French politicians worry about surge in pre-election violence

The head of France's main political parties are among those concerned about a surge of violent incidents in the run up to April's presidential election. A poll in November showed that one in ten French people said they approved of violence towards lawmakers.

Some analysts claim that the radicalisation of the anti-vaccine movement in France is leading to a surge in political violence
Some analysts claim that the radicalisation of the anti-vaccine movement in France is leading to a surge in political violence (Photo by Geoffroy VAN DER HASSELT / AFP)

French ruling party lawmaker Pascal Bois was at home asleep a few days after Christmas when firefighters banged on his front door to tell him his garage was in flames.

Startled by the noise in the early hours of the morning, Bois stumbled out of bed and went to inspect the damage, seeing the outside structure consumed by fire with his electric vehicle inside.

“I realised very quickly that it was a deliberate act,” said the married father of two, who had been on alert after receiving a bullet in the post in November.

“There’s a moment of shock, of course, but I got over it fairly quickly and did my best to keep calm.”

As well as the fire, graffiti had been daubed on the outside wall of his home in Chambly, 35 kilometres (21 miles) from Paris, saying: “No to the pass” and “It’s going to explode”.

The attack came as parliament was debating legislation to create a mandatory “vaccine pass” that meant only people jabbed against Covid-19 could enter bars and restaurants.

Bois, along with other members of parliament from President Emmanuel Macron’s Republic on the Move party, was in favour.

With France less than three months from the first round of presidential elections, to be followed by parliamentary polls in June, concern is growing about an increase in attacks against elected figures, particularly ruling party lawmakers.

Explanations range from the radicalisation of the anti-vax movement and a long-term trend of declining faith in the French democratic system to Macron’s policies and personality.

Increased protection

Since the attack on Bois’ home and a separate assault on an overseas island lawmaker who was pelted with seaweed on his doorstep, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin has ordered greater police protection for parliamentarians.

In addition to the physical attacks, anonymous death threats in writing or over social media have exploded in numbers.

In the first 11 months of 2021, a total of 1,186 elected figures including 162 lawmakers lodged complaints for threats made against them, a rise of 47 percent compared with 2020, interior ministry figures show.

“Unfortunately over the last few years, there has been an increase in offences against elected figures,” Darmanin told RTL radio, adding that anti-vaxxers were lately responsible for “huge numbers of complaints about threats”.

A recent survey showed that, for a significant minority of French people, such offences were justified.

In a poll published by the Jean-Jaures Foundation think-tank in November, more than one in ten people said they approved of “violent behaviour towards lawmakers and their staff, at their offices or homes”.

A total of 40 percent of people thought that the directly elected lower house of parliament was of “little use” or “no use at all” — a huge increase from a comparable study in 1985 that showed only 13 percent felt this way.

Last Tuesday, all the heads of the main political parties in parliament entered together along with the speaker Richard Ferrand in a rare show of unity to denounce what they called “the rise in hatred.”

“When it comes to representatives of the people being assaulted on the basis of their opinions or their votes, it is the heart of democracy that is attacked,” they wrote in a public letter.

‘Yellow Vest’ movement

Isabelle Sommier, a specialist in political violence at Paris’ Sorbonne University, says attacks against elected figures have increased significantly since the election of Macron in 2017.

Some parliamentarians have had their office windows smashed, others have been victims of arson. In certain cases, they have arrived at work to find that protesters have bricked up their doors overnight.

Attacks on homes, like the one experienced by Pascal Bois on the morning of December 30, are still rare.

“We’re seeing an increase in the phenomenon in terms of absolute numbers but above all in the level of violence,” said Sommier, who co-authored the book “Political Violence in France” earlier this year.

“Over the last few months and weeks, it’s been accelerating.”

Part of the explanation can be found in the so-called “Yellow Vest” anti-government movement, composed mostly of protesters from rural areas and small towns, whose often violent demonstrations shook the country from 2018.

The anti-vax movement appears to overlap with the “Yellow Vests” in many respects, geographically and socio-economically, Sommier notes.

Sommier said that Macron had radicalised this fringe of the French population through his pro-business policies, as well as his highly centralised way of governing, and his abrasive personal style.

The 44-year-old leader, who was slapped in the face during an impromptu walkabout in southeast France in June, declared earlier this month that he wanted to “piss off” the unvaccinated.

Sommier emphasised that France is less violent than in the volatile post-war period that saw major social unrest, as well as several assassination attempts on former president Charles de Gaulle.

But after the murder of two lawmakers across the Channel in Britain since 2016, many French elected figures are feeling jittery.

“I’m a bit more watchful of things around me,” Bois told AFP.

“And I keep a look out to make sure I’m not being followed in my car. All of us have become used to doing the same thing.”

Member comments

  1. The “hatred” is not abstract, it is hatred for the pass vaccinale – and all that this oppressive measure implies. The French people are rightly angry about this… I do not ever advocate violence but I am not surprised by it. The media call it an “anti-vaxx” movement, but it is not, it’s an anti-pass and pro-freedom movement.

    1. Eh? The pandemic problem is neither the vaccine nor the Pass, but the Virus!

      The Pass is massively popular, and has done much of what was intended (encourage most of the dubious and doubters to get vaccinated). Unfortunately, there is a still too-large residue (c.10% of adults) who can be vaccinated but refuse to, universally for no sensible or coherent reason at all. Some of them (and probably a handful of others) have resorted to using a fake “Pass”.

      The revised Pass builds on the success of the original: It increases the desirability (motivation) to get vaccinated, now with appropriate booster, tries to crack down on the fake “Pass”, and closes the testing loophole (with some exceptions, such as those who have a VALID medical reason they cannot be vaccinated).

      There IS one annoyance with the revised Pass: The MANAGER of an establishment who doubts the validity of the presented Pass can now ask for ID. That is very unfortunate, but it’s a case of the stooopid polluting the well: Those using a fake “Pass” (specifically, someone else’s Pass). Those eejits are in favour of the Virus, supporting the biohazard enemy, as are also the voluntarily vaccinated.

      However much anger or protests there are at the Pass — probably very little (especially by French standards) — it’s completely misplaced. The problem is the Virus. The enemy is the Virus. What should be attacked is the Virus. The supporters of the Virus (the voluntarily unvaccinated) are both unhelpful and deluded; their actions are why the Pass exists (both in its original and now revised form).

      1. (Typo correction, sorry!) Those eejits are in favour of the Virus, supporting the biohazard enemy, as are also the voluntarily vaccinated ⇒ …voluntarily UNvaccinated.

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Newly appointed French Minister faces rape allegations

The final composition of the new French government was announced on Friday. A new investigation suggests that historic rape allegations against a newly appointed minister were ignored.

Newly appointed French Minister faces rape allegations

It didn’t take long for scandal to hit the France’s new government.

An investigation by Mediapart published the day after the final list of ministerial positions was announced revealed that two women have accused one of the appointees of rape. 

READ MORE Who’s who in France’s new government?

Damien Abad, the new Solidarity Minister denies the allegations and a police investigation into one allegation was dropped in 2017. But another could be about to open. 

Who is Damien Abad? 

Damien Abad is a 42-year-old son of a miner from Nimes in southern France who became the first handicapped MP to be elected in 2012. He has arthrogryposis, a rare condition that affects the joints.

Prior to his appointment as the Minister for Solidarity, Autonomy and Disabled People, he was the leader of the France’s right-wing Republicans party in the Assemblée nationale

What are the allegations? 

Two alleged victims, who didn’t know each other, told Mediapart that Abad raped them on separate occasions in 2010 and 2011.

The first woman described meeting Abad for dinner after having met him weeks earlier at a wedding. She said she blacked out after one glass of champagne and woke up in her underwear in a hotel bed with Abad the next morning fearing she had been drugged. 

A second woman who lodged a formal charge against Abad in 2017 said that he harassed her by text message for years. She eventually agreed to meet with him one evening. After initially consenting, she told him to stop – but her plea fell on deaf ears as Abad raped her. 

What does Abad have to say? 

The new minister denies the accusations.

“It is physically impossible for me to commit the acts described,” he told Mediapart – in reference to his disability. 

He admitted to sending “sometimes intimate” messages, but said he had “obviously never drugged anyone”. 

“I was able to have adventures, I stand by my claim that they were always consensual.”

Is he under investigation? 

The second alleged victim made a formal allegation against Abad in 2017. 

A subsequent investigation was dropped later that year after a “lack of sufficient evidence was gathered”.

Mediapart report that Abad’s entourage were not questioned by police and that the MP told investigators that he had no memory of the alleged crime. 

The first alleged victim flagged the abuse to the Observatory of Sexist and Sexual Violence in Politics – an unofficial watchdog monitoring elected bodies – earlier this month. 

The Observatory has since brought the case to the state prosecutor, but it is unclear if another investigation will be launched.  

Who knew? 

The tone deaf appointment of Gérald Darmanin as Interior Minister in 2020 was controversial because at the time he was under investigation for rape. His nomination was met with street protests in Paris and elsewhere. Feminists accused (and continue to accuse) Emmanuel Macron of not taking sexual violence seriously. 

The investigation into Darmanin’s alleged crime has since been dropped.

Some will question whether the naming of Abad shows that lessons have not been learned. 

“Once again a minister  in the government of Emmanuel Macron accused of rape,” said Caroline De Haas, the founder of the #NousToutes feminist movement. 

The Observatory sent a message warning senior party figures in the Republicans and LREM about the allegations on Monday – prior to Abad’s nomination. 

France’s new Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne denied having any knowledge of the warning. 

“I am going to be very clear on all these questions of harassment and sexual violence, there will be no impunity,” she said during a visit to Calvados. 

“If there are new elements, if the courts are summoned, we will accept the consequences.” 

READ MORE Who is Élisabeth Borne, France’s new PM?

The Observatory meanwhile claims it has been ignored. 

“Despite our alerts, Damien Abad who is accused of rape has been named in government. Thoughts and support to the victims,” it tweeted