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The Violence is Elsewhere than in the Insane, Foreigners, and the Romany

Translated Monday 27 September 2010, by Isabelle Métral and reviewed by Henry Crapo

Will French law confine more and more people? Analysing the present bill on the rights and protection of persons under mental treatment in the light of the 2007 law on the prevention of crime, the vice-president of the Mental Health Trade-Union shows the continuity of governmental policies towards mental patients, and articulates it with its xenophobic, zero-risk diversionary strategy.

The March 5, 2007 law on crime prevention, jointly drafted by Madame Dati (then minister for Justice) and M. Sarkozy (then minister for the Interior), was clearly meant to formalize, by means of associations of ideas, “a standard image of the potential evil-doer” or “domestic enemy” that everybody could assimilate to their own phantasms without recognizing themselves. Later events have brought more blatant proof of this. The third version of chapter three in the present bill (defining the dispositions that tend to curb crime against property and prevent neighbourhood incivilities) listed pell-mell: Travellers, attack dogs, and mental patients.

The aim was to use social and youth workers, teachers, psychiatric workers and all health service workers, to turn them into instruments to control the population under the pretext of fighting petty crime - cunningly associated with precarious livelihood, frailty and school-truancy, mental health problems or even immigration.

The lines about mental patients were eventually withdrawn from the final draft and the Romany have temporarily relayed the insane, other foreigners, and Travellers [1] as instruments in the government’s security-first propaganda.

No doubt an individual pushing another commuter under a train is enough to create a shock and arouse fear, all the more so as the act seems incomprehensible and potentially directed against any innocent person: but should this fear be exploited and commercialized for all that? Those are dramatic, yet exceptional, acts, which are swooped upon by the media to be over-publicized for other purposes, even as State violence silently spreads wider and wider.

But the images displayed to frighten us are not as dangerous as the hand that signs laws and decrees that will lead the population not to apply for treatment and will incite hospitals and doctors to prioritize turnover and resign themselves to “adjust their ethics”, to select the most profitable treatments or patients, to treat patients like clients and consumers of medical treatments, and reduce the mission of health workers to the administration of treatments.

The voice that pretends to classify hospitals by their patients’ death rates just cannot be unaware of the consequence this will have for old or frail patients or for the most serious cases, all of whom will be requested to die before they arrive at the hospital, or after they leave it, or in the ambulance that takes them to another place. The cult of appraisal and of targets set in figures has its toll of dead as the teams in charge of patients lose sight of their real mission: care.

The hand that turns social workers into informers, policemen into hunters of undocumented workers, Travellers or poor people under threat of eviction is to be held accountable for the deterioration of public workers’ image and their consequent exposition to retaliation as representatives of the State.

The answer to precarious living conditions is now no more than the simple containment of outbursts: it is in this context that the bill on the rights and protection of people under psychiatric treatment generalizes mandatory care of outpatients.

If it were passed, it would only result in keeping patients away from health centres, in their being marginalized or totally neglected. The generalization of mandatory treatment is meant to arouse the distrust and fear of public opinion towards the teams of mental health workers: their being assimilated to a threat would delay the moment when treatment is applied for.

Because patients can no longer have the kind reception and the attention they need, fear and mistrust will set in, making the necessary alliance between therapist and patient impossible. What was patiently built up in the course of several dozen years of work and patient understanding is sure to be annihilated.

The inevitable failure of this policy will lead to the extension of confinement, to the greatest profit of developers of concrete, without suppressing or even reducing the risk of violence: won’t our strategists be overjoyed on finding the feeling of insecurity reinforced!

[1"Gens du Voyage" (Travellers) is a widely accepted term and does not bear any social stigma. By law, French municipalities have the obligation to allocate a piece of land to Romani travellers when they arrive. (Wikipedia)

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