It was 10 dark days in mid-May: the coincidence of several violent events put the country on alert. And it activated Emmanuel Macron.
The French president changed his schedule to attend the tribute to three policemen killed when they collided on a road with an oncoming car. A few days earlier, the government had announced a toughening of penalties for attacks on mayors such as that of the municipality of Saint-Brévin, who resigned after a fire at the entrance of his home. Around the same time, a man with serious psychiatric problems killed a nurse in a hospital in Reims. And in Amiens, a nephew of Brigitte Macron, the president's wife, was beaten by a group of protesters against pension reform.
"No violence is legitimate, whether verbal or against people," Macron said May 24 at the Council of Ministers. "We must work in depth to counter 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 turning the arguments so much, one ends 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 that, coinciding in time, give the feeling of a country on the verge of collapse. Although several indicators of insecurity and crime have increased in recent years, the sense of widespread violence is false, but easy to exploit politically. And it's a reflection of tangible experiences.
"It's very characteristic of France: instead of talking about the substance, you talk about a word," laments Christian Schoettl, 68, mayor of Janvry, a town of 34 inhabitants 600 kilometers south of Paris. "If the guy who threatened to cut off my head with an electric saw I would tell 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 village, did pirouettes with their motorcycles on the road. The mayor and his number two ordered them to stop. The tone rose. At one point, one of the boys 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 bigger, but it is an example of what Schoettl, like other French mayors and deputies, have been denouncing for some time: the threats and aggressions to which they are subjected in their daily work. Sometimes, as in the case of Yannick Morez, mayor of Saint-Brévin in western France, it is politically motivated: the centrist Morez suffered a campaign of harassment from the extreme right for a project for asylum seekers. His resignation on May 9, a month and a half after the fire in his home, was interpreted as a defeat for the state.
The mayor of Janvry, Christian Schoettl, photographed in 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 debris 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 about to leave, when the mayor told him: "You stay here, wait for the gendarmerie." The man replied, "I don't have time for nonsense, I'm leaving." He tore up and made the mayor fall between the road and the wheat fields.
"I fell right here," Schoettl said 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 injured police officers has gone 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 asks: "What has happened in our beautiful France?" And he outlines a theory: "I think things got worse after covid. People were locked up and controlled, and they had the impression that there was a blind and sometimes stupid authority... Everything surrounding authority is called into question. Having been locked up by an authority they didn't trust, people learn to dodge all the rules. And all the grudges crystallize on us."
Does all this, as Macron says, reflect a process of "decivilization"? Or is it exaggerated? When the president used this word, his critics were quick to recall 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] made reference to me." He adds: "It's a little bit of a usual media controversy, just like when people use the term great replacement." The writer affirms: "We see decivilization a little everywhere: in language, in the social uses of language, in the brutality of social relations. I associate 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. Political scientist Fourquet mentioned it during a lunch at the Elysée. "The hypothesis may be posed," Fourquet later wrote in Le Point, "that the layer of civilized varnish, which was patiently deposited in the thread of the centuries, has cracked in recent decades."
Historian Roger Chartier, a specialist in Elias and prologue in French of his book The Germans, explains in an email: "In Elias's monumental work, decivilization involves understanding the process of civilization that, between the Middle Ages and the nineteenth 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 affections and drives."
But the process of civilization was not inevitable, according to Elias. "In The Germans," Chartier explains, "[Elias] analyzes the historical conditions that incited ordinary men to commit the most barbarous violence against the dehumanized victims of the Nazi policy of extermination. And in his book on sport he refers the violence of hooligans to the lack of incorporation of self-control mechanisms by marginalized and excluded populations.
Chartier believes that, if used imprecisely, the word decivilization can become an ideological instrument for the far right, which links it to the theory of the great replacement. "Obviously," concludes the historian, "I do not think that President Macron shares this deadly ideology, but it would have been wise to avoid or explain by relying on Elias' work the use of such a dangerous word."
In Janvry, a corner of France that is doing well and at the same time feels insecure, these conceptual debates are of little interest. Mayor Schoettl says that every night he sleeps with his phone on his bedside table in case there is an unexpected problem. He has clothes ready so he can get dressed in an instant. In the car he carries a siren and binoculars. "I never know what I'm going to find," he says.
Follow all the international information on Facebook and Twitter, or in our weekly newsletter.
Subscribe to continue reading
Read without limits
I'm already a subscriber