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Relation Between Violence And Citizenship In France

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Traditionally, France has always shown a controversial relationship with its minorities. Although the French revolution was based on the three principles of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, the constitution of France interprets the meaning of equality as an exclusion of minority rights (Gilbert, J. & Keane, D. Equality versus fraternity, (2016). Didier Fassin, a French anthropologist and sociologist, conducted a thorough survey of the suburban areas or banlieus of Paris in his 2013 book ‘Enforcing Order’. Throughout Fassin’s findings he details how the Frence police prioritize enforcing an unequal social order rather than enforcing the law. This essay will examine the study of Fassin in context with the relation between violence and citizenship in France.

Need for the Study

In 2005, a group of ten teenagers in the Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois were intercepted by the police. It was a common practice by the police to take youth from suburban areas for interrogation and routine identity check (p. 17). The youth in such areas mostly belong to Parisian ethnic and religious minorities. To avoid the interrogation, the teenagers fled the scene only to be chased by the police. Out of the teenagers who fled the scene, three sought asylum in an electricity substation where unfortunately, they were electrocuted. Two of them died on the spot while the third sustained serious injuries. This sparked a nation-wide riot in the banlieus of urban areas and led to multiple clashes between the police and the rioters. Fassin conducted a study in these areas and found out the ground realities and the reasons behind the violence (Fassin, D. Enforcing Order, (2013).

What Fassin Saw

As depicted by Fassin, these teenagers fled to escape the police because the interrogations involved two-way harassment for them. On one hand was the embarrassment that they had to face during the check as they were subjected to shameful frisking that often turned violent. Fassin calls frisking by the French police a humiliating routine which comprises of placing one’s hands on the police car, emptying all pockets and having one’s body searched while keeping the legs apart. There are also an ample number of cases wherein frisking has gone violent and the police has indulged in slapping and shoving of the youth. Fassin terms this insensitive approach taken by the police as ‘moral violence’ and requests the readers to look at it from the point of view of those people who are being subjected to it. The dignity of the individual is at stake and since the ritual is almost always performed in public, it is followed by comments from the onlookers who comprise of local residents (Fassin, D. Enforcing Order, (2013).

The other part of harassment is that the youth do not find sufficient support at home. Friends of the boys who were electrocuted at the unfortunate event have complained that in spite of being innocent, their parents question them that why were they caught by the police if they didn’t do anything (p. 17). This lack of trust makes them turn hostile to such interrogations and they try their best to avoid being held up by the police. Thus, the teenagers are caught between dual torture of family and society and develop resistance to the social set-up (Fassin, D. Enforcing Order, (2013).

The Concept of Citizenship in France

Ever since the French revolution took place, the world has looked at France as the torch-bearer of equality among the masses. The general perception is that France is clean of all forms of racial discrimination. However, this myth was shattered after the riots of 2005. The world witnessed the story of the underprivileged as they raised arms against the very institution that was supposed to protect them, thereby raising questions about the concept of citizenship in France (Fassin, D. Enforcing Order, (2013).

In a study conducted by William Safran, the democratic structure of France has shown clear deviations from the Jacobian model of the Renaissance era. Safran has identified several reasons for this including departure from democratic patterns, development of supranationalism, claims made by infranational communities and mass immigration from Africa and other continents (Safran, W. State, Nation, National Identity and Citizenship, (1991). The 2005 riots and its aftermath have shown that France practices ethnic democracy to some extent, though covertly. The police and other law enforcement forces have repeatedly practiced dual behavior while dealing with minorities not to mention the reaction of Sarkozy to the riots that outraged most right-wing politicians at the time. Fassin’s study of the ethnography of the urban suburbs shows that citizen rights are denied to the underprivileged and they live in constant sense of distrust and insecurity (Fassin, D. Enforcing Order, (2013).

Fassin spent 15 months observing the behavior of the police, especially the anti-crime squads. He observed that instead of providing security and assurance, these squads were responsible for creating a marginalized society in which the low-income households were required to bow down to the aggressive tactics of the police. The police officers mostly originated from rural backgrounds and had little to no knowledge about the urban realities. Therefore, they posed a negative attitude towards the minorities calling them “bâtards” (bastards) and “criminals”. Thus, there was evident duality of behavior that the police showed towards the citizens of France based upon their race, financial status and religion (Fassin, D. Enforcing Order, (2013).

Citizenship in France becomes a questionable entity which is granted only to the privileged members. Leland Ware’s research indicates that for those who seek to immigrate here, equal rights are only a myth. French laws ‘discourage the assertion of separate ethnic identities’ and an immigrant seeking to integrate into the French society needs to renounce his ‘origins, faith, and customs’ completely (Ware, L. Color-blind Racism in France (2015). The methods of policing described in Enforcing Order written by Fassin also point out to a similar situation. He shows how the police deal with an unpleasant heavy-handedness with the poorest sections of the cities. To add to it, the law officers are not even open to acceptance as they are trying to create an image of transparency rather than showing their own lack of ability to win the trust of the minority community. Fassin has called out such treatment as savage and completely unsuitable to any French citizen. While birth and residence transform any French national into a citizen, the lack of dignified treatment, reduced employment opportunities and widespread poverty have made the minorities a socially marginalized society giving them little to no benefits of their citizenship (Fassin, D. Enforcing Order, (2013).

Incidents of Police Violence

Police violence has been reported by several groups and individuals from the ethnic minorities. Fassin describes such an event in detail on pages 20-21 of his book. Two young boys are arrested and detained for hours on New Year’s Eve only because they were found in close vicinity to the place where a case of vandalism was reported. The eyewitness could barely identify the criminal as it was too dark. After being unable to prove their crime, the police chief calls the parents of the teens and leaves them with a strict warning (p 19-21). This unapologetic behavior on the part of the police is equivalent to mental harassment.

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Police violence is the major cause of the vacillating image of citizenship in France. When the guardians themselves turn hostile, radicalization is an unavoidable consequence. Fassin reports that the police went so far as to brandish a Flash-Ball which is only done in case of extreme violence wherein the police is exposed to physical injury (p 20). The unrestricted misuse of resources intimidates teenagers as they are completely conscious of the fact that they are being subjected to such a humiliation only because they belong to certain ethnic groups (Fassin, D. Enforcing Order, (2013).

Distorted View of Law and Order

After studying the ever tougher and more brutal behavior demonstrated by the police, Fassin questioned the reasons behind the widespread misuse of power and the authority responsible for perpetuating this misappropriation. Like every democracy, the people’s representatives in the parliament of France are the ones who make and break legislations. In case of France, extremism displayed by politicians like Nicholas Sarkozy seeps down to the law forces and converts them into puppets of power-seeking vortices. Much like UK or US, the ‘search and frisk’ tactics are reduced to mere display of power and control assumption instead of being a purposeful activity. Fassin named this ‘moral violence’ as it attacked the dignity of those subjected to it (p 130). This distorted use of law emanates from the distorted view of law and order and every crime committed by the police in the name of law will somewhere find the fingerprints of Sarkozy on it (Fassin, D. Enforcing Order, (2013).

Fassin shows that the anti-crime squad found entertainment in doing something new in the form of frisking, searching and torturing the underprivileged youth. He argued that the police were given underlying freedom to ‘bend the rules’. Sensitive policing is an unknown concept among the French BAC. The monopoly with which the Ministry of the Interior manages the police staff goes a long way in depicting extreme dictatorship and concentration of power in the hands of a few. Police services are difficult to access in Paris and it was a mere stroke of luck along with his adamancy that Fassin was able to complete his work. What irks the readers most is that the police is obstinately justifying its stand. Fassin found out that though the police was visibly concerned over its poor public image, they were quite sure that it was no fault of theirs and that the public was solely to blame for their hostility. Furthermore, he also came to know that the officers had no conscience of their own and followed blindly whatever orders were given to them. As long as the ‘top brass’ ordered it, they had no issues to anything (Fassin, D. Enforcing Order, (2013).

Fassin’s account of the barriers that the French state has put in the way of research will come as something of a shock. The shift – essentially giving the Ministry of the Interior something close to a monopoly over policing research – took place when Fassin was a little over half way through his fieldwork and it was only through a combination of persistence, and no little good fortune, that he was able to come anywhere close to completing his work. It is clearly evident that the police are more interested in enforcing unequal social order under the guise of security (Fassin, D. Enforcing Order, (2013).

Violation of Citizenship and Resultant Violence

It is clear that the riots of 2005 were solely incited by the discriminatory behavior shown by the police towards the minorities. The younger generation has grown up with pent up feelings against constant repressions and all of it came out in the form of extreme riots. Nearly ten thousand vehicles were burnt proving that the fire was building up from within. It should be remembered that arson is a particular characteristic of French rioting. Although the police made more than three thousand arrests, the stability of the country was still teetering so much that President Chirac had to declare a national emergency (Fassin, D. Enforcing Order, (2013).

Works like Enforcing Order not only provide the causes behind the riots but also put forth a question before their readers – Does violence beget violence? History has shown multiple incidents of civil unrest and it is a tried and tested condition that civil violence is a result of violation of citizen rights by the government. Fassin’s ethnography proves that the disadvantaged communities are Number One targets of police aggression. An aggressive guard force becomes disconnected from the public. Additionally, the language used by the police was also highly racist and French terms equivalent to English ‘nigger’ were more than often used to address the African minorities. Fassin argues that the lethal interactions between the youth and the police during the riots were a result of the everyday activities of urban policing (Fassin, D. Enforcing Order, (2013).

The Other Side

Very early on in his work Fassin noted that the daily life of a typical police officer is far from the exciting portrayal on multimedia. It is monotonous and involves much more than mere facing criminals or solving crimes leaving the officers the often doubtful about the importance and value of their own positions. A recognized and accepted form of discrimination, segregation and marginalization both socially and economically runs in the system and anyone seeking to break the bonds is stigmatized. The fact that the very people they serve actually despise them is psychologically demotivating for any new officer who has joined the BAC. They are hardly backed up by the bureaucracy and constantly obtain orders from the top brass on the completion of which, they hardly receive any appreciation. This, along with the characteristic monotony and inactivity of the day-to-day routine, police work can often be thought of in a negative and sometimes even detestable light.

Fassin has also mentioned the humorous part of illegal police practices. He tells stories of ‘comic epiphanies’ in which officers have made glaring errors. At times, they have arrived at the wrong address after receiving an SOS call for a crime in progress and at other times, they have discovered that the caller had overtly exaggerated the crime giving hazy details. Although Fassin’s attitude towards these incidents was sarcastic, the reader can sympathize with the condition of the law enforcers and understand why the trench between the police and the citizens has widened. Another fear dangling like a naked sword is the widespread availability of cellphone cameras. Anything that the police does or says goes viral immediately and while it may not be a formal complaint against them, it sure goes a long way in discrediting their efforts and portraying them in a bad light (Fassin, D. Enforcing Order, (2013).


In summary, the fundamental argument that Fassin has made is that the French police are more intent on ‘enforcing order’ than on ‘maintaining peace’. This attitude has lent a new meaning to citizenship roles in the country. Citizens have become more vigilant of the police instead of focusing on criminals as they have lost trust in their guardians, additionally to this, citizens are becoming more violent as they seek to take the laws in their own hands.

Exploring newer citizenship roles is as important as enforcing the traditional laws. Whether in France or outside, more researchers should come forth and find out why the citizens of the country are dissatisfied with the workings of their local law-enforcing authorities. Fassin’s work can serve as a beacon of hope for those social anthropologists who are seeking answers to the disappointment of the general public. In spite of being promised democracy and freedom, a new form of slavery and tyranny exist in the modern nations in the form of uniformed officers (Fassin, D. Enforcing Order, (2013).

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Relation Between Violence And Citizenship In France. (2022, Jun 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved November 27, 2022, from
“Relation Between Violence And Citizenship In France.” Edubirdie, 09 Jun. 2022,
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