State of Emergency in France: An Architectural Reading of the Police Perquisitions


Léopold Lambert – Paris on December 12, 2015
If you enjoy articles of the blog, have a look at The Funambulist Magazine!

After a reinvigorating large meeting against islamophobia and the state of emergency in Saint Denis (Paris’ immediate Northern banlieue) yesterday, I want to attempt giving an architectural account of the 2,500 police perquisitions and the 400 house/town arrests that have been led since the promulgation of the State of Emergency following the November 13 attacks. Let’s start by reminding ourselves that only six parliamentary representatives out of 558 voted against the ratification of the state of emergency that is (for now) scheduled to end on February 26, 2016. What this essentially means is that these 552 representatives are more attached to the executive power and its police, than the legislative one they collectively form. Consequently, France is currently living in a society stripped from fundamental rights, as the government itself is willing to acknowledge since it wrote to the European Council on November 26 to officially declare that the country will not abide by the Human Rights European Convention during the time of the state of emergency — again we cannot be sure that it will ‘only’ last three months and we already know that something significant will forever remain from it. For many people, such a state does not involve a drastic change in their daily lives if we except the visual confrontation with the newly acquired police weaponry and the presence of armed soldiers in the street — until a few days ago, I had to systematically cross a police checkpoint to go home, with a different level of scrutiny depending on the officers’ mood/zeal.

For some others however, the state of emergency corresponds to the last withdrawal of already challenged rights when it comes to encounters with the police. Manuel Valls’ government does not even try to disguise its abuse of power, made legitimate by the Parliament, when it arrests, searches and puts in house-arrest ecologist activists during the COP21 summit. Of course, the most concerned figures of the police state’s violence are however not the ecologists, but, rather, the French Muslim community (5 millions of people, i.e. 7.5% of the country’s population), predominantly originating from the former French colonial empire and that has been therefore historically the subject of the state violence for the last two hundreds years. Although the ‘socialist’ government is currently multiplying discourses against the stigmatization of this community — the second round of the regional elections are on Sunday and the Socialist Party needs the Muslim vote — this same government has barely differentiated itself from the previous decade of right wing governments (2002-2012) which had drastically accelerated institutional and structural islamophobia through the fetishist invocation of the so-called “Republican principles.” On the contrary, and despite the fact another state of emergency had been promulgated in 2005 during the banlieues revolt (see past article), these former governments never had “the chance” to exercises a quasi-absolute power on this community as it currently does through the state of emergency.

2,500 homes, offices, mosques and restaurants — an overwhelming majority owned by Muslims — have therefore been searched by the police in the past month. Admittedly, the accounts of these perquisitions have significantly varied from police officers almost embarrassed to lead such operation (yet, doing it anyway) to extremely violent interventions in the middle of the night (interventions that could not be led without the supervision of a judge outside of the state of emergency), breaking doors, flipping over the house or apartment, insulting its inhabitants, and sometimes even hitting them. We cannot imagine the terror — this is terror — of a family awaken in the middle of the night by a fully armed police squad. Such scenes inevitably bring us to associate them with the ones we know all too well in the context of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. We should, as always, be careful in our comparisons since the night raids in the Palestinian context are led by Israeli soldiers (i.e. the army of a state of which Palestinians of the West Bank are not citizens) and that regularly ends in the arrest of the house’s male bodies. Yet, the intensification of the institutional and policed islamophobia in France can’t not remind us of the fate of Palestinians — the rhetorical association of France and Israel made by Benjamin Nethanyahu after the Nov. 13 attacks paradoxically helps us to do so — and the imagery of broken doors and vandalized apartments we’ve been seeing in the last few days reinforces this echo.

This leads me to the architectural reading of this imagery. My (obsessive) argument consists in affirming that walls as material assemblages are almost always built in such a way that bodies (also material assemblages) could not deploy enough energy without tools to move or destroy them. As I often add, a door and its lock compose a wall whose porosity can be controlled and engaged by selected people who have access to this little object we call “key.” My argument often proceed in describing the walls as the enforcement of private property or the forced exclusion and/or incarceration of bodies. One phrase of this argument is important to understand in the context of this specific analysis of police perquisitions: bodies cannot affect walls without tools. Provide a (jack)hammer, a vehicle or a weapon to a body, and the structure formed by the walls, let alone the doors, can be challenged if not disintegrated. A police-state is a state that gives itself the means (both legally and materially) to affect the structural integrity of any wall, and in doing so, the privacy of a spatial domain, when and where it sees fit — here again we can think of Palestine and the canonical interview of Aviv Kochavi by Eyal Weizman about the Israeli army’s 2002 siege on the Nablus refugee camp going through the walls of the Palestinian houses, rather than through the streets (see “Lethal Theory“).

There is something truly subversive against the crystallized order that architecture embodies in breaking doors or walls. If we are serious about this argument, we cannot decide that some interventions are subversive, and others are oppressive because we oppose the political impetus that allowed them. In other words, we cannot make, by definition, of Auguste Blanqui a subversive architect and make of Robert Bugeaud, an oppressive one (see past article to understand this opposition): both call for a complete transgression of the order materialized by architect in the times of urban insurrection. The fundamental difference between them that allows us to systematize this analysis, lies in the instrument of this transgression. By this, I mean as much the material instrument itself (the weapon, the battering ram, the hammer) (was it manufactured for this exact police purpose like the weapons used by the police or army, or is it, here as well, the subversion of a tool’s original function?) as the legal and political framework in which this transgression is accomplished: is it accomplished with the full strength and weaponization of the law (including its self-suspension) and political dominance, or is it accomplished as a transgression of the latter? Architecture embodies the order of the law and its violence. This does not mean that we have to get rid of architecture and, in doing so, of the law itself but, rather, that we have to understand and agree on the acceptable degree of violence they both trigger: the law prescribes rights and these rights corresponds to a certain form of violence (I have the right to be protected in my house, but this means that everyone but me is excluded from this domain). But, in the state of emergency, the law and its rights are suspended, creating an even greater state-induced violence. In other words, the doors violently broken by zealous police officers (sadly comical recent testimonies accounts on many unlocked doors being broken by them) are not retroactively making architecture less violent in the way I am used to define it. Simply, just like a locked door materializes the crystallized order of private property, these broken doors are the material symptoms of the transgression of the right to privacy by a police state liberated from its legal obligations allowed by the suspension of the law.