“Decivilized” France? Violence in politics and society worry Macron | International

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There were 10 fateful days in mid-May: the coincidence of several violent events put the country on alert. And he activated Emmanuel Macron.

The French president changed his schedule to attend a tribute to three policemen killed when they collided with a car from the opposite direction on a road. A few days before, the Government had announced a toughening of the penalties for the attacks on mayors such as that of the municipality of Saint-Brévin, who resigned after a fire at the entrance to his home. Around the same time, a man with serious psychiatric problems killed a nurse in a Reims hospital. And in Amiens, a nephew of Brigitte Macron, wife of the president, was beaten by a group of protesters against the pension reform.

"No violence is legitimate, be it verbal or against people," Macron said on May 24 at the Council of Ministers. "We must work in depth to counteract this process of decivilization”.

By using this unusual word, “decivilization”, the president unleashed one of those debates that France likes so much, but in which, by going around the arguments so much, you end up forgetting what was being talked about. What was being talked about was a series of violent acts that have little to do with each other, but which, coinciding in time, give the sensation of a country on the brink of collapse. Although several indicators of insecurity and crime have increased in recent years, the sensation of generalized violence is false, but easy to exploit politically. And it is a reflection of tangible experiences.

"It's very characteristic of France: instead of talking about the background, they talk about a word," laments Christian Schoettl, 68 years old and, for 34 years, mayor of Janvry, a town of 600 inhabitants 28 kilometers south of Paris. “If the guy who threatened to cut my head off with an electric saw I ever told him about the process of decivilization...” And Schoettl explains what happened, a year ago, on one of the roads leading out of this oasis of prosperity and comfort in the middle of wheat fields. Some boys, who were not from the town, did pirouettes with their motorcycles along the road. The mayor and his number two they ordered them to stop. The tone rose. At one point, one of the guys pulled out the chainsaw. In a video recorded by the mayor, someone is heard telling him: "I'm going to rip his head off."

The thing did not get to major, but it is an example of what Schoettl, like other French mayors and deputies, have been denouncing for some time: the threats and attacks to which they are subjected in their daily work. Sometimes, as in the case of Yannick Morez, the mayor of Saint-Brévin in western France, it is politically motivated: the centrist Morez suffered a campaign of harassment from the far right over a project for asylum seekers. His resignation on May 9, a month and a half after the fire at his home, was interpreted as a defeat for the State.

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The mayor of Janvry, Christian Schoettl, photographed in some sheds that have been adapted to function as a municipal theater.

Other times, bullying is not political and has more to do with hooliganism, petty crime, or the stresses of everyday life. Schoettl received a call one day in April: a neighbor alerted him that someone was throwing rubble from a construction site on a rural road. The mayor of Janvry approached the place with his car. He asked the man to pick up the debris; he obeyed. He was going to leave, when the mayor told him: "You stay here, to wait for the gendarmerie." The man replied: "I don't have time for nonsense, I'm leaving." He tore off and dropped the mayor between the road and the wheat fields.

"I fell right here," Schoettl indicated this Saturday in the same place. "I had scratches with blood, he tore my pants."

According to data cited by the Association of Mayors of France, verbal or physical attacks on elected officials went from 1,720 in 2021 to 2,265 the following year, 32% more. The number of police officers injured has risen from 3,800 in 2004 to 4,900 in 2020, according to data from political scientist Jérôme Fourquet. After the pandemic, some indicators on insecurity and crime (homicides, voluntary injuries, sexual violence) have increased, continuing a trend that was already observed before the coronavirus, according to the Ministry of the Interior.

The effect of the pandemic

Mayor Schoettl wonders: "What has happened in our beautiful France?" And he outlines a theory: “I think things got worse after the covid. People were locked up and controlled, and I had the impression that there was a blind and sometimes stupid authority... Everything that surrounds authority is questioned. Having been locked up by an authority they didn't trust, people learn to dodge all the rules. And on us all the grudges crystallize ”.

Does all of this reflect, as Macron says, a process of “decivilization”? Or is it exaggerated? When the president used this word, his critics were quick to remember that decivilization is the title of a book by Renaud Camus, the far-right writer who has popularized the great substitution or great replacement, a term that has inspired white racist terrorists.

On the phone, Camus says: "I don't think [Macron] referred to me." And he adds: "It's a regular little media controversy, just like when people use the term great replacement." The writer affirms: “We see the decivilization a little everywhere: in language, in the social uses of language, in the brutality of social relations. I associate the decivilization with the disappearance of form, of formalism”.

Macron was not inspired by Camus, but by the German sociologist Norbert Elias (1897-1990), according to his collaborators. The political scientist Fourquet mentioned it to him during a lunch at the Élysée. "The hypothesis can be posited," Fourquet later wrote in Le Point"that the layer of civilized varnish, which was patiently deposited over the centuries, has cracked in recent decades."

Historian Roger Chartier, specialist in Elias and prologuista in French of his book Germansexplains in an email: “In the monumental work of Elias, the decivilization It supposes the understanding of the process of civilization that, between the Middle Ages and the 19th century, transformed the psychic structure of men and women in Western societies. It was characterized by the internalization of stable mechanisms of self-control of affects and drives”.

But the process of civilization was not ineluctable, according to Elias. "In Germans”, explains Chartier, “[Elias] analyzes the historical conditions that incited ordinary men to commit the most barbaric violence against the dehumanized victims of the Nazi extermination policy. And in his book on sport he refers to the violence of the hooligans to the lack of incorporation of self-control mechanisms by marginal and excluded populations”.

Chartier believes that, if used imprecisely, the word decivilization it can become an ideological tool for the extreme right, which links it to the great replacement theory. “Obviously”, the historian concludes, “I do not think that President Macron shares this deadly ideology, but it would have been wise to avoid or explain the use of such a dangerous word by relying on Elias's work”.

In Janvry, a corner of France that is doing well and at the same time feeling insecure, these conceptual debates are of little interest. Mayor Schoettl says that every night he sleeps with the phone on the table in case there is an unexpected problem. He has prepared the clothes to be able to dress in an instant. In the car he has a siren and binoculars. “I never know what I'm going to find,” he says.

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