The splendid news that since Wednesday the French police are legally obliged to refer to everyone with the polite ‘vous’ got an enthusiastic welcome in our house. Since arriving in France we’d been labouring under the illusion that the routinely atrocious treatment dished out to young people of North African descent was because of some sort of deeply ingrained racism born of imperialism, reinforced by defeat in the Algerian war and strenghtened by the role of the CRS and Police Nationale in intimidating ordinary citizens.
How wrong we were. It turns out that what appears to be endemic racially motivated discrimination is actually just a bit of rudeness so the obvious solution is a healthy dose of politeness. As ‘vous’ is a respectful term the officers of the law who have been disrespecting with a flurry of ‘tu-ing’ and ‘toi-ing’ their victims will now find it impossible to continue with their targeted harassment, beatings and wrongful arrests.
If only somebody had thought of this sooner all sorts of dubious situations in the past could have easily been avoided. In their time the Metropolitan Police have been denounced as institutionally racist and recently revealed Cabinet papers confirm what many members of the NUM already knew – they weren’t terribly fond of miners either. If only they had been told to address young black men as ‘Sir’ while they stopped and searched them on SUS nobody could possibly have objected and decades of mistrust would have been avoided.
Obviously, ‘Sirs’ wouldn’t have sounded quite right while warning picketing miners to disperse before baton charges were launched but something like ‘chaps’ or ‘my good fellows’ might well have done the trick. A bit of thought about their choice of language, maybe even the revival of thee and thou, and the history books might be referring to the firm but fair discussion of Orgreave.
I have met one other group of people in France who have a strict rule about vous-ing. Owners of air-cooled Volkswagens just won’t allow it. When we first got to France I was driving a 1972 Campervan and, after a trip up the Pyrenees, it needed some urgent brake care. I visited Speedshop,a specialist garage near Toulouse and accidentally tu-ed the owner before apologising for my rudeness. He laughed and explained that in the world of VWs everybody was tu. Older or younger, richer or poorer, black or white – none of it mattered compared to what you were driving.
Maybe they should buy the CRS some Coccinelles just in case the vous doesn’t have enough power on its own.