Ségolène Royal and the War in France's Banlieues
PARIS -- Are the deaths of two youngsters that sparked several nights of rioting in France last week being exploited for political purposes? Consider only that one of the two lawyers representing the families of the boys happens to be none other than the personal attorney of Ségolène Royal: the Socialist Party (PS) candidate who was defeated by Nicolas Sarkozy in the French presidential election May 6. It will be recalled that just two days before the vote, in an interview with French radio station RTL, Royal warned ominously that Sarkozy's candidacy was "dangerous" and that there would be "violence" -- notably, in "popular neighborhoods" -- if he was elected. It is particularly noteworthy in retrospect that when RTL journalist Jean-Michel Aphatie pressed Royal on the point, asking her to agree that if there is violence it would be illegitimate, she did not reply to the question. "He has to ask himself why he provokes so much [violence]," Royal retorted, "I think he is also responsible."
Could Royal and her allies in the PS be helping to make her grim pre-election prediction come true by transforming what was in all likelihood a banal, if tragic, traffic accident into a political issue? According to the findings of a preliminary investigation into the incident, which occurred in the town of Villiers-le-Bel in the Val-d'Oise district near Paris, the two teenage boys were riding on a minibike at almost 45 mph when it struck a police car moving at nearly half the speed. Nonetheless, in keeping with the language used by the attorneys, the two boys are being nearly universally described in the French media as "victims": a term that in its ambiguity can readily be understood to imply that the officers in the car were responsible for their deaths and that thus fuels the perception that the riots are somehow a justified "response."
Stylized by a headline in the French daily Le Figaro into "the defender of the banlieues" (Nov. 29), it turns out that Jean-Pierre Mignard, the lawyer representing the families, is not only also the personal lawyer of Ségolène Royal, but indeed himself a leading member of the "Royalist" current within the Socialist Party. "During the presidential campaign," the article notes, "he was part of the inner circle around the Socialist candidate." Referring to Royal's post-election separation from her longtime partner, Socialist Party Chair François Hollande, Le Figaro describes Mignard as an "intimate friend" of the couple: so intimate indeed that he is the godfather of two of their children. On Nov. 17, moreover, Mignard became the director of "Désirs d'avenir": Ségolène Royal's campaign organization, which has been transformed into a kind of permanent campaign organization in the aftermath of her election loss. (The name translates roughly as "Desiring the Future" or "The Future's Desires.")
It was precisely on the Web site of "Désirs d'avenir" that Ségolène Royal on Wednesday published her own statement on the riots. "This escalation of violence has to be stopped," she said: thus employing a formula that again can be understood to imply that the violence of the rioters is somehow a "response" to purposeful violence on the part of the police. "We, citizens of France," she continued, "must all refuse that our urban neighborhoods (quartiers) come to resemble the urban neighborhoods in the U.S.A., where the firing of real bullets is a frequent occurrence. . . . I thus call for a national mobilization, including all political tendencies, so that the question of our urban neighborhoods and of the future of the youth in these neighborhoods will become a great national cause."
Commentators of virtually all political stripes in the French media -- including President Sarkozy in a televised interview on Thursday night -- have made a point of praising the French police for the restraint they showed in the face of the rioters. But such praise could someday soon prove to be a fatal burden. For though the police did not resort to the use of lethal force, there was in fact plentiful firing of real bullets in the trouble areas last week: namely at the police. According to the latest available figures, some 130 police officers were injured in the rioting, with several of them being seriously wounded by gunfire (Le Figaro, Nov. 30). One police officer lost an eye; another was struck in the shoulder by a 12 mm cartridge fired from a shotgun; a third is reported to have been hit 30 times by pellets, eleven times in the face. Police have also reported being fired upon with an "improvised bazooka" (Le Figaro, Nov. 29). It is clear from the reports that still more serious injuries or even deaths were only avoided thanks to the heavy body armor that French police habitually wear in riot situations. "The use of firearms has been systematic," Patrice Ribeiro of the French police officers union Synergies Officiers told Le Figaro, "There was an intent to kill." In addition to the shootings, local police commissioner Jean-Francois Illy was beaten by a gang armed with baseball bats and iron bars: leaving him with three broken ribs, a punctured lung, a broken nose and a fractured eye socket.
It should be noted that French police, not surprisingly, have been known in the past to use their weapons. Just one year ago, in November 2006, a rioter was shot and killed by a French police officer following a soccer match on the outskirts of Paris: an episode that, symptomatically, received less prominent coverage in the French media than a shooting incident involving police in far-off New York two days later.
As Patrice Ribeiro and others have observed, the latest clashes between police and rioting bands in the Val-de-Oise had all the markings of guerilla warfare: with the notable peculiarity, however, that one side in the war has thus far, in effect, declined to fight back. In his televised interview on Thursday night, President Sarkozy recalled speaking to a wounded officer who told him that he had had the sniper who shot him in his sights.
The bizarre declaration of Ségolène Royal notwithstanding, it is certain that the United States has not seen such a level of urban violence for the last fifteen years, since the 1992 LA riots, and it has perhaps not seen such a level of organized violence against the police since the 1960s. Whether the French government will be able successfully to combat the heavily armed urban bands merely by legal means, as President Sarkozy has promised, and without resorting to force, is a very open question.
John Rosenthal, a WPR contributing editor, writes on European politics and transatlantic relations.