Can Europe Make It?: Opinion

The questions that must be asked in Paris today

“ The capital had offered two buildings, large enough to give emergency accommodation for all, if the central government would only cough up… No such luck. Bayrou never got asked about that.”

Chris Myant
Chris Myant
30 November 2020, 11.36am
MoDem party president François Bayrou, 2019.
Moritz Thibaud/PA. All rights reserved.

France’s biggest supermarket chain, Carrefour, may have security guards in Brazil that can beat to death a Black customer, but here in France the company has not yet bowed before the country’s ring master of police violence, the Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin.

Its local hypermarket near us still has special shelves offering halal foods and, across the long aisle, kosher. Special, only in the same sense that, if one is out shopping and looking for spices, you know more easily where to find them if there is a spice shelf rather than having to find the cardamom hidden beside the organic eggs and the black pepper tucked behind some washing powder.

Poor Gérald could not possibly stand between them without suffering an attack of apoplexy over the fact that this French business has shelves reserved for what he denounced a month ago as an unacceptable sign of “separatism”. Simple commercial sense from the point of view of its owners who have been steadily extending the shelf space concerned, even as France’s governing politicians have been hard at it stoking the furnace of racism.

It was while studying the rows of matzos, spices, dried fruit and coconut, even the barley couscous that started its life in an East Anglian field but is destined to end it in a Moroccan tagine in a tower block in Paris’ 13th arrondissement and which, because of Brexit, may be the last of those grains to follow such a trajectory, that I found my smart phone alerting me to the latest twist in Darmanin’s currently sorry life.

Return to normalcy

On Monday, just before midnight, he had hurriedly tweeted out that scenes of police officers ripping up tents in which Afghan refugees were sleeping were unacceptable. Smart phone videos had been circulating of an officer tripping up a refugee escaping from the truncheons of their gung-ho colleagues; politicians blocked and pushed by police lines; hundreds of homeless refugees sent hither and thither in the streets of the capital. There needed to be an inquiry. Darmanin wanted the report on his desk within 48 hours. And nobody says that sort of thing if they do not already know what the verdict will be.

Oooh!! For a whole day, the mainstream media commentators squealed with a frisson of excitement. Perhaps this would mean that Didier Lallement, the Prefect of Police for Paris who ordered that the refugees and their supporters be cleared from the capital’s Place de la République, might be made to walk the plank.

Not a bit of it. That was not Darmanin’s purpose. Nor that of his master in the Elysée. President Emmanuel Macron was due to address the nation on Tuesday evening. He was aiming to be seen as delivering good news: an elaborately staged, piecemeal end to France’s Covid-19 lockdown.

The last thing either wanted was that we might all have at the front of our thoughts the image of a pesky policeman’s boot sending a fleeing asylum seeker plunging face first toward the stone pavement, while watching Macron try to persuade us that, far from having completely botched the whole epidemic response, he is in full control of a slow but sure return to the sunny uplands of normalcy.

The Presidential address done and dusted, our Christmas shopping lists being drawn up, Darmanin was happy to arrange the suspension of a brace of officers who had made the mistake of hitting out here or there in front of a running camera, and happy to do it with Lallement well and truly still in post. Darmanin even explained that clearing La République had been his idea, which means, in reality, that it was Macron’s.

Darmanin even explained that clearing La République had been his idea, which means, in reality, that it was Macron’s.

The Prefect showed how firmly he was in office by announcing a ban on the rally from Place de la République planned for the following Saturday by France’s four journalist unions and a wide coalition of human rights organisations, all opposed to the security law that seeks to stop the filming of police violence.

There could be a static meeting, ringed with steel barriers and the serried ranks of the Prefect’s officers. But a march? Far too dangerous. Imagine what the hacks might do with their pens, let alone their smart phones. Remember, Lallement does not take decisions like that without a nudge from above, indeed from the very top.

Is there another European capital?

One had been digesting all of this while listening on the Thursday morning to one of the main breakfast news radio stations interview a politician who is a mainstay of the Macron regime. François Bayrou poo-pooed the idea that the police operation against the Afghans had been overly violent. Indeed, it had not been anything serious at all. In any case, he asked us listeners, was there another European capital where hundreds of such people were allowed to set up a tent city in its very heart?

It is impossible to remain calm when public service radio interviewers let a politician like Bayrou leave such a statement without any follow up. For, let us ask, is there another European capital where several hundred asylum seekers, left to fend for themselves, are chased, as these Afghans were for the whole week beforehand after their tent city in the suburbs had been broken up by Lallement’s police who then harried them, night and day – these many hundreds left without any help from government agencies?

Those movements and elected representatives who try their best to ameliorate such situations, organised a tented protest in Place de la République, some of the tents placed on the very spot from where, 62 years earlier, General Charles de Gaulle proclaimed the constitution for his Fifth Republic, a constitution that includes “fraternity” as one of its values. Médecins du Monde spoke of “the urgency of breaking with the infernal cycle of expulsions and unsanitary camps”.

The way things work in France is that the Paris municipal authorities cannot themselves spend money on looking after the refugees. But the capital had offered two buildings, large enough to give emergency accommodation for all, if the central government would only cough up the sums required to set things in motion. No such luck. Bayrou never even got asked about that.

His centrist MoDem party is more than ever needed by Macron. The president’s own movement, La République En Marche!, has seen so many of its deputies jump ship that it has lost its majority in the National Assembly. It depends on Bayrou’s group to be certain to maintain the progress of the legislation it wants to get onto the statute book. A raft of laws is being pushed through at the moment, many by accelerated procedures. The next big one is a law on ‘Republican values’ that will amount to an institutionalisation of Islamophobia in French public practice.

One might also have wanted to hear the interviewers raise a general question about Bayrou’s continuing presence in French public life.

François Bayrou (second from left), PM Edouard Philippe (third), Gérald Darmanin (fifth) at La Republique En Marche meeting, 2019. | Moritz Thibaud/PA. All rights reserved.

Modem rewarded

During Macron’s drive for power in the run up to the presidential vote there was a crucial moment when he was trying to make sure he could overtake both the left and the traditional right in the first round of the vote and so be alone against the extreme right’s Marine Le Pen in the final ballot, something that would guarantee him victory. When he was navigating those tense weeks in the spring of 2017, Bayrou, a potentially important candidate himself, agreed to step aside and give Macron a clearer run for the Elysée.

His thank you present from the new President was two fold. Macron let him have a brace of seats in the Assembly for Modem. And he got the prize of the Ministry of Justice for himself. He had just enough time in that role to table the text of a law on honesty in public office before he was forced to resign when he was charged with fiddling the money provided to members of the European Parliament for their assistants. These assistants had been systematically used to work for Modem in France.

All that was over three years ago. Is the reason why the case is still meandering through the ever-lengthening corridors of French judicial investigation something to do with the fact that it provides Macron with a helpful sword of Damocles held over Bayrou, or is it just the way things are? After all, the former President Nicolas Sarkozy has only now started the first of what promise to be four corruption trials, some of them dealing with issues as long ago as the election of 2007 or that of 2012.

Like Bayrou, Sarkozy is hardly ever out of the public eye.

Like Bayrou, Sarkozy is hardly ever out of the public eye. He has made himself an important gofer in big business affairs but, above all, has been a welcome guest at the Elysée. His last visit was for dinner with Macron on 17 November, a week before he was to appear in court and the day the law we are all demonstrating against was first debated in the Assembly.

So, in such a capital as Paris, where these sort of things happen, why shouldn’t Bayrou have been allowed to hold us all enthralled by his complacent dismissal of evidence of police violence? And why not let him do that just as the social media across France were beginning to buzz with yet another fine example of French policing at its undoubted best? For Darmanin had barely had time to relax after trying to get the Monday night shenanigans off the airwaves, before he was having to demand that there be yet another inquiry and more officers suspended.

This time it was not a stray boot that popped into view, but an entire police patrol. Its members had forgotten that their colleagues in crime prevention always recommend small businesses to install security cameras in their premises. Hence the buzz from my smart phone as I was trying to decide what to buy from his hated halal shelf at Carrefour.

The police had spent well over five minutes thumping and racially insulting Michel Zecler on Saturday 21 November under the gaze of a camera in the recording studio premises where he worked. It’s to be found here. The patrol then went back to their station and wrote a report on the incident that was a lie. Four of them are now out on their own for their stupidity in embarrassing the minister, and his president, so totally.

When worms turn

During the week, Sarkozy became the first Fifth Republic president to turn up in a courtroom as the accused, but he is not the first to face trial. His predecessor, the superficially genial Jacques Chirac, was found guilty back in 2011 of corruption in public office. He copped two years suspended. Chirac’s closest, Alain Juppé, at one point his prime minister, got 18 months suspended in 2004 over corruption when the two were running the town hall in Paris. Juppé was made a member of the Constitutional Court by Macron this year. This is the high judicial institution to which the present premier, Jean Castex, trying to deflect public criticism, first of all proposed to refer the Clause 24 of the Global Security law, the clause intended to dissuade us all from photographing those boots, fists and truncheons.

That was before Castex decided, by the time I got back home with my purchases, to toss the whole thing over to a special commission which he said could come up with a better text. No sooner done than it turned out to be a real error on his part. Hey, said a whole bunch of Macron’s stooge parliamentarians, what are we here for? Finally these worms had turned. The fact that, in the Macronie, decisions come from above was something they knew all along. Publicly rubbing their noses in it was too embarrassing for all but the most craven.

Even the chair of the Assembly, Richard Ferrand (one of Macron’s earliest acolytes and who was charged in September 2019 over an affair of corruption that took place before he got into Macron’s political bed), said the deputies should have first bite at this cherry.

So, instead, a commission of experts, headed by the chair of the National Consultative Committee on Human Rights, will kick it all into the long grass until 15 January when it will offer suggestions as to how the media and the police can do their work together. The Senate will discuss it all before March, putting a law meant to have been on the statute book within a week into suspended animation.

The end of the Grand National Debate

Notice something here? When the Gilets Jaunes burst on the scene two years ago and refused to lie down under a hail of police violence, sometimes far worse than that delivered to Michel Zecler, Macron deployed his Grand National Debate. For a short while, it threatened to escape from his control but he managed to keep hold of the reins as the Gilets Jaunes were slowly ground out to the margins of French public life. He understands that, this time round, a national debate with any sort of public participation is not going to work in his favour.

This time round, a national debate with any sort of public participation is not going to work in his favour.

An added reason for this is that we are witnessing the unravelling of the tail end of his Grand National Debate, the Citizens Climate Convention. Macron rejected three of the proposals put forward by its 150 members but said the rest would be put to the parliament without any filtering. By chance, it was this week as well that the convention members and the rest of us learned that “without any filtering” meant the very opposite. The members wanted a clear and effective crime of ecocide but on Monday all they got was a pale, toothless shadow.

Proof that neither a staged public debate, or even a randomly chosen convention, will serve as an escape route this time came later in the week as he tried to respond to the growing anger over police violence. Having at first haughtily condescended to order his staff at the Elysée to “let it be known” that he was “more than shocked” over Michel’s experience, he realised that he needed to say something more. A 386-word statement appeared on his Facebook page late on the Friday.

By early Saturday morning when I clicked to read it, 14 million people had already viewed the video of Michel’s encounter, nearly one in four of the entire French population. Viewers of Macron’s contribution were still being counted in the thousands. Small wonder, for it was replete with vacuous exhortations of his “en même temps” variety. “I believe in our liberties of which I am the guarantor . . . I believe in an exemplary Republic. Police who are exemplary with the French people. The French people exemplary with the forces of order as with all the representatives of public authority.”

The point of all this is, surely, obvious. Unless you take this whole tangled mess into account, you cannot understand the way that behind the focused eyes of Macron trying to persuade you all is for the good, there is a cesspool of governmental hypocrisy and manipulation; that behind constant claims from Darmanin that there are only a handful of rotten apples in the police barrel, there is a policing practice that in its incompetent and its more conscious parts, ensures violence and menace is ever present; or, that underneath the seeming public acceptance of the mismanagement of the epidemic, and of the economic crisis that this mismanagement has provoked, there is a cancer of cynicism, of mistrust, sometimes of resignation, but always of resentment, that all bodes ill for the future in France.

An even bigger morass

To put it another way, the electoral ground is steadily inching in favour of Marine Le Pen just as the legal armoury she would like to have at her disposal is being put in place on the back of a perverted argument that the best way of draining her swamp is to create an even bigger morass of “hunt down the migrant”, “root out the Islamist” “protect our forces of order” measures.

What started out suggesting a promise of youth, of progress (a fundraising email I got from LREM just as I started this paragraph asked me to “share our humanist and progressist values”) has collapsed into an almost sadistic destruction of trade union power, of social supports for anyone on the poorer side of the fence, privatisation, a cornucopia for the very rich and a scrabble to implement the rankest proposals pushed by those on the right that play on the fears and prejudices of that part of the public Macron now hopes, probably vainly, will vote for him.

Saturday’s rallies around France were a forceful expression of the opposition both to police violence and the attempts by Macron and his team to cover up the evidence. Much of the time I could not move, such was the press of people at the Paris march – many still massed in La République even as the whole boulevard from there to La Bastille, 1.7 kilometres long, was filled, the roadway and the pavements, with La Bastille already crowded.

Saturday’s rallies around France were a forceful expression of the opposition both to police violence and the attempts by Macron and his team to cover up the evidence.

Yes, there was an attempt to disrupt. Two cars burnt, a motorbike set on fire, some windows smashed while the police stood back firing gas and projectiles. Who did it? Not the thousands upon thousands of demonstrators but a handful of those togged up in black, their faces masked who have come to plague every mass protest with any left content to it over the last six years. It gave the excuse for some ritual exchanges of violence between police and rioters amid clouds of tear gas as darkness came on. In many of the videos of these moments you can make out more journalists filming what is happening than there are police or their opponents.

As the sun set against the golden sculpture on top the monument to the dead of successive revolts against royalist tyranny that marks the centre of Place de la Bastille, a lawyer for the Human Rights League told us over the loud speakers, our eyes stinging with tear gas, that he had marched this route so many times in defence of rights. “Sometimes we did not win. But we will keep on marching.”

Beside the back of the lorry from which he spoke was a small poster held aloft by someone: “Macron pompier pyromane” – Macron, an arsonist fire-fighter. The fire-fighter spoke to Michel Zecler by phone. The arsonist presides over new laws (one has just gone through imposing a possible jail sentence for any protests on university premises, imagine that in the country of May ’68) and a continuing cesspool of police violence, new evidence of which was surfacing as the weekend closed. In this case, a police cover up of an incident last year in which a plainclothes patrol opened fire on a vehicle claiming they had been fired at. Video now revealed shows that they were never under threat.

With a cup of warm tea barely consumed after getting back from La Bastille, tranquillity in our narrow street was disrupted by a roar of motorbikes. Didier Lallement’s BRAV-M fast response unit had cornered a dozen or so young demonstrators right opposite our kitchen window. They were lined up against the wall as the commander shouted that they had been trying to continue a demonstration after the time limit set by his boss. Clearly, an abominable crime against democracy, though what exactly was the crime I leave you, and not Lallement, to decide.

After half an hour of me filming the whole show with the police laboriously filling out paperwork, they were led off, their hands manacled with nylon handcuffs. The demonstration, a fraction over a kilometre away, had been scheduled by the Prefect to end at 18.00 hours. The photo below is timed at 19.19. I had already been filming for some ten minutes before taking the photo. So they had perhaps been “continuing the demonstration” for half an hour. Welcome to the world of Macron, Darmanin and Lallement.

Rue Jean Bouton, 28 Nov. 19.19 hours.
Rue Jean Bouton, 28 Nov. 19.19 hours.
Author's image. All rights reserved.
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