“It’s called wildness,” assured Gérald Darmanin on Monday November 20 about the brawl that occurred in the village of Crépol (Drôme), which cost the life of a sixteen-year-old teenager. In July 2020, the tenant of Place Beauvau had already used this same concept, this time regarding the increase in cases of attacks during the summer period.
Very divisive within the French executive – many members of the government refuse to use it – the notion of “wilding” has seen a resurgence in popularity over the past ten years. It has been used in particular by the far right since 2013 to discuss French immigration.
The “savage”, from a colonialist imagination to massive immigration
The term “ensauvagement” would be derived from the verb “ensauvagir”, now “ensauvager”, which means “to make someone wild” explains the French Academy. Although it is difficult to trace the exact date of the appearance of the expression, several writings have dedicated it since the 1950s. This is the case of the “Discourse on Colonialism” by the writer and poet Aimé Césaire, who uses it to designate the violence instilled within the colonies by the European invaders, recalls Le Monde: “There is the poison instilled in the veins of Europe, and the slow, but sure, progress of the savagery of the continent », he writes.
Much later, in 2005, the political scientist and senior French civil servant Thérèse Delpech contributed to the dissemination of this term with her book L’ensauvagement: essay on the return of barbarism in the 21st century. Starting from the example of the American intervention in Iraq, the essayist develops the idea that conflicts are becoming more and more violent all over the world, including within Western societies.
The expression then spread in 2013 with the book France Mechanical Orange signed by the former journalist Laurent Obertone. This develops a thesis similar to that of Thérèse Delpech, but with a French prism and a particular target: mass immigration. According to the essayist, it is the cause of an increase in violence within French society since the 2000s.
The book caught the attention of the National Front, which then regularly used the term savagery during particularly violent news events.
Before wildness, the “wildling” in politics
Before the wilding, politicians had seized another of the same lexical field, that of “wildling”. A word launched in 1999 by the Minister of the Interior Jean-Pierre Chevènement to designate repeat minors, sparking an outcry on the left.
“At the end of the 1990s, the left-wing parties noted that delinquency and crime were issues that affected the working classes,” explains Sebastian Roché, political scientist and research director at the CNRS. While the right does not hesitate to designate immigration as a source of delinquency, “the left seeks to designate turbulent adolescents in working-class neighborhoods,” he analyzes.
Fifteen years later, in 2016, Bernard Cazeneuve, also Minister of the Interior, also used the term wildon. This time he describes the violence that occurred against police officers in Viry-Châtillon. The return to this expression was then criticized within the PS itself, but for radically different reasons than in 1999.
The word savageon, considered too stigmatizing in 1999, appears this time as a euphemism not to qualify the perpetrators of the attack. According to Sebastian Roché, this paradigm shift is explained by the trivialization of speeches on immigration made by Nicolas Sarkozy from 2002, who promised to “clean the city with karcher” and rid France of “its scum”.
Far from being a concept anchored in a sociological reality, “wilding” is therefore an evanescent notion whose targets are not clearly identified. “Political language games whose meaning changes over time,” concludes the researcher, which can alternately refer to young people from the suburbs, immigrants or Islamists.
A thesis difficult to confirm by statistics
In statistical terms, few reliable figures allow us to measure extreme violence in France, apart from the rate of intentional homicide. However, this has been historically low since the 1990s. In 2017, there were around 1.4 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants per year, according to a study by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, compared to 3 for 100,000 in the mid-1990s.