State of Emergency, Curfew and the French Republican Coloniality



On November 20, 2018, the French Prefect of Reunion Island declared a curfew following the demonstrations of the local Yellow Vests. Regular contributor Françoise Vergès describes this revolt, as well as how this exceptional prefectoral decision needs to be understood as part of the enduring French colonial history.

In France, curfew usually accompanies a state of emergency, though in recent years mayors and prefects have applied curfews independently, mainly to forbid minors, for months at a time, from being outside between late evening and morning; if police catch them, they are brought back to their parents who are fined.

Both measures have their roots in colonial politics though curfew has also been historically used against working class uprisings and by the Nazis during their occupation of France (1940-1944). Both have a common objective to police, control, repress and criminalize dissent and protest. In the 20th century, one of the most infamous curfews in France was applied to the Algerian community in 1961, which led to a call for peaceful demonstration by the Algerian National Front of Liberation (FLN). On October 17, 1961, thousands of Algerians gathered from the outskirts of Paris, where many lived in slums, to march through the streets of Paris. The police received the order to kill, and hundreds of Algerians were shot and/or thrown into the Seine where they drowned. The youngest victim was a 17 year old woman, Fatima Beddar, whose body was found days later caught in a lock of the river.

The state of emergency, despite a name that implies exceptional circumstances, has, since its adoption, been used as a tool for forbidding public expression of political and social dissent, with curfew being one of its expressions. Voted through in April 1955 to complete the military measures against the Algerian struggle for independence and immediately applied following its vote in Algeria, it was then applied in 1958 and 1961 in Algeria and France, but still in relation with the war in Algeria. States of emergency were then declared three times in the overseas departments (territories of French colonial empire, slavery and post-slavery, which are still within the republic): 1985 in Kanaky-New-Caledonia, 1986 in Wallis and Futuna, and 1987 in Polynesia. In France proper, the state of emergency was applied in 2005 for the first time since 1962 in order to control the banlieues, where a social revolt of the youth of color had erupted. Since French society often forgets that the republic maintains many territories within its sovereignty, the surprise was genuine at the application in France of a law in relation to the colonial order in Algeria. In 2015 and 2016, following attacks in France that killed civilians, the state of emergency was applied throughout the entire territory and lasted for two years.

It is important to keep in mind that the state of emergency, which gives extraordinary power to the tribunal and the police (house arrests, restriction of basic freedoms, closure of public spaces, interdiction to demonstrate, and more), was elaborated to crush an insurrection against the colonial order. Its core principle — that the state no longer has to respect the constitutional rights of its citizens — is deeply rooted in the logic of colonialism. Dissent, protest, and resistance are seen as illegitimate; public order is conceived to protect the State and not its citizens as the latter are transformed into enemies whose rights are suspended.

The 1955 law, which has been revised so as to increase its remit, is more and more invoked by political parties, police and other state institutions as soon as dissent and protest against the State are expressed. Hence, this year on Reunion Island, a French overseas territory, when a large and popular social movement which adopted the same name as the social movement in France, Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests), started to block roads and access to the airport and the harbor, the highest local representative of the state, the Prefect, imposed curfew. Though it did not last long, it showed that the measure has become the most rapid response to quell popular protest. It goes with the current militarization of democracy and the society of surveillance. Arguments to justify curfew rest on a vocabulary of “protection” of the economy, of reasonable citizens, of commerce, of democratic and republican “values” threatened by “les casseurs” (the rioters), who can be workers, peasants, employees, university, and high-school students. In the case of minors, protection against themselves, against their tendency to become delinquent. It is a vocabulary of class and race uttered by a bourgeoisie which fear the “dangerous classes” and the racialized others.

The application of curfew and state of emergency must be studied within the historical frame of colonialism. The State will allow only certain kinds of dissent and protest, imposing a politics of respectability that hinders full and free expression. Social anger against perceived injustices and lack of dignity and respect are identified as destructive violence by the state, masking its systemic social and cultural violence. The very concrete material and immaterial consequences of neoliberalism, that people experience in their daily lives, are hidden under the discourse of fear and order.

The politics of protection advocated by neoliberalism (make the streets safe, lock suspects up, increase surveillance) go hand in hand with a growing social and economic violence. In December 2018, people in Reunion were protesting against decades of contempt and indifference to their well-being by the French state. They understood perfectly that their lives did not matter and their discourse was deeply rooted in a vocabulary where words like dignity and respect were central. On this island, close to half of the population lives under the French poverty level, the unemployment rate has been at 37% for decades, close to 80% of goods for consumption are imported from France, enriching the big French companies of distribution, and French whites have much higher chances to get a job than Reunionese with a diploma. It is a perfect example of French republican coloniality that has been exercised for decades: increased dependency, assimilation, erasure or marginalization of colonial crimes, growing inequalities and poverty. Protest erupts regularly in French so-called “overseas territories,” which are the remnants of its slavery and post-slavery colonial empire.

Neoliberalism, which is destroying the world, needs legal tools like the state of emergency to keep its world safe. To ensure safety for the few, measures have to be taken at the expense of those who are identified as not deserving protection. This division between those who must be protected and those who are made vulnerable to violence and death is inseparable from racial capitalism. ■