Is France really growing more 'savage'? Word stirs trouble

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FILE - In this March 16, 2019 file photo, protesters remove a protective wall from a luxury shop during a yellow vests demonstration in Paris. A summer of incidents, from insults to attacks, some deadly, has built into a crescendo of violence. But has France really grown more savage as Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin says? Or is the problem a growing sense of insecurity fueled by the word savage itself, as Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti contends? The verbal jousting is causing divisions, and worrying critics who say the interior minister is exploiting the language of the far right to help President Emmanuel Macrons party win upcoming elections. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena, File)

PARIS – The subject is serious: violence in French society. But senior ministers have been stumbling over each other’s words in a debate about how grave the problem really is and how best to describe what is happening.

A summer of incidents, from insults to attacks, some deadly, has built into a crescendo of violence. But has France really grown more “savage,” as Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin says? Or is the problem a growing sense of insecurity fueled by the word “savage” itself, as Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti contends?

Crime statistics are unclear, but the language is having an impact. Darmanin — named interior minister in a government reshuffle two months ago — set the tone for a get-tough policy by saying that the “growing savageness of a part of society must be stopped.”

The disputed word — “ensauvagement” in French — means becoming wild or savage. It is a buzzword of the far right, often used to designate youths in rough housing projects, often of immigrant origin, in a changing France said to be losing traditional values like respect for authority. Some see it as a loaded term with racist undertones.

“Taking up the term ensauvagement is a major concession to the extreme right. This concept implicitly links the rise in violence to that of immigration ... to the ethnic mixing of society. Using it is a political error," tweeted lawmaker Aurelien Tache.

Critics contend the interior minister is exploiting the word to draw in new voters ahead of next year’s regional elections and the 2022 presidential vote.

Darmanin’s political roots are in the conservative right, but he joined forces with President Emmanuel Macron after the centrist won the 2017 presidential election. Dupond-Moretti, one of France’s most high-profile lawyers whose political sympathies are considered to be on the left, became justice minister in the July government reshuffle.

Macron has stayed clear of any reference to “savageness,” referring instead to growing “incivilities” in France.