Remember when we associated France with popular rebellion against tyranny and individual liberty? The French Revolution, the Paris Commune, the French Resistance and May 1968 provided ideas and imagery for innumerable liberation movements around the world.
To the dismay of many Francophiles, of late liberal democracy in L’Hexagone has gone pear shaped in response to Islamist terrorism. Surveillance was ramped up and the number of prosecutions for hate speech multiplied after the January 7, 2015 Charlie Hebdo mass killing. Warrantless searches and websites were blocked without judicial orders expanded under the state of emergency declared by President Francois Hollande after the November 13, 2015 atrocity in Paris. The latest horror in Nice has elicited demands for even more repressive measures.
Gaullist Member of the National Assembly and conservative author Georges Fenech has proposed that a “Guantanamo a la France” for returning jihadists, “would be the most simple solution.” In keeping with the spirit of the original Guantanamo he argued that it was needed because of a projected destabilizing wave of jihadists and described the proposed prison camp euphemistically as a “facility dedicated in radicalized individuals.” Where would M. Fenech’s “Guantanamo a la France” be located? A run-down prison on Ile de Ré off the coast of France that would serve.
So popular is the idea on the French Right that French journalist and author Dominique Jamet has claimed that Debout la France or Rise Up France! has been campaigning for it since November 13, 2015. Jamet’s euphemism for the prison camp is even more inventive, describing them as, “social re-adaptation centers with psychiatrists and psychoanalysts working with them to make them forget.” Shades of the Soviet Special Psychiatric Hospitals.
What motivates the proposal? The willingness of politicians to exploit immediate public panic about terrorism by doing something dramatic is only part of the story. As Republicans in the United States have learned, defending an island prison camp is a good way to keep that public panic from fading. Gaullists have taken a lesson.
Although the idea has been presented as something new, locking up the socially threatening and politically embarrassing in island prisons is a venerable tradition in France. Distant colonial possessions have been the favorite locations. Some 4,500 political prisoners were shipped to New Caledonia in the South Pacific after the fall of the Paris Commune in 1871. Hundreds of captured anti-colonial rebels from Algeria later joined them there. Intractable criminal prisoners like Henri Charrière and high profile political prisoners like Alfred Dreyfus were on held on Royale and Saint-Joseph in the Iles de Salut or Salvation Islands off the coast of French Guyana. Vietnamese criminal and political prisoners were locked up on Con Son Island in the South China Sea when France governed Indochina. Riffian insurgent leader Abd el-Krim was held on Reunion in the Indian Ocean. Madagascar was proposed as the location for exiling European Jews by the Nazi government of Germany.
What is different about the proposal for a “facility” or “social re-adaptation center” on Ile de Ré is that it is off the coast of continental France, a location historically reserved for French elites. The noble who was the basis for Alexander Dumas’s classic The Man in the Iron Mask was imprisoned on Île Sainte-Marguerite. Marshall Philippe Pétain, the ‘Lion of Verdun’ who became the Chief of State of Vichy collaborator regime, was imprisoned on Île d’Yeu off the Atlantic coast.
Islands do more than provide geographic barriers to the return of the threatening prisoner population. They also symbolize rejection by a state and society. Holding a prisoner on a distant island signifies punitive expulsion from the community. Holding a prisoner on an island offshore signifies punishment of an individual who remains a member of society. So the selection of Ile de Ré would reflects not a symbolic denationalization but instead of a carceral re-nationalization of suspected returning jihadists. Holding them nearby has the additional advantage of allowing participating psychiatric professionals to get a crack at the minds of captive subjects in an attractive tourist location. The contemporary French are often described as always on vacation, of thinking that vacationing as a human right. The irony is deeper than the waters around Ile de Ré.