Sunday, June 3, 2007

Emblematic Prison

The revitalization of Nancy currently under way will include a prison as one of its central elements. The architect, Alexandre Chemetoff, says, "I favor incorporating the prison into the city. I do not want to relegate it to the exterior or hide its existence. The penitentiary center is becoming a fundamental element of the urban development plan and the landscape of the plateau."

If justice minister Rachida Dati's minimum sentencing proposals, which are somewhat harsher than those advocated by Sarkozy during the campaign, swell the prison population as much as some critics project, Chemetoff's words may come to seem prophetic. Dati's plan does allow for more flexibility than some American minimum sentencing guidelines, however. Judges may impose lighter sentences in some circumstances but must give grounds for doing so.

Voting, Not Rioting, and the Varieties of Voice

This is the first of what I hope will be a series of "guest blogs." The following post is from Cindy Skach, who teaches in the government department at Harvard and is currently in Paris doing research in the banlieues.


Argenteuil (Val-d’Oise), France. Polling booth, May 6, 2007, 11:35am. Author’s photo.

On October 25, 2005, Argenteuil made international headlines as the “tough” suburb of Paris where the then Minister of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, reportedly referred to a group of local youth as “scum.” Two days later, in the equally “tough” neighborhood of Clichy-sous-Bois, two teenagers, fleeing police in a chase, were electrocuted as they hid in a power station. The so-called French riots of 2005 subsequently broke out after this combination of events.

My colleague, Robert Putnam, an expert on social capital and participatory democracy, published an op-ed in the Boston Globe last December that alluded to this social unrest. Contrasting what he saw as a “European” phenomenon with that of the US, Bob held the US’s immigrant society in high esteem. In the US, he claimed, immigrants waved flags to petition for inclusion, whereas European immigrants “torched cars to protest their exclusion from society.” Part of his explanation for this divergent practice was simply that, unlike in Europe, in the US “we’ve learned to live with overlapping identities.”

Leaving aside the historical complexity and variation, over time and space, among European member states’ immigration policies and practices, as detailed by experts such as Patrick Weil, two facts expose the problem with Bob’s analysis. First, the immigrants in the US rallying around the flag, prompting Putnam’s piece, were mostly illegal immigrants, whereas in France, many of those accused of participating in the violent events of 2005, were legal citizens of the Fifth Republic. Second, voting turnout rates for the 2007 French presidential election in these “tough” neighborhoods, many of them with a high percentage of the population from immigrant backgrounds, were extraordinarily high. Turnout for the first round of presidential elections this May in Argenteuil alone was 82%, a 17% increase from the 2002 elections.

Perhaps Albert Hirschman’s “exit/voice” theory is more informative here as a way of understanding differences in forms of participation among this population. Hirschman defined “exit” and “voice” as two contrasting responses members have available to them when they perceive a decline in benefits from the organization to which they belong. Exit involves leaving, physically or psychologically; voice involves articulating complaints in a variety of ways, including public protest and voting. The choice between the two is not always available, as possibilities of exit and of voice are conditioned by many factors, including access to resources, legal constraints, and historical legacies.

Places throughout France, such as Argenteuil, seem to show the continued relevance of Hirschman’s “hydraulic” model: deterioration in the quality of services provided by governments cumulates and generates pressure for discontent, which results in either exit or voice. But the more that this mounting pressure is unable to escape through exit, the more that is available to foment (many varieties of) voice.

For most legal immigrants in France, exit from the territory via migration, either back to their home country or to a third country, what we can term horizontal exit, is not an option. Moreover, immigrants are, by definition, people who have already used horizontal exit as a strategy. Exit from existing socio-economic circumstances, what we can term vertical exit, is path dependent in that this form of exit depends highly on how well previous decades of integration policy have offered immigrants and their children the resources necessary to improve their circumstances. With both horizontal and vertical exits closed off as options, varieties of “voice” remain immigrants’ only tool.

The point here is, of course, not to condone violence. Rather, the point, from the perspective of a social scientist, is to try to understand how history conditions the available choice set available for expressing discontent. The point is also to stress that in France, voice among the immigrant population has come not only in the form of violence, but in a variety of forms, the most recent one being the long-standing democratic demonstration of a desire to be “heard”: voting.

What Is Not to Be Done?

"What is to be done?" Lenin took the question from the title of a novel by Chernyshevsky, and it recurs as a leitmotif throughout the history of the left. Olivier Besancenot, who was the candidate of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire and who did better than the rest of what the French call the "left of the left," gives the usual answer to the usual question. Which leads to the thought that perhaps the better question to ask is "What is not to be done?"

Besancenot sees the political field as analogous to a battlefield of the First World War. The enemy has launched an assault and seized a few yards of the homeland, but this is not the time for defeatism. The home forces can hold at their strong points: the moment Sarkozy "attacks social security, a factory, a school, a child without papers in that school," he should know that "there will be a left ready to stand up to him." Militants should be prepared to give their all for a new party, a new push, a new thrust over the top that is "anticapitalist and not just antiliberal."

It's no accident that the rhetoric of Trotskyism draws on the imagery of the First War, out of which it emerged. But when we turn to an advocate of a "refoundation" of the left, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, what do we find? First, a confession that the left is "out of tune with reality." But then a little homily about a worker he met in Haute-Marne: "If the SMIC (minimum wage) goes up to 1,500," this man allegedly told him, "the boss is going to outsource, and what I want most is to keep my job." This worker "taught me a lesson in realism," DSK avers, "because for him the most precious good is the existence of his job." Ergo, Ségolène Royal, DSK's rival for leadership of the PS, who is wedded to an increase of the SMIC to 1,500 because she campaigned on the promise, has been disavowed by "the base"--this is the lesson in "realism" that DSK would like his audience to take away.

Now, it strains credulity to believe that Strauss-Kahn, who has a doctorate in economics, teaches the subject at Sciences Po, and holds degrees from Sciences Po, HEC, and ENA, first learned this "lesson in realism" from a worker in Haute-Marne. One might also expect from a leader of the left with such economic credentials a somewhat more sophisticated understanding of the forces behind outsourcing and offshoring and investment flows. The minimum wage, as he surely knows, is hardly the decisive factor. Rather than try to educate voters on the left about how a "modern left" might view the task of managing, in a progressive, socially responsible way, an economy that is, pace Besancenot, inescapably both capitalist and liberal, DSK pretends to take his lessons from a politically unimpeachable source. He thus succeeds in learning nothing while teaching nothing and very likely not even helping himself in the leadership contest, since what he proposes as an alternative remains unarticulated.

What is to be done, if the left is to be rebuilt, is to reject both trench warfare and hypocritical workerism. The first task before the left is to educate its base about the realities from which it has taken leave. But who will educate the educator?

Public Opinion

Off topic, to be sure, except insofar as public opinion is essential to democratic politics.

From the Chroniques judiciaires of Pascale Robert-Diard, this story of famed attorney Vincent de Moro-Giaferri. It seems that the lawyer was once defending a case in which the prosecutor demanded the death penalty for a notorious criminal in order to "calm public opinion."

Moro-Giafferi rose and addressed the court: "Public opinion? Banish that intruder from the courtroom, that prostitute who tugs at the judge's sleeve. It was she who handed nails to the executioner at the foot of Golgotha; she who applauded the September Massacres; and she who, a century later, poked out the eyes of wounded Communards with the tip of her umbrella."

Historians will know that Moro-Giafferi was also attorney for the defense in the trials of the notorious serial killer Landru; of Dmitrov, one of the Communists accused of setting the Reichstag fire; and of Herschel Grynzspan, whose assassination of a German diplomat was the pretext for Kristallnacht.