Lecturing at the Collège de France thirty years ago on the nature of the state, Pierre Bourdieu queried Weber’s notion that functioning states enjoy a monopoly of ‘legitimate physical violence’. Bourdieu already preferred the expression ‘legitimate and symbolic physical violence’, and in the lectures he commented: ‘One could even call it the “monopoly of legitimate symbolic violence”.’
In the last few years, the French police have overstepped the mark. The use of unreasonable force is nothing new. More worrying is the coincidence, on more than one occasion, of physical violence with sinister signals that make a mockery of the idea that the police are a ‘legitimate’ expression of symbolic violence on the part of the state. If they are, then France is in trouble. Take the case of Théo Luhaka, a 22-year-old youth worker arrested in Seine-Saint-Denis in 2017 during an altercation between a group of young men and police. After he was detained, Luhaka was assaulted with an expandable truncheon, leaving him with severe lesions of the anal sphincter and (it’s assumed) lifelong incontinence. A dark thought in a policeman’s head, or an abusive remark on the tip of his tongue, erupted in the real world. The violence of the racial symbolism – using a crowd-control weapon to rape a black man of Congolese origin, believed perhaps to be getting above his station (his uncle is a cabinet minister in DRC) – compounded the awfulness of the deed.
At the end of the following year, as the gilets jaunes began protesting, often violently, and the police reciprocated, there was a significant rise in the number of demonstrators with eye injuries, including blinding, caused by anti-riot projectiles aimed at the head, against every rule in the book. The symbolic use of day-glo jackets by the gilets jaunes had sent a clear message: don’t overlook us in the twilight areas of the economy, or pretend you haven’t seen us. The response from riot police was to acknowledge the visibility of the demonstrators and turn it against them: yes, we see you, but by the time this is over, some of you won’t be able to see us. At least forty people were wounded in the eyes during gilet-jaune protests; around thirty required surgery and nine of those had to have an eye removed. The UN raised the issue of violent policing in France; the Macron administration was dismissive.
Migrants and asylum seekers are also targeted with extreme messages. In mid-November, between two and three thousand migrants, camped under a motorway slip road on the outskirts of Paris, were dispersed; people were bused to shelters and provisional accommodation, but many were back on the streets within days. The following week, around 450 migrants, mostly Afghans, with NGO support, staged a protest camp in Paris, pitching their orderly rows of tents on the Place de la République. It was broken up by the police in short order. Migrants and NGO workers were pushed around; teargas was fired; a journalist was pinned to the ground and threatened with a beating. The mayor’s office was dumbfounded.
The confiscation of tents struck a familiar note. Violent dispersals became routine in Calais following the 2015 refugee crisis: destruction of shoes and sleeping bags, pepper spray on food and clothes, even on sleeping children. All this by way of reminding migrants that they have no place in France. Many are ‘sans papiers’; some of their asylum claims are unlikely to be met, if they haven’t failed already. But the law doesn’t state that they should be stripped of their possessions or trashed in a show of contempt that has nothing to do with the ‘legitimate’ symbolic violence that Bourdieu had in mind – or even Gérard Darmanin, France’s hard-bitten interior minister, who tweeted that images of police behaviour in the Place de la République were ‘shocking’.
But Darmanin is in a spot, and so are the security forces. Two days before the camp was dismantled, there was another, far more notorious policing disaster, when Michel Zecler, a music producer reprimanded at the door of his recording studio for not wearing a Covid mask, was set on by a gang of police. The beating was caught on CCTV. France has been warned more than once not to assume that racist policing only happens in America.
Within days the footage had been watched more than 12 million times. Macron posted on Facebook that the images ‘shame us’: ‘respect for the Republic’s values and professional ethics,’ he wrote, ‘must be central to the obligations of all our security forces.’ He also wrote that he would ‘never accept’ violence against French security forces: a reasonable remark if it weren’t for the fact that the country is embroiled in a debate about a new ‘global security’ law, which has just been voted through the Assembly, dividing Macron’s MPs and provoking an outcry from the press.
The offending item, article 24, proposes restrictions on citizens, and the press, when they film or photograph police going about their work; it also proposes restrictions on the publication of those images. (There is nothing in the proposed law against written reporting: it doesn’t cut it.) Article 24 is a defiant response from the Ministry of the Interior to recordings of police behaviour during the gilet-jaune protests in 2018 and 2019. It also aims to allay justifiable fears among the police that they are being filmed on duty, identified on social media and endangered in their private lives, as the big platforms indulge subscribers in their favourite pastime: the trending vendetta.
The government is on the back foot. It has said that it wishes to rule only against the use of footage for ‘malicious’ purposes. In November it took the unusual step of convening a committee to reconsider article 24, which astonished MPs, including many in Macron’s majority, who had doubts about the law in the first place. They worried that the parliamentary process was being taken out of their hands. Last weekend more than a hundred thousand demonstrators turned out across France to oppose the bill. It was an impressive show of dissent, under the circumstances. Much to his fury, Macron has been forced to interfere in day-to-day government and the parliamentary process, and to tell his minister of the interior that he has got the story wrong. Article 24 of the ‘global security’ bill will be rewritten by parliament, not committee. It may well die a death in the process.