PARIS — The word “ensauvagement” has been a favorite dog whistle of France’s far right in recent years, used to suggest that the nation is turning savage. With its colonial and racist overtones, it has been wielded in discussion of immigration and crime to sound alarms that France is being transformed into a dangerous, uncivilized place, stripped of its traditional values.
“Behind it, there is an underlying imaginary world, with savages on one side and civilized humanity on the other” said Cécile Alduy, a French expert on the political use of language who teaches at Stanford University.
So it did not go unnoticed this week when sitting ministers of President Emmanuel Macron’s government started throwing around the word themselves, arguing forcefully that talk of France’s “ensauvagement” was legitimate.
“Personally, I use the word ensauvagement and I repeat it,” said Gérald Darmanin, the powerful interior minister and head of the national police.
Others in the government disagreed, and Prime Minister Jean Castex tried to put a lid on the issue. But that was not before the word’s use had set off a fevered debate — both political and semantical — and underscored how far-right ideas have crept into the mainstream, even as France struggles to deal with widening racial, ethnic and religious cleavages.
The debate over the word — igniting at the start of the rentrée, or re-entry after the customary August vacation — now seems certain to set the tone for the rest of the political season, coming as France’s main political parties begin preparing for the presidential election of 2022.
For Mr. Macron — whose main challenger for now remains his rival in the last election, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Rally, who popularized the use of the word ensauvagement — that has meant moving further from the center to the right so as not to be completely outflanked.
Though Mr. Macron has studiously avoided pronouncing the word himself, some experts said it was no coincidence that some of his top allies have begun talking of “ensauvagement” just as the right and far-right are already making fears over crime a central theme of the next presidential election.
“No doubt he considers the biggest threat for 2022 as coming from the right and so that’s the space that he has to shrink and fill,” said Chloé Morin, a public opinion expert at the Fondation Jean-Jaurès, a Paris-based research group.
Last week, Valeurs Actuelles, a leading right-wing magazine, published a cover with the banner headline of “Ensauvagement” and under it, “60 days in the France of the new barbarians.” The picture on the cover showed a crowd of people, mostly Black or of North African origin, vandalizing a car during what appears to be a protest.
In the same issue, the magazine depicted a current Black lawmaker as an enslaved African. An accompanying fictional narrative transported her to 18th-century Africa, where she was enslaved by other Africans, sold to an Arab slave trader and finally saved by a French missionary who brings her back to civilization in France.
The magazine’s issue was roundly condemned, including by Mr. Macron, and prosecutors opened an investigation on the charge of racist insults. But last year, in a concerted appeal to the magazine’s readers, Mr. Macron gave the publication a rare, exclusive interview during a long flight back from the Indian Ocean. In the interview, Mr. Macron described it as “a very good magazine.”
As with many things in France, an unresolved colonial history lies below the surface of the battle over the word ensauvagement.
The word is a direct outgrowth of France’s colonial and slave-trading past, a history that the French have yet to come to terms with and that they have often preferred to ignore, said Pascal Blanchard, a historian on French colonialism and its enduring impact on French society.
More than any other imperial power, France justified colonialism by describing it as a “civilizing mission,” Mr. Blanchard said.
“The idea of guiding savages out of the darkness into the light was omnipresent in France’s discourse,” he said. “The idea of the savage is still deeply rooted in French society.”
Aimé Césaire, the anticolonial writer from Martinique, even tried to turn the word ensauvagement against Europe in the 1950s. In “Discourse on Colonialism,” he wrote that Europeans had dehumanized themselves through the brutality of colonialism in Africa and that they themselves had turned into savages.
“Césaire goes further by saying that Nazism was the product of the ensauvagement of Europe,” said Pap Ndiaye, a historian who led efforts to establish Black studies in France, adding that a genocide committed by Germans in their former African colony in what is now Namibia in the early 20th century is widely regarded as a precursor of the Holocaust.
But stripped of its historical meaning, ensauvagement can literally mean, in French, the state of becoming wild.
“The word benefits from ambiguity and works in France’s collective consciousness by letting the person using it avoid being directly called a racist,” Mr. Blanchard said.
That is why the word appeared to have slipped into the mainstream recently, he said.
“It is necessary to stop the ensauvagement of a certain part of the society,” Mr. Darmanin, the interior minister, told the newspaper Le Figaro in late July.
The incidents have sharpened fears of random crime, even though experts and politicians, including Mr. Castex, the prime minister, acknowledge that actual crime rates have not gone up.
The use of the word by Mr. Darmanin set off an immediate reaction — from members of his own party.
“There are no savages in France,” Sacha Houlié, a lawmaker, told the minister in Parliament. “There are only citizens.”
The minister defended himself, saying that his use of the word had nothing to do with immigration or ethnicity, adding, “I’m miles away from that.”
In an interview this week, Mr. Houlié said that Mr. Macron and his party came to power in 2017 promising to reconcile the French. But by using ensauvagement, he said, “We recreate divisions, we create new fractures.”
After an August lull, the debate resumed immediately this week.
The justice minister, Eric Dupont-Moretti, told a French radio station on Monday that he would not use the term because “ensauvagement is a word that fuels the feeling of insecurity.”
“Worse than insecurity is the feeling of insecurity,” Mr. Dupont-Moretti said.
The very same day, Marlène Schiappa, a junior minister for equality, said, “It doesn’t bother me to talk about an ensauvagement of society, because it’s a reality, quite simply.”
Mr. Darmanin hardened his position by insisting its usage was legitimate — a stance considered especially significant because he oversees the national police as interior minister. In the wake of the killing of George Floyd in the United States, protesters led by Black French have also focused on violence by the French police.
The French government has not only handed an intellectual victory to the far right by legitimizing the use of the word, but it has also raised the stakes on security measures, Mr. Ndiaye said.
“Ensauvagement is coded language to mean young, violent youths of sub-Saharan or North African origin,” Mr. Ndiaye said. “And that opens the door to policies on immigration, police checkpoints, and it could be used to justify police violence.”
“If police officers are dealing with savages, well, then, it’s legitimate that they use violent means to control these so-called savages,” he said.