It is a very old story: to ensure their imperative survival, the dominant classes need a whole system of control of the dominated classes. Control and division of time, space, daily activities, based on fear, whether of hell or of the sword or, more often than not both, allies for the occasion. To survey the history of the curfew is to visit a panoply of means of surveillance available to the dominant classes.
Health is as much social as it is medical
In recent weeks, we have been able to read or hear a number of statements according to which the curfew put in place to fight against Covid-19 was the first in the history of the Western world with health motivations.
And yet … When in 1516 in Venice a decree issued by the city authorities stipulated that “the Jews will all live together in all the houses located in the Ghetto, near San Girolamo; and, so that they do not circulate all night, we decree that on the side of the old Ghetto where there is a small bridge, and similarly on the other side of the bridge, two doors will be put in place, which will be open to the ‘dawn and closed at midnight by four guards hired for this purpose and paid by the Jews themselves at the price that our college will deem suitable ”, we are not far from a health measure … at least in the eyes of the ducal authorities. For a long time, in Europe, the Jews were gathered, by force or voluntarily, in certain districts of the cities. But they could get out, day or night, because they were largely integrated into the economic life of the city. So why this measure in 1516? To prevent them from going to forbidden places such as brothels and that sexual relations, even then family, are formed between Christians and Jews.
Contamination by an impious people and religion threatening Venetian purity, from this point of view we are indeed dealing with a fear of contagion and therefore with a prophylactic measure! But, rest assured, five hundred years ago in Venice as in 2021 here, many specific derogatory measures were taken to ensure that economic life (that is to say the profits generated by the trade from which Venice derived its reason of being and of which the Jews were a decisive element) can continue. The city of the Doges constantly ensured that the fight against contamination did not disturb the smooth running of the merchant economy: a century before the decrees on the Jews, the city was at the origin of the first lazaretto, a place especially designed to quarantine travelers suspected of having plague,
If we go back to the borders of the 12th and 13th centuries, when the institutional birth of the curfew, we can also consider that this is a health measure: people were called to put out the fires that heated and lit the residences, so that they do not restart at night without the knowledge of the sleepers and do not start fires like the Middle Ages knew thousands of, terribly destroying neighborhoods with narrow streets, wooden and thatched houses . Belfries and bell towers were then erected especially on or next to churches to increase the number of places where the curfew should be sounded.
The bells are order
The medievalist Jean-Claude Schmitt tells us that the curfew was, at that time, only a “measure of common sense”. Certainly, but then we wonder why it was necessary to remind each evening, to the sound of bells or by the voice of a street crier, the need for a measure of simple common sense. Would the people be so deprived of it? At least that of the cities, since this reminder is much more insistent in the city than in the countryside [ 1 ], where the fire is also covered in the evening with ashes or with a sort of earthenware cover without the need for such a strong daily reminder. Could this be a consequence of the famous “common sense peasant” cream pie or simply that domestic fires do not have such tragic and destructive consequences in the countryside as in the cities? Or simply that rural France, with an omnipresent angelus which signals the end of the day, is already provided with signals to punctuate life and delimit working time? And that, in any case, at night, it is hardly possible to work in the fields and night outings are hardly appropriate in the villages, except to want to meet one of those werewolves who are said to be at that time they were quite numerous.
All of this clearly indicates to us that there is much behind “common sense” health prevention. Schmitt suggests it himself: this measure regulates the rhythm of days and nights in cities. “By municipal ordinance, city dwellers are required to turn off their chimneys at nightfall. It’s not just about protecting homes from thieves and preventing fires. The bells that sound to signal the curfew also correspond to the time after which we must no longer work ”, and it is therefore also a way of monitoring workers. The stakes are high. Fire prevention but also regulation of working hours and control of public security. The curfew is first and foremost a Christian police measure aimed at distinguishing as clearly as possible the day from the night; God of the devil.
From the evil night …
If you had attended midnight mass last Christmas (you never know …!), You would have, like every year on the same date, heard the priest read this passage from the prophet Isaiah: “The people who were walking in the darkness saw a great light rise ”(9: 1). “To be saved is to be pulled out of darkness and all complicity with it and to enter into the presence of God who is light” (1 Jn 1: 5; 1 Thes 5.5). “God separated the light and the darkness. God called the light day and the darkness night ”, we read in the first page of the Bible (Gn 1, 4b-5a). And again: At night, it is the moment of “the fear of the wicked who take advantage of the darkness to commit their crimes” (Jb 24,14). The night is populated by demons invented by theologians so that people flee it in favor of the light.
To ring the bells at night, it is perhaps to prevent delinquency and fires, but it is also to ensure respect for morality. The decrees and ordinances of the authorities of European cities thus regulate the closing of cabarets, brothels and city gates, all places of public meeting from which night disorders can emerge. And both morality and amorality must be able to be seen and noted … Control does not adapt well to the night! But it is also the manifestation of the fear of the unknown, of what we do not see, of what is hiding, of what we can do outside of the gaze of this power which would like to control everything. The night protects the underground, the saboteurs, the illicit. As E. Goldman, the Puritan, said, “like a thief in the night, interferes with people’s private lives and their most intimate relationships ”; this night which he hates, he is busy squaring it and ordering it. The domination of the Catholic Church over the Western world was built on the instillation in the populations of the fear of evil and of the devil and of hell, where eternal suffering is promised in the event of non-submission to the god Christian. From then on, structuring time and activities into clearly delimited zones of good and evil turned out to be an instrument of power that the curfew recalled every day, in order to know where to go and whom to obey in order to put an end to earthly suffering. . The domination of the Catholic Church over the Western world was built on the instillation in the populations of the fear of evil and of the devil and of hell, where eternal suffering is promised in the event of non-submission to the god Christian. From then on, structuring time and activities into clearly delimited zones of good and evil turned out to be an instrument of power that the curfew recalled every day, in order to know where to go and whom to obey in order to put an end to earthly suffering. . The domination of the Catholic Church over the Western world was built on the instillation in the populations of the fear of evil and of the devil and of hell, where eternal suffering is promised in the event of non-submission to the god Christian. From then on, structuring time and activities into clearly delimited zones of good and evil turned out to be an instrument of power that the curfew recalled every day, in order to know where to go and whom to obey in order to put an end to earthly suffering. .
The curfew also marks the alliance of the saber and the bottle brush. Domination of the Church, of course, but also of the powerful over the poor: regulating life makes it possible to control work and its products. Originally intended to stop work in order to “respect” the rest dedicated to the Lord of the Catholics, the curfew gradually became a measure intended to limit the opening of taverns so that the wretch was able to return to work. Nothing contradictory there.
… At the cuddly night
As public lighting spreads in cities, the relationship to the night changes noticeably. It has become, for a greater number of people, more attractive and more festive, the shady cabarets have turned into bistros with terraces, the theater started operating in the evening, then the cinema, etc. The houses are now made of stone, and the dangers are gradually reduced to a few quarters left to the cut throats.
While the curfew has partly lost its original virtue, it has not disappeared. We simply changed its appearance so that it more fully fulfills its repressive function without needing to use health or simple public security pretexts. It has become a staple in war scenes and is used by all governments facing urban guerrilla warfare.
A measure linked to the war
It is difficult not to associate curfew, war and, consequently, the maintenance of order. It is said that in the eleventh century William the Conqueror imposed it on the Anglo-Saxons to prevent rebellions as well as fires. That Philippe de Valois, at the start of the Hundred Years War, would have used it to allow a military retreat.
Without going back to those uncertain times, the memory of the curfew imposed by the Prussians in the French northeastern territories occupied during the War of 1870 has long remained alive.
Just like the one that was established in Paris from midnight to 6 a.m. from June 14, 1940, the beginning of the occupation by the German army. Lifted only on August 25, 1944, it will not be applied continuously, but according to the imperatives of the fight against the resistance fighters, and especially according to the Allied bombardments to obscure the sky as much as possible. It also revives the tradition of curfews targeting a particular population (see the example of Venice above): from February 1942, Jews from the occupied zone were banned in public spaces between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. in the morning.
Twenty years later, during the Battle of Algiers (1957), the goal of the curfew decreed by former resistance fighters of the 1940s who had become torturers was to be able to hold the city entirely at night, to know who was where (since everyone must be at home) and easily make home arrests.
The following year, the curfew first established for one month in metropolitan France by the prefect Maurice Papon, in response to the FLN offensive on metropolitan soil [ 2 ], targeted only “French Muslims in Algeria”. “The police stations issued a temporary permit to those who had to travel at night. No serious incident was recorded during this experiment. Checks no longer take place in the evening, but only at night. Police Department. Note from 1958. “
Then, on October 5, 1961, a new press release from the Paris Police Prefecture: “Algerian Muslim workers are most urgently advised to refrain from traveling at night in the streets of Paris and the Paris suburbs, and more particularly from 8:30 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. It is against this decision (which will last until the signing of the cease-fire in March 1962) that the FLN calls for a demonstration on October 17, 1961 which will lead to the massacre of thousands of Algerians in the heart of the city.
The use of a curfew targeting a specific part of the population then became commonplace, and still against the urban poor and young people, especially in the cities.
We remember the state of emergency and the curfew put in place by the Chirac government in 2005, in the face of the riots in the suburbs that had started in Clichy-sous-Bois. And, in 2018 in Reunion, following looting in the midst of the “crisis” of yellow vests; or in Marmande, in October of the same year, from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m., for children under 17 following episodes of garbage fires and gendarmes’ stones.
There is no lack of examples and, obviously, not only in France but in all the countries where the need for a strategy of counterinsurgency, often preventive, is felt for the governments. State of emergency, curfew, state of emergency, state of siege, words to say the same thing: restricting freedoms, relinquishing the judicial authority of its usual prerogatives, strengthening the powers of the police.
[ 1 ] 1. 90% of Europeans live in a rural area mainly made up of peasants.
[ 2 ] During the night of August 24 to 25, 1958, the FLN committed a series of attacks against oil infrastructures on French territory.