The Wordsmith

Where Are the Noble Savages Now?

During the riots that rocked French cities last summer, often led by young people with immigrant backgrounds, the term ensauvagement returned to the fore. A word steeped in history and politics.
© Sylvie Serprix/France-Amérique

Beset by countless social conflicts, France is continuing to air its contradictions and domestic tensions for all the world to see. The Yellow Vest movement in 2018-2019 was followed by unrest linked to pension reform in the first half of 2023. This summer then saw urban riots sparked by the death of Nahel, a French-Algerian teenager from a poor suburb, who was shot by a police officer on June 27.

A specific vocabulary accompanies these movements, many of which are hyper-violent and have a lasting influence on the political sphere. During the June 2023 riots, the word ensauvagement (literally, “making or becoming savage”) was used by Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, which unsurprisingly caused a backlash. This term, taken from the French word sauvage (“wild,” “savage”), could be interpreted as referring to the generally West African and North African origins of the young people involved in the uprising.

The use of this word – and its derivatives – to stigmatize an individual or a group by reducing them to their identity or behavior is certainly not new. Taken from the Late Latin term salvaticus, an altered form of silvaticus (from silva, “forest”), meaning “of the woods,” the word “savage” was used in the Middle Ages to describe hermits and bandits living alone in the forest. In other words, those who lived in nature.

In the 12th century, the meaning changed and the word was instead used to demonize foreigners who were viewed as uncivilized. The Saracens (Moorish Arabs) who had occupied Spain were particularly targeted, along with France’s eternal enemies, the English, and their odious neighbors, the Germans. This latter group was even described as pute gent sauvage (“stinking savage people” in old French) in “La chanson des Saisnes,” an epic ballad about the war between Charlemagne and the Saxons. This particular use of the term stuck. With the wave of colonization beginning in the 15th century, all those who fell under European rule were seen as “primitive” and became the new wearers of this label.

In modern French society, this word is only acceptable as an adjective, and only then in two specific cases: either to describe untamed animal and plant species living or growing freely in nature, such as canards sauvages (“wild ducks”) or menthe sauvage (“wild mint”); or, to describe certain illegal events or acts such as concerts sauvages (“unauthorized concerts”), manifestations sauvages (“undeclared protests”), or affichage sauvage (“billposting”).

The revival of the term ensauvagement did not come from nowhere (Gérald Darmanin had already used it in 2020). French writer Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve used it as far back as the 1860s to suggest that war ensauvage les cœurs (“makes hearts savage”). The far right, followed by sections of the right, adopted the term in the 2000s to condemn a (supposed) rise in violence and petty crime. Yet despite the claims, neither police statistics nor credible studies ever confirmed this increase.

Almost 25 years ago, in 1999, another Interior Minister, the socialist Jean-Pierre Chevènement, had the gall to use a similar term, sauvageon, in a political speech. Taken from the agricultural lexicon, this word refers to a tree that grows spontaneously without being deliberately planted. It can also be a wild shoot from a grafted tree. By analogy, un sauvageon can also mean “a little savage,” a child left to their own devices without sufficient parental guidance. This is obviously what Jean-Pierre Chevènement had in mind while describing young offenders.

Of course, this is nothing compared to other words used since. In 2005, while talking about young people in underprivileged neighborhoods, future president Nicolas Sarkozy declared that he wanted to rid France of its racailles (“riffraff,” “scum”). More recently, the police unions didn’ t mince their words when they called for all-out war against les nuisibles (“pests”) last July. In both French and English, these terms are generally used for animals such as rats and cockroaches.

Obliged to take a more moderate approach, President Emmanuel Macron has spoken of incivilités – a term that emphasizes the actions of those responsible for the destruction and other petty crimes, while removing any reference to their heritage. Be that as it may, the word sauvage is now everywhere. French people use it to criticize anyone seen as behaving poorly, whether throwing trash on the street or having the volume turned up too loud on their television.

Unfortunately for Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his well-known theory, the “noble savage” seems to be a thing of the past!

Article published in the October 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.