State of Emergency, Curfew and the French Republican Coloniality

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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.

Article published in The Funambulist 21 (January-February 2019) Space & Activism. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

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.