This article originally appeared on VICE France
Last month, members of extreme right-wing group Génération Identitaire (GI) launched an “anti-scum security tour” in the subway system of the northern French town of Lille. About 30 men in yellow raincoats gathered on March 14 and 25 to patrol the trains running on the Transpole network, apparently with the goal of imposing a “deterrent presence against thugs who attack and steal with impunity.”
A bunch of far-right activists marauding around an enclosed underground space in search of their definition of “scum” obviously doesn’t sound like a particularly good thing. So it’s understandable that a lot of people got pretty up in arms about the initiative—not least the French NGO Human Rights League, which released a statement claiming that the GI’s patrol was intended "to serve as a propaganda tool for their extreme right splinter ideas.” Transpole representatives also said that they were “deeply disapproving” of the GI action.
One problem with the GI's apparent goal is that there are already 450 officers and 3,600 security cameras active across the Transpole network, so it's unclear why any further deterrent is needed. However, one other potential motivation for the “anti-scum” campaign becomes apparent when you look at a recent survey conducted by local newspaper La Brique, which concluded that certain neighborhoods in the city suffer from “an unemployment rate fluctuating between 30 and 40 percent,” while also housing “a large concentration of immigrants of mixed origins.”
If you’re a member of an extreme far-right group, seeing those two bits of information next to each other is presumably enough ammo for a whole album of spoken-word hate speech. I wanted to know whether that was the actual reasoning behind the GI's "security tour," or whether they actually believed they were protecting people by standing around and intimidating subway passengers. So to find out I spoke to Aurélien Verhassel, head of GI in Flanders, Artois, and Hainaut—three of Lille's most important historical areas.
VICE: Why did you organize these “anti-scum” security patrols?
Aurélien Verhassel: They were launched as part of our "Generation Anti-Racailles" [Anti-Scum Generation] campaign. We believe that young people are the main victims of this culture of insecurity in our country. There aren't many people who've never been abused or mugged on the streets, and we have to live with this reality.
How did your first security patrols go?
Our security patrols went well. Most importantly, they paid off. Our presence is enough to scare the scum off the subway; thanks to our presence they can no longer commit crimes with impunity. We had some very positive feedback from subway users—everyone welcomed our group of vigilante youth.
Don’t you think that the law enforcement agents already working in the subway can handle this kind of problem sufficiently?
French people confronted by these hateful scum groups feel isolated and scared, mostly because no one taught them how to cope with scum. We want to break this pattern and show young people that they can defend themselves. We also want scum to understand that playtime is over. That’s what our campaign is based on. Our slogan sums it up pretty well: "Join our clan—when faced with scum, you’re not alone anymore!"
There are 450 officers and 3,600 security cameras active across the Transpole network. You're really saying they can't handle it?
We have received many complaints from Transpole staff [about problems in the subway]. They all say that [Transpole having] full control has been to the detriment of the subway users’ security. The response time is too long, and the mediation officers are useless. This is why we’re suggesting an alternative: a police for public transport.
Has crime actually increased in Lille recently?
Yes, without a doubt! We see it every day on public transport, in front of high schools, universities, and night clubs. The annual crime report for the city of Lille is overwhelming. The document is meant to be a secret, but a reporter from La Voix du Nord [a local newspaper] got his hands on it and the case came to light. It reveals that there was a 65 percent increase in violent robberies between January and August of 2013.
The Human Rights League have accused you of spreading "propaganda for your small extreme right-wing group, as well as a stigmatization of foreigners and other disadvantaged groups." What do you say to that?
The Human Rights League should start worrying about crime. Gérard Minet [regional secretary of the Human Rights League] accusing us of that is a shame. We are a youth movement, and there are certainly more disadvantaged people among our members and supporters than within the Human Rights League. If Gérard Minet is genuinely concerned about human rights and not about political propaganda, then he should do something about the increase in violence that undermines our fundamental right to move and live safely.
But still, you’ve called it an "anti-scum" campaign. Isn’t that name bound to cause controversy?
There are no taboos in Génération Identitaire. We're not calling these thugs “young people” like the mainstream media do in order to cover this “togetherness” nonsense that's progressively turning into a nightmare. Semantic contortions are not enough to overshadow what people experience every day in our streets.
Regardless, the language you use is only going to add fuel to the fire. Have you scheduled any more patrols?
Police presence in the subway has strengthened lately. We're so pleased about our effective actions! You know, we weren't there to replace the police, but to alert the authorities [of the problem]. As a committed group, we are supposed to press right where it hurts to make people react. These security tours wouldn’t be needed if the mayor and the police were doing their job. But, for now, I’m happy to announce that other security patrols will be organized in even more northern cities and all over France.
Follow Emilie Laystary on Twitter: @aystary