French interior minister Gérald Darmanin has ordered that families of “delinquents” be evicted from social housing. Such collective punishment tramples on all manner of legal principles — but fits with the government’s repressive crackdown in poor suburbs.

French president Emmanuel Macron (R), accompanied by Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin (L), holds a press conference. (Ludovic Marin / AFP via Getty Images)

On August 28, the prefect’s office of the Val d’Oise département northwest of Paris took to social media to brag about the eviction of a family from social housing. The tweet concerned the family of a rioter who had been sentenced to twelve months in prison for looting an optician’s shop during June’s uprisings over the police killing of seventeen-year-old Nahel Merzouk.

Complete with emojis, humiliating photographs, and the hashtag #DroitsEtDevoirs (Rights and Duties) — a reference to President Emmanuel Macron’s mantra that social welfare is a privilege, based on merit — the announcement was met with outrage and deep concern.

The prefect’s post offers a glimpse into the thirst to reassert authority in many spheres of the French state, rattled by the five days of rioting that engulfed the country in late June and early July. Yet if it was designed to scare would-be troublemakers and showed a great deal of petty sadism, there was more bluster than meets the eye in the eviction announcement. In fact, the family’s eviction had already been ordered by the courts on account of unpaid rent. Usually, however, these procedures take much longer and are prone to significant delays. Of the many eviction orders pending in a département like the Val d’Oise — a sprawling area that covers affluent exurbs and a ribbon of working-class suburbs closer to Paris — this rioter’s family was singled out and held up as an example of the state’s ironclad determination to seek retribution for delinquency and urban violence.

“The police and the prefecture have a wide room for maneuver,” Manuel Domergue, research director of the Abbé Pierre Foundation, told Jacobin. “Among all the families that have been slated for eviction by the justice system, the police can proceed with eviction or not. There’s an important degree of prefectoral discretion and arbitrariness in decisions like this.”

Although the eviction order may have technically been in conformity with the law, it was instrumentalized by prefect Philippe Court. For legal experts, the Val d’Oise affair amounts to a double sentencing and a collective punishment, both adding on to the convicted man’s prison sentence and targeting his family. This is characteristic of the way that Macron’s government maneuvers within the confines of the law to contain unrest and police the most marginal people in French society.

“The son of this family, a legal adult, committed and was sentenced for an offense,” says Domergue. “Yet his whole family finds itself expelled from their housing, including younger children. We have to wonder how they’ll be rehoused, because there’s always the risk of being blacklisted.”

From Exception to the Norm

If France’s interior minister Gérald Darmanin gets his way, however, seemingly exceptional moves such as this could become the new national norm. Darmanin, never a man to miss a chance to appear tough on crime, now wants to use social housing as a means of control. His strategy seeks extrajudicial means of preventing and punishing low-level crime as well as the kind of large-scale social upheaval seen this summer.

In a memorandum sent to prefects in late August, Darmanin ordered the state’s local representatives to apply “systematic firmness” in dealing with “delinquents and authors of urban violence.”

“We ask that you mobilize all tools provided by the law to expel delinquents from their social housing,” Darmanin wrote. The letter was cosigned by the state secretary for urban policy, a bureau that was placed under the interior ministry in 2022. It’s a sign of the strictly securitarian lens through which Macron’s government views the problems of France’s working-class, racialized banlieues.

Citing article 1728 of the civil code, which requires that “rented” property be “reasonably” used, and a 1989 law on renters’ obligations, Darmanin’s memorandum argues that committing “an act of delinquency in proximity to one’s place of residency” is a violation of the requirement on tenants to make “peaceful use of one’s housing.”

For housing and civil rights activists, however, Darmanin’s order does not hold water. Firebombing a car in one’s neighborhood, for example, or in the nearby town center is of course an infraction — but it would be a gross exaggeration to say that it’s a violation of a rental contract.

In the collective nature of this punishment that targets whole households, Darmanin’s order tramples on baseline principles of modern law. “Nobody is criminally liable, except for his or her own actions,” says Ligue des droits de l’homme jurist Nathalie Tehio, quoting the French penal code and the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man that have enshrined the principle of “individualized” penalties.

“Evicting the family of a person who has been convicted before a court, on the pretext that he or she has committed an offense, constitutes an attack on the rule of law and is an unacceptable act of social violence that will only provoke further revolts,” the Solidaires union, the Ligue des droits de l’homme, and the Coordination nationale contre les violences policières, alongside other organizations, wrote in a joint September 20 press release. “This policy memorandum is designed to satisfy the basest instincts of the far right.”

The government balks at serious measures to confront the poverty, social exclusion, and systemic racism that serves as kindling for urban riots. Instead, it is opting to devolve responsibility and liability onto the families and people in the same household as those convicted of criminal acts.

“Instead of looking at what hasn’t and what could be done or put in place to prevent these kinds of revolts from starting up again,” Tehio told Jacobin, “the plan is to impose a penalty on whole families.”

Kept in Line

Establishing a knee-jerk, nationalized eviction process as imagined by Darmanin would be legally difficult. But on a localized level, police departments and prefects are experimenting with different methods of harassment to keep social housing residents and working-class people of color in line.

Nice, the country’s fifth-largest city, has become something of a testing ground. Its mayor, Christian Estrosi — like Darmanin, an acolyte of former right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy — has experimented with many of the policies that the interior minister would likely hope to see instituted on the national level.

“Nice is really a laboratory of neoliberalism, where a lot of discrimination toward a precarious and minority population is tried out,” says activist Zohra Briand of housing rights organization Droit au Logement. In this southeastern city, public housing has been brought under the heel of local elected officials, who control the governing board of the region’s leading social housing provider (for much of the rest of the country, they remain at least formally independent).

In Nice, the precedent for evicting so-called delinquents preexisted the riots. In April 2021, a convention was signed between Côte d’Azur Habitat, the local prosecutor’s office, and the prefect permitting local authorities to “share information” on tenants in social housing with their landlords. Based on this text, eviction proceedings can be initiated if a tenant has been convicted or is even just suspected of a crime. In a much-publicized case, a mother was evicted from her social housing in 2021 because her adult son was convicted of drug dealing.

Local rights organization and housing activists have campaigned against this agreement on the basis of data protection, warning of infringements to privacy from the unauthorized exchange of sensitive information that they say it involves.

Anthony Borré, director of Côte d’Azur Habitat and deputy mayor of Nice (Estrosi’s first deputy), has a saying he repeats religiously: “Social housing needs to be earned.” In a public speech, he slyly introduced “anti-separatist” discourse when talking about anti-delinquency: “Social housing is not for enemies of the republic.”

A lot is being jumbled up here: “enemies of the republic,” “delinquents,” “separatism.” These are the kinds of confusions that have been formalized by Darmanin’s notorious new “anti-separatism” law, which authorizes the state to disband civil society organizations deemed to be peddling anti-republican ideas. One of the alleged purposes is to bolster the state’s arsenal against Islamism, but a main effect of this campaign has been to weaken the ecosystem of groups organizing in working-class communities. In another example of the rush to discipline working-class France after the riots, the education ministry ordered that girls be outlawed from wearing abayas this school year.

“The model that’s being put in place, and we’ll see if it’s generalized, is to link the justice system, the police, and social housing managers,” says Domergue of the Abbé Pierre Foundation. “Once there’s a suspicion of delinquency, the social housing manager is notified and can initiate a procedure.”

Zohra Briand and fellow activists have seen a proliferation of evictions on spurious grounds such as “delinquency,” “neighbor disputes,” and other forms of antisocial behavior. A single mother was recently evicted on a noise complaint over the sound of her young kids playing. “For these people,” Briand says of the alliance between housing managers and local authorities, “an accusation of verbal aggression would equal delinquency.”

“People are being hounded out of their apartments. The only way for public authorities to fulfill obligations of reducing waiting lists for public housing is to evict tenants or to force them out through grave insalubrity and rising tenant fees,” she continues, noting an underlying tendency toward privatization. “We are really dealing with the harassment of a precarious population in order to facilitate private land grabs on the housing stock.”

The tough-on-crime attack on public housing has proved, in Nice, to be an effective cover for the dispossession of people from their communities and neighborhoods. In Paris, where the Left’s longtime control over the mayor’s office has precluded more strong-armed tactics like Estrosi’s, activists have in recent years warned of the weaponized use of fines for low-level offenses and infractions.

“The goal is to chase these people from public space and even drive their families out of their neighborhoods,” says Tehio, pointing to the serial fines handed out over (frequently dubious) cases of petty criminality. These have landed the families of young and often underage men of color with thousands of euros in debt and, she claims, have a role in gentrifying areas like the 10th, 19th, and 20th arrondissements of Paris.

“We’re creating the conditions for a disintegration of social ties in these communities,” says Tehio. “And every now and then it explodes.”

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