Thursday, December 07, 2006


Those French and Their Language

Now, after a long investigation which included interviews with twenty police officers and four suspected rioters, Le Monde reports that the IGS (inspection générale des services), known as the "police of the police" since they are the ones charged with investigating alleged police misconduct, have published their conclusions.

I don't suppose this is the kind of news that is likely to be picked up, amplified and distorted in the American press, because there is not an easy way to make it into a come-uppance for the French, to use it as more evidence the French should show some humility and emulate America. Such as when, a little over a year ago, three French adolescents (Zyed Benna, Bouna Traoré et Muhittin Altun) were the victims of police brutality and two of them died in an incident which triggered rioting and protests and burnt cars and public buildings. This was all reported and interpreted abroad as evidence the French social model was failing to integrate immigrants and their descendents. And even French Arabs don't respect the police and the rest of society. Little or no attention was given to the essential incident, no mention of the "bavure".

Bavure is a first word that resists translation; originally it meant a smudge or spot of ink, and has come to mean [the results of] sloppy, unprofessional behaviour, and is most often used when the police shoot an unarmed suspect or innocent bystander. But the lack of an exact equivalent in English is a sorry excuse for not mentioning that there was much to suggest that there had been police misconduct. It was not Rodney King-style misconduct. Not really police brutality, one might argue. It was more "passive brutality": knowing someone was in danger and ignoring it. They did chase the kids, twice, which they then denied. They were pretty sure the kids had entered the high voltage power station, but did nothing to try to get the power cut off.

One of the officers told a judge on November 16 that he had not seen the kids enter the power station; on October 27 he had radioed to his team three messages within a minute: Oh, and it seems only six of the seventeen agents involved heard his messages! During a manhunt.

Not that this will interest the English-language press, as I already said, but did they really have to use the elegant, flowery French that is virtually impossible to translate correctly? The police demonstrated «légèreté et d'une distraction surprenantes». "Lightness and astounding distraction" doesn't really work. "Gross negligence" is more like it.

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