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In Ventimiglia, an un-sovereign state erects its borders

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'The more the state is disarmed, the more it has to show off its voluntarism'. The illegitimate and illegal French blockade at the Italian border reveals the anxiety of a Europe that has surrendered its sovereignty to finance capital, writes Christian Salmon, 20 June. Translated from the French by David Broder. 

Migrants use their survival coverings to shelter from the rain on the French-Italian border

Sometimes an image says a lot more than the emollient remarks of an Interior Minister or the indignant protests of our better conscience.

That’s true in the case of this photo by Jean-Pierre Amet, distributed by Reuters. We see migrants wrapped in metallic survival coverings in order to combat the cold on the rocky coast. It was taken at the border at Ponte San Ludovico, near Ventimiglia, on 14 June. If this photo is a troubling one, it is because it symbolises a lot more than the row sparked by the French authorities’ blockade, designed to stop a few hundred refugees from entering France from Italy. 

If this photo is of iconic value, that is doubtless because these refugees draped in survival coverings almost no longer have any human form: they are like ghosts, revenants or aliens from Mars. At least, they are not wholly human; they preserve little of their former condition except an imprint on the polyester film that serves as their wrapping; these are mutants. They belong to a different condition to our own. The image reveals a hidden meaning of this event, a latent fear of these refugees who are perceived as invaders, and a barely hidden desire to see them disappear. It invites us to analyse the events of recent days not only in juridical, moral or political terms, but as a stage in which a sort of theatrical improvisation is playing out: the woes of European virtue or the vices of a Europe lacking in sovereignty. 

But let’s get back to what’s happened. For several days the French authorities have been repelling migrants arriving from Italy, carrying out systematic controls at the borders: a practice that does not conform to the Schengen agreements establishing the free circulation of people among the signatory states.

So the blockade that France has established is not only illegitimate with regard to the right to asylum, but it is illegal even in the name of the Schengen and Dublin agreements that rule out the very idea of embargoes at the borders of the participant states. According to last Monday’s La Stampa, the police at the Italian borders were concerned that ‘24 hour control violates articles 20 and 21 of the Schengen border code. The checks must be effectuated by sampling … but what we are witnessing here is a constant surveillance’. According to the Schengen convention’s border code, the checks at the internal borders between member countries should be ‘conceived and executed in a manner clearly different to the systematic checks on people at the external borders’. The police measures must therefore be carried out ‘extempore’. Which is clearly not the case.

This blockade not only constitutes moral and political wrongdoing against these refugees, who are eligible to the right to asylum, but must be denounced as a denial of Europe itself, since it undermines one of the fundamental principles that legitimises the European project: the free circulation of people within a common space. At the very moment that the demand for ‘respect for the rules established in the Treaties’ is being waved around the face of the Greek government, one of the founding members of the EU is openly trampling on these rules under the pressure of a public opinion widely won to the ideas of the far Right. This is a France that suddenly sets up a police barrier to Italy, which is now called on alone to take responsibility for the right to asylum.

The New York Times did not fail to understand this. In a vitriolic editorial entitled ‘Paris fails the migrants’, the daily wrote: ‘France’s failure to devise a realistic, humane plan to deal with migrants from Africa and the Middle East and Roma people from Bulgaria and Romania is having devastating consequences. The main victims are the migrants, forced to shelter in squalid temporary encampments. But another casualty may be a sense of unity in the European Union’. Indeed, as La Croix emphasised, ‘what is happening at the moment is thus less a problem of immigration than a crisis of governance in the European Union’.

Moral wrongdoing against the refugees, an attack on the right to asylum, and a denial of Europe, the Ventimiglia blockade is also a domestic political defeat, a ‘moral Waterloo’ as former housing minister Cécile Duflot called it. This is the behind-the-scenes agitation of a government that thinks such measures will allow it to handle a public opinion wracked by fear and demanding authoritative solutions. It is not even a mater of limiting the flow of refugees onto French territory: while in Ventimiglia we’re dealing with accepting a few thousand migrants on their way to other European countries, we have in fact just passed the threshold of 300,000 posted workers in France (a figure that has doubled in five years).

The spiral of lost legitimacy

So what is the rationale behind such a policy? How can a government elected in order to put an end to the xenophobic tones of a Nicolas Sarkozy who denounced the Schengen agreement during his 2012 campaign, itself give in to this anti-immigrant ‘hubris’ – that which the philosopher Jacques Rancière called a ‘passion from above’? ‘The states’, he wrote, ‘that have demonstrated their inability to fight against the destabilising effect of the free circulation of capital, take as their specific object the control of this other circulation (of people) and as their objective the security of the nationals threatened by these migrants’.

This is a passion from above that the philosopher Michel Feher has not hesitated in calling a ‘xenophobia from above’. For him, this ‘xenophobia from above’ ought to be distinguished from any demagogic manoeuvre consisting of flattering the base instincts of the people in order to galvanise support. It is, rather, a means of redrawing the social terrain in opposing an ‘abused’ majority – whose sufferings nonetheless remain in the shadows – to the ‘abusive’ minority that a bobo [bourgeois-bohemian] Left has supposedly dressed up as victims.

So is it a question of restoring a sovereignty that has been undermined by European integration and the globalisation of financial markets – but also by the intensification of transnational flows, not only of capital but also of people, ideas and goods, violence and political and religious networks?Is it a matter of clawing back a little of the power to act that nation-states are now so cruelly lacking? Quite the contrary.

In abandoning the power to mint currency and the control of its borders, the state has not only agreed to concede sovereignty, but it has also dried out the symbolic terrain on which its credibility is established. The authorities’ mechanism of representation looks like an empty shell, a simulacrum in the hands of vessels. So it is necessary endlessly to replay the show of strength – the war on Roma people, the deportations of sans-papiers, the raids and the police operations – in order to give some credibility back to a paper sovereignty. It matters little how effective this power is; the function of these operations is a piece of theatre, making an impotent authority seem powerful. And since the neoliberal revolution, voluntarism has established itself as a paradoxical figure. The more the state is disarmed, the more it has to show off its voluntarism. The posture of neoliberal ‘voluntarism’ is the form that political will takes when the authorities are deprived of their means of action. But their credibility is gauged in terms of the state’s effective power. If the means no longer exist to exercise such a power, then this voluntarism is unmasked as a posture. So it has to redouble in intensity, ever more forcefully asserting itself in order to restore its credibility, a demonstration that emphasises still further the sentiment that the state is powerless. It is a spiral of lost legitimacy.

So there ought to be no surprise that the state’s authority appears as nothing more than a misleading fiction, which tries to draw credibility from securitarian aggression and a repressive policy towards Roma people, the excluded and foreigners. That is what gives neoliberal policy its necessarily repressive character: not in order to protect a fearful population threatened by waves of migration and the explosion of insecurity, but in order to assert its authority and to recharge a credibility that is dissipating in every direction. Hence the Janus face of ultra-liberal policies, hostile to all regulation in economic and financial matters and driven by a true passion for rule-setting when it comes to security and immigration. This is less a matter of flattering the repressive instincts of the crowd than of redrawing the terrain of a fictional clash, opposing a silent majority (whose sufferings remain in the shadows) to hyper-visible minorities with a supposed sense of entitlement, be they Roma, foreign or black-skinned.

We have to look no further for the inspiration for all the speeches given in Grenoble, Dakar [two speeches by by Nicolas Sarkozy] and elsewhere, and their effect in legitimising racism and xenophobia. It is not a populist drift, but the ideology of neoliberal xenophobia: a deforming prism that allows the reconfiguration of society by tracing a ‘border’ between honest taxpayers and those who exploit the French social model, between the insiders committed to integration and the outsiders who have no vocation other than to leave. This fictional construction of an enemy (an enemy within, or axis of evil) is the resource that the un-sovereign state creates in order to show off its policing power, the last refuge of its regalia, the final reflection of its lost sovereignty.

François Bonnet and Carine Fouteau wrote a few days ago that ‘The forces of order go through the streets hunting out the migrants expelled from La Chapelle, in order to stop them from camping under the bridges or in public parks. A girl aged three and a half, who arrived here from Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, was detained for four whole days, alone, in the Roissy holding area. In what kind of country do we live, where this kind of situation is possible? The government assures us that this is a “humane and firm policy”. It is an insensitive policy, a policy of disorder that is blind to the new realities’.

Managing the image of the border

Beyond the indignation that these images – of refugees, of shipwrecks, of holding walls, police barriers and racial profiling on trains – rightly awaken, we should note that these are not just police operations, the securitarian responses that a sovereign state mounts ‘with humanity and firmness’ in the face of chaotic population movements. Quite the contrary: they are the signs of nation-states’ lack of sovereignty and of Europe’s impotence faced with the problems that it has itself created. What is the function of these images? What do they say? What do they invite us to think?

They depict the holes in nation-states’ sovereignty and, through force of repetition in the public space, constitute a collective performance in which the refugees appear as extras, in spite of themselves. And we must analyse them as such. These operations are aimed less at dissuading migrants than at managing the image of the border. The migrants not only constitute ‘the reserve army of capital’ destined to undermine wages, as Marx said, but also make up an ‘army of extras’ enrolled in the theatre of lost sovereignty. The border control is a ritual, scenographic space whose object is to project a fantasy of the border, to exalt the border; it is a ritual sacrifice, and the refugees pay the price.

It is an illusion to think that the daily presence on our TV screens of the refugees and sans-papiers held up by the police, of the capsized boats abandoned in the sea, buckling under the bodies of the shipwrecked, and of the walls and barbed wire, is simply a matter of border controls. As Wendy Brown wrote, it is entirely a question of the ‘iconic place’ that they occupy ‘in erosions of state sovereignty’.

In her book Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, Brown unmasks the paradox of the voluntarism of nation-states whose sovereignty has been weakened, as manifested in the multiplication of separation walls. We will underline four points of her analysis:

1) Contrary to what some people claim, the current walls are less the resurgence of the nation state’s sovereignty in late modernity than the icons of its erosion. To the extent that they appear as hyperbolic examples of the nation-state’s sovereignty, they reveal – like any hyperbole – that something hesitant, vulnerable, doubtful or unstable lies at the very heart of what they seek to express – properties that are themselves the antitheses of sovereignty…

2) Far from being iterations of the nation-state’s sovereignty, its new walls make up part of an ad hoc world landscape constituted by the flows and barriers internal to nation states. They wall off postnational constellations, separating the rich areas from the poor parts of the planet. Considered in conjunction, these flows and barriers signal that law and politics are incapable of governing the multiple powers that have been released by the globalisation and colonisation characteristic of late modernity: the recourse to control and blockade is an attempt to remedy this situation of ungovernability.

3) In the way that the new walls bordering nation-states are built on other barriers and other forms of surveillance – whether public or private – they mark the collapse of the distinction between internal and external controls, but also between police and army. A collapse that in turn suggests a growing blurring of that which is within and that which is outside of the nation, the border between us and them, friend and enemy, which these walls are meant to establish yet contribute to blurring.

4) These performances and constructions project an authority and an effectiveness that they are not able to exercise concretely, and contradict in practice. They produce the image of a sovereign state power confronted with its own decay. They put on show the powers of protection attached to a tottering sovereignty…

That is what Ventimiglia shows us, in the fog of a European project with a doubtful future. In Schengen-zone Europe, Ventimiglia is not a border-post between France and Italy. It is a phantom, a fiction of a border. It is a veritable ‘anti-immigrant wall’, La Repubblica thunders, erected between Ventimiglia and Menton!

The blockade France has organised in order to push back the migrants coming from Italy is not a border-police operation but a performance allowing it to mask the crisis and the impasse of a Europe lacking in sovereignty: between a weakened national framework and a European construction that remains a virtual one; between nation-states losing sovereignty and a Europe without sovereignty.

So at Ventimiglia what we have is not a sovereign state making its established border respected, but an unsovereign state putting on the performance of a border, tracing and retracing it; a border-making state that fabricates a frontier. It disseminates the border; it sets out borders left, right and centre. It is a border of a new kind. A mobile, porous, fluid border, a border that moves. Now the border is everywhere, moving at the speed of the CRS police vans from Ventimiglia to Calais and from Paris to Marseille. ‘There are frontiers crossing our cities’, the mayor of Chicago commented after the race riots that hit his city in the 1960s. Now they run through people’s minds.

The border is no longer territorial; it is moral and inquisitive: it distinguishes good from bad, us and others, within and without… It provides credibility to the phantasm of a fortress Europe that must be defended at all costs, and produces a visual scenography of the state of emergency faced with supposed invasions. Via the image of these refugees wrapped in survival gear it provides the image of the absolutely impossible-to-assimilate other (‘they can’t integrate’). It produces the media hyperbole of states acting on land and sea, through patrols or a French ‘Patriot Act’, as a substitute for a lost sovereignty. It provides vulnerable subjects needing support and protection an imaginary of ‘being among our own kind’: the picture of a reassuring world.

As the great historian of the Great Wall of China, Owen Lattimore put it, ‘an imperial boundary … has in fact a double function: it serves not only to keep the outsiders from getting in but to prevent the insiders from getting out’.

- See more from Christian Salmon here.