French.
But the claim that France is descending into some apocalyptic twilight world of migrant-driven violence is nonsense. Or rather, it is a lie calculated to stir racial prejudice and hatred. The use of the word “savage” is not accidental.
What Le Pen is not so subtly suggesting is that the presence of large numbers of brown and Black people on French soil, whether they are recent migrants or not, is undesirable. Brown and Black people, she implies, are culturally alien to France and prone to violence.
It would be idle to deny that the banlieues are violent and sometimes scary places. I’ve often visited them during my 22 years in France. Attitudes of the younger generations in the inner suburbs are hardening. They reject all authority — and especially that of the police.
But the multiracial banlieues are also home to hundreds of thousands of hard-working men and women with a multiplicity of backgrounds. Some are people of French origin, others are long-established families of North African or African origin, and others still are more recent migrants.
These were the people who commuted in their thousands to perform essential, physical work in France’s cities during the height of the coronavirus epidemic in March and April when others isolated at home.
The violence in the banlieues, though endemic, is mostly internal — miserably so for this majority of law-abiding residents. Violent eruptions into city centers are relatively rare.
Nevertheless, Le Pen’s drumbeat is having its effect on public opinion. So is social media. Violent incidents, like those in Bayonne or Lyon, are reported endlessly on hard-right sites or Facebook pages. The official crime stats rarely make an appearance.
Several French mainstream newspapers and news outlets have pushed back against the narrative that violent crime is on the rise. They include the excellent Catholic daily newspaper La Croix, which cannot be mistaken for an organ of the liberal left.
So far they haven’t had much success. According to an Elabe poll published last week, 32 percent of French people are now anxious for their personal safety, compared with 18 percent a year ago. Almost 60 percent of French people say that violence is increasing.
There is, in fact, no evidence that France is becoming more violent. Rather the opposite.
In the last 25 years, the French murder rate has fallen by almost half and is five times lower than in the United States, when you account for population. Violent robbery and acts of personal violence are stable — even falling, if you exclude sexual assaults which, thankfully, are now reported more systematically to the police.
“In truth, contrary to received ideas, our society is becoming less and less violent” — Laurent Mucchielli, French criminologist
More recently — since Le Pen began her mantra — violent crime (leaving aside sexual assaults) has fallen from 647,000 incidents in 2012 to 579,000 in 2018. Property crimes have fallen from 4.6 million in 2010 to 3.8 million in 2018.
“In truth, contrary to received ideas, our society is becoming less and less violent,” said French criminologist Laurent Mucchielli.
Facts or no facts, the drumbeat continues. The issue will doubtless be used, by the far right and by the right, to flay Macron in the presidential election in 2022, even as the government tries to appear tough on crime.
To see how ludicrous this line of attack is, it’s illuminating to turn Le Pen’s allegations on their head.
The real peaks for murder in recent French history were the late 1940s and the 1970s to the mid-1990s. France now has 6,500,000 people of migrant origin, just under 10 percent of the population — ranging from Algerians to Americans. In 1975, the percentage of people of migrant origin in France was 7.4 percent. In 1946, it was 5 percent.
In both those years, very violent crimes — and especially murders — were more rampant than they are now.