Can Europe Make It?

Three searing indictments of France and counting

Bastille Day 2020, with its carefully selected group of health workers, shows who is in and who out.

Chris Myant
Chris Myant
15 July 2020, 10.48am
Balloon banner reads, “Behind the tributes, Macron asphyxiates the hospital” over the Bastille military parade.
Niviere David/PA. All rights reserved.

The self-appointed home of human rights is having a tough time of it just now. Two searing indictments of France have been left for President Macron as parting presents by the country’s two retiring guardians of rights. Their descriptions of the consequences of ministerial inaction over the years chime with a deep sense of outrage across much of the French public over the new government just appointed by Macron.

Adeline Hazan, the Controller General of Places of Deprivation of Liberty (the literal translation of her title), has been for six years the equivalent of the two Chief Inspectors of Prisons in Britain. As with the Inspectors’ reports in Britain, her regular reports have excoriated conditions in prisons, police cells and psychiatric hospitals.

Only as recently as 2009 did French law establish the principle of resettlement – preparing prisoners for life outside so they could avoid re-offending – and clarify that prisoners did have rights. But things have not stopped going down hill since.

Overcrowding is so bad that the European Court of Human Rights condemned France this last January. On 8 July, the Cour de Cassation, the judicial body responsible for ensuring French courts abide by the law correctly, decreed that judges should free those on remand where the conditions in the prison were degrading.

Hazan’s review of her experience in inspecting those conditions over six years came out on 10 July: prison conditions were harsher than ever, successive governments did not listen to her criticisms and she had ended up asking what was the use of a role that consisted solely of making recommendations.

Jacques Toubon, the Défenseur de droits, an all-embracing ombudsman role, chose to leave his farewell note on the desk of the new Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin. He made eight proposals for changes in the way the police behave toward the public ranging from having all on patrol equipped with body cameras to banning offensive projectiles and stopping the practice of kettling demonstrators.

Hazan’s concerns got not a mention in Macron’s “unprecedented” 14 July interview on public radio and television. It was supposed to be the occasion when he would outline the grand lines of his programme for the next 600 days, the tasks his “new” government would be undertaking. Instead we heard a president who would not answer direct questions, talked over the journalists as they tried to make it an interview not a series of soliloquies, and ended leaving the sour taste of someone trying to appear sincere but failing totally.

Bastille Day

Macron Castex
French Prime Minister Jean Castex and French President Emmanuel Macron during the July 14 Bastille Day Parade. | Niviere David/PA. All rights reserved.

The interview was the third part of his Bastille Day celebrations. First came a parade with a carefully selected group of health workers in the wide space of Place de la Concorde, intended to be a mark of thanks to those he had left unarmed at the front line against Covid-19. Then came the commemoration at the Arc de Triomphe, France’s memorial to Napoleon’s wars of conquest.

Those under Darmanin, had mobilised all their power and paraphernalia to frustrate any attempts to spoil his day. Spy drones were out and specialist snipers were up on the rooftops around L’Etoile, the huge roundabout with the Arc at its centre. Thousands marched elsewhere in Paris in support of a health service properly funded and health workers properly paid with the usual heavy guard of riot police (look for the clips of video showing the guy in a wheel chair surrounded by them to get a feel of it all) but, for Macron, all was supposed to be clockwork, both the events and the interview.

Thousands marched elsewhere in Paris in support of a health service properly funded and health workers properly paid with the usual heavy guard of riot police.

Yet there in the sky above L’Etoile, floating aloft with the help of dozens of colourful party balloons just as the Marseillaise was reaching its crescendo, was a giant banner proclaiming “Behind the homage, Macron is asphyxiating the hospitals”.

Darmanin had failed in his first test. No wonder one tweet declared: “Absolutely must track down the authors of this banner. They deserve a medal: ‘The eternal gratitude of the French people’.”

Man to man

Hazan’s concerns might have been ignored by the President in his 600 day battle plan. But he could not side step the public outrage over his decision to put Darmanin in charge of France’s police. There have been protest demonstrations large and small across France because the Minister is under investigation on a rape charge. Macron told us that “I share the feminist cause. I have made it a red thread for this presidency” but “There is the presumption of innocence . . . I can understand this emotion, but with the justice of the street our democracy loses its sense.” He then played his trump card: “There was a discussion, in confidence, man to man.”

Darmanin has also been given a clean bill by his deputy, Marlene Schiappa, now Minister Responsible for Citizenship but for the last two years the minister covering equality and women. She would, she said, be backing his programme for “Republican re-conquest on the ground”.

Which brings one back to Jacques Toubon and his indictment of the reality of police violence and discrimination behind that formula. One point in this regard was put to Macron by his interviewers: the fact that Black young men are 20 times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police in France than their white counterparts. There Macron took up the one proposal from Toubon that has in fact long been the policy of his government and which remains technically difficult to operate: equipping officers with body cameras that actually work.

Toubon had a personal political history that made him something of a poacher turned gamekeeper when he was appointed Défenseur in 2014. The President has gone the other way. The dynamic young challenger, who declared that under him it would be out with the old and in with the new, has turned to the flotsam and jetsam of the career politicians of the right, laced with a goodly sprinkling of the politicised career public servants that run the state hierarchy in France and lightly spiced with one or two new entrants from the world of high finance for his new government.

Plucked out of obscurity

In France, there is no requirement for a minister to be a member of the legislature as in Britain. On the contrary it helps if they are not. Someone can be plucked out of apparent obscurity as the mayor of a village high in the Pyrenees and made prime minister by Presidential decree. Appearances are deceptive though. Jean Castex, Macron’s new premier, was not just the mayor of Prades. With its 6,000 inhabitants. He has form as a practitioner of the French art of government.

“Someone with a great loyalty to the State” was one of the compliments offered to him on his appointment.

What this can often mean is that they are someone who keeps in touch with those in the political networks who have not only form as senior politicians and administrators, but also form when it comes to the law. These things are rarely exclusive disclosures. You don’t usually need that in France. So much of the corruption and chicanery takes place in plain sight that what counts is joining up the dots to bring out the picture before you.

After he slipped off back to obscurity as Mayor of Le Havre, we learned that the previous premier, Edouard Philippe, had had a series of special guests at his offices in the Matignon, the equivalent of No 10, in his final month in office. Philippe was chosen as premier by Macron because he was not a member of his presidential electoral machine, La République En Marche, but instead of the right wing Gaullist Les Républicains; because he was someone the president had had crossed paths with on right wing think tank circuits in the past; and because he would not be a threat to the man in the Elysée.

It did not go to plan. As the disaster of France’s lack of preparations for the epidemic became apparent Macron lost out in popularity as Philippe gained a strange sort of public sympathy as a victim of Macron’s patent jealousy.

Philippe gained a strange sort of public sympathy as a victim of Macron’s patent jealousy.

A free lunch

The first to turn up for the free lunch with Philippe was France’s right wing Gaullist president from 2007 to 2012, Nicolas Sarkozy. He has been in and out of the Elysée “advising” Macron over the past couple of years, now he was there to lend a shoulder to lean on to the politician Macron was preparing to dump. But Sarkozy has form on every front. The new prime minister was one of his closest operatives when Sarkozy was in the Elysée. The satirical weekly Canard Enchainé went so far as to headline the new cabinet “Has Macron caught the Sarkoronavirus?”

Sarko has other form of a more criminal kind. He faces trial for several kinds of corruption in the interest of his party or circle of associates. One investigation trying to work out how he came to know that his phone had been tapped by detectives led to taps on the phones of a series of lawyers, including the one who has just been made the Minister of Justice by Macron.

Another on the luncheon list was Alain Juppé, a former premier, past mayor of Bordeaux and now one of the nine members of the Conseil constitutionel, a sort of supreme court that decides whether laws and legal practice are in line with the constitution. His qualification for sitting there is that he has form. Fifteen years back, he took a suspended prison sentence for the role he played in running a racket that siphoned public funds into the coffers of the Gaullist party.

In between those two was François Fillon. Prime Minister for all five years of Sarkozy’s term in the Elysée, Fillon was with Philippe in the official offices of the French Prime Minister for a luncheon date scheduled under the secretive title “Reserved” in Philippe’s agenda while he, Fillon, was kicking his heels waiting for the verdict following his trial for a decades long racket in which he siphoned off public funds into his own bank account by claiming falsely that his partner worked for him as a parliamentary assistant. A week later Fillon was served with a five-year sentence, three of those years suspended.

While Fillon was running the government for Sarkozy, Bernard Squarcini was doing the same for Sarko at the intelligence service. It was how Sarko always seemed to know what was going on everywhere in French politics. The Squale could not get the itch to engage in skulduggery out of his system when he was dumped from the post by incoming Socialist President François Hollande. He set up his own private agency but also hired out his services to France’s richest business figure, Bernard Arnault, the boss of the luxury goods empire LVMH. The fun story of the moment is the disclosure that one of the Squale’s main roles was to try to drum up dirty on the journalist turned left wing MP, François Ruffin. Ruffin’s crime was to have exposed the brutal machinations of Arnault in running his businesses.

On remand

Brigitte Macron went to vote in the local elections on 28 June in her home town of Touquet. Her handbag was a Dauphine Mini from Louis Vuitton, part of their spring-summer collection. Its catalogue price is 2,710 Euros. Of course she did not pay for it. LVMH has a register in which the clothes and accessories “lent” to France’s “First Lady” as the celebrity press terms her, are noted, the dates when they were whisked round to the Elysée and when they came back.

The relationship finds its origin in the fact that she was the French teacher for two of Arnault’s sons and then, when Macron was Economy Minister in 2014 and visiting the USA, the couple dined with Arnault’s daughter Delphine, who helps run the fashion side of things for him, and her partner Xavier Niel, who owns the mobile phone network Free with a fifth of the French market under its belt. Niel has form. He got a two-year suspended jail term over erotic “peep-shows” he had been running, a business out of which he had made his first million by the age of 24.

Niel actually spent a month in prison on remand before the system let him out. Adeline Hazan took particular aim at the growing numbers held on remand in French prisons, three years ago a quarter of the prison population, now one third. Macron had nothing to say about that.

On camera

But those cameras? Surely that will let us all see what is going on when Darmanin’s police commence work on the demonstrations and protests that all predict for the autumn get under way, unless, that is, a resurgent epidemic sends everyone back indoors?

That is not so certain. There is more than enough video flying around the internet in France to show what happened in the Burger King branch at L’Etoile on 1 December 2018. A platoon of CRS riot police smashed their way into the branch and truncheoned Gilets jaunes lying on the floor. The unit had driven up from Chalon-sur-Saône to join the third weekend of operations to batter the Gilets jaunes movement into submission. Yet only when Macron was practicing for his interview did we learn that just four out of the several dozen CRS involved have been identitfied and charged. The rest is omerta, as it is for the political chicanery of the Macronie. But the final word should be about Jean Castex so we can fully close the circle. When Macron was running for president, Castex was campaigning for Fillon.

A platoon of CRS riot police smashed their way into the branch and truncheoned Gilets jaunes lying on the floor.

Bottomless chasm

One who escaped Macron’s clutches is Laurence Tubiana. She had helped preside over his Citizens’ Convention on the Climate but refused his pleas to join the new government. Why? Because, she explained, “there is a bottomless chasm between words and acts”. She pointed out that the High Council for the Climate (a body set up by Macron himself) had now followed up the Convention’s recent proposals on the environment by slamming the President’s actions on the green front as “incoherent”.

For her, Tubiana explained, the thing that marks France’s today is “the distrust shown by our elites toward our citizens”. The polls showed, she recalled that two thirds want green change, two thirds doubt it will happen. It is not much different for the reforms called for by Hazan and Toubon.

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