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Back to the Future: The Recourse to Nostalgia in Modern Penality

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As they made their way home after a football match in the impoverished Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, two teenagers of Tunisian and Malian descent were stopped by police in order to conduct an identity check. Since they were not carrying their papers and did not wish to be detained in police custody, the boys fled, eventually hiding in the enclosure of an electric transformer where they died after being electrocuted on 27 October 2005. Such identity checks had long fostered intense resentment and hostility in poor immigrant communities and as news of the youths’ deaths spread, outbreaks of violence, looting, and rioting broke out not only in Clichy-sous-Bois, but in other Parisian suburbs as well, eventually extending to 274 cities across France.

A burnt car in Clichy-sous-Bois, after the 2005 riots. Alain Bachellier – Flickr

In the wake of the riots, Marie-Ségolène Royal, the future Socialist candidate for the presidency, called for the creation of “boot camps” (encadrement militaire) where young offenders such as the rioters would receive military training, engage in physical labor such as forest clearing, participate in vocational apprenticeships and, in essence, learn how “to behave as citizens.” Although Royal’s proposal fell to the wayside along with her failed presidential bid in 2007, some five years later then President Nicolas Sarkozy would revive the boot camp idea, expressing his support for a similar carceral “solution” to the problem of juvenile crime, an initiative which this time happened to have been proposed by a member of his own party rather than his former challenger for the presidency.

While there was absolutely nothing new here—indeed, a few military-style reformatories for delinquent youth had long been in existence, with little to no evidence as to their rehabilitative success—the continual allure of such retrograde ideas necessitates a deeper explanation beyond mere political pandering. My book, Mettray: A History of France’s Most Venerated Carceral Institution, published in November, provides such an explanation.

While there was absolutely nothing new here—indeed, a few military-style reformatories for delinquent youth had long been in existence, with little to no evidence as to their rehabilitative success—the continual allure of such retrograde ideas necessitates a deeper explanation beyond mere political pandering.

Convinced that urban poverty made children at once more vulnerable and more vicious, Frédéric Demetz, a Parisian magistrate, opened the Mettray Agricultural Colony for Boys on 22 January 1840. Located on 700 hectares of land outside the city of Tours, the institution aimed to socialize criminal youth through agricultural work, basic elementary schooling, religious indoctrination, and strict military discipline. Mettray soon became the most widely emulated institution of its day as by 1853, half of all minors in corrections were held in such institutions, and by 1870, that number had risen to eight in ten.

Although Demetz was always careful to describe the military regimen at Mettray as nothing more than one aspect of reform activity, it was the organizing principle of the colony. Implicit in the structure of reform priorities were a distinct set of martial values—discipline, order, loyalty and patriotism—which Demetz saw as core components of masculinity.

Located on 700 hectares of land outside the city of Tours, the institution aimed to socialize criminal youth through agricultural work, basic elementary schooling, religious indoctrination, and strict military discipline.

Children at Mettray were not referred to as prisoners, but as colons which reflected Demetz’ neo-Acadian vision of their future. The discourse surrounding agricultural labor at Mettray was distinctly moral, and its ostensible virtues were seen as vital to the reformation of wayward youth. As such, there was a widely-shared Rousseauian faith in the restorative power of agricultural labor among penal reformers who idealized rural life, characterizing it as simple and virtuous.

Caption from postcard of boys taking a break from field labor at Mettray entitled “Afternoon Tea in the Fields” ca. 1900

In short, Mettray combined an imagining of France’s rural past with a prescription for its future. Demetz sought to create a utopian social space that would allow for the realization of a masculine ideal in young men whom many believed represented a threat to social stability. Grounded in a mythic past, Mettray embodied a longing for a bygone agrarian era and a masculine code of honor associated with preindustrial norms and cultural practices.

Grounded in a mythic past, Mettray embodied a longing for a bygone agrarian era and a masculine code of honor associated with preindustrial norms and cultural practices.

Thus, the specter of the boot camp represents neither institutional innovation nor rehabilitative effectiveness but the relative sclerosis of carceral approaches to juvenile crime. Indeed, the idea is rooted in a 150-year old institution that even at the time of its creation was highly anachronistic. Over 17,000 youths would pass through Mettray before its close amid widely publicized accounts of abuse in 1937.


Stephen A. Toth is Associate Professor of Modern European history at Arizona State University. He is the author of Mettray: A History of France’s Most Venerated Carceral Institution, and is currently at work on a new book entitled The Penal Colony: A Global History.

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