It is yet one more measure of the often diametrical opposition that exists between French and English – geographically separated by just a narrow stretch of shallow brine but mentally oceans apart – that a recent proposal to implement in a village near which I live an Anglo-Saxon style ‘voisins vigilants’ scheme whereby the ordinary citoyen, in co-operation with local police, would form a neighbourhood surveillance group designed to combat the increasing number of burglaries and anti-social behaviour around them, has met with considerable reticence, if not hostility. Though some recognized that the police and the citoyen must work together in the fight against crime, considerable concern was expressed that a project of this kind might lead some to indulge their unhealthy curiosity in the private lives of their neighbours while others gave vent to fears that the group could assume some of the characteristics of the notorious wartime Militia.
In Anglo-Saxon cultures the generally-held view that individual well-being and freedom can only be obtained by co-operating with legitimate authority has led to a more developed willingness to work together in reinforcing the observance of rules and laws. In England and the U.S.A., for example, it is common to find voluntary Neighbourhood Watch schemes which involve the ordinary citizen in creating organized, patrolling surveillance groups whose aims, in co-operation with the police and local authorities, are to reduce burglaries, car crimes, vandalism and general anti-social behaviour, as well as increase security (e.g. better street lighting) within a given residential area. Far from being considered as a limitation of personal liberty these initiatives are generally perceived as being in the interests of the common good.
It is perhaps even more significant that in England (and certainly other Anglo-Saxon countries) enough trust is placed in the ordinary citizen’s sense of civic responsibility to invite him to become actively involved in directly ensuring that others respect what is generally considered to be conducive to the well-being of all. An example of this was provided some time ago when a well-known national haulage firm hit on the idea of appending to the rear of its trucks a conspicuous sign, along with a phone number, inviting public road-users to report those among the company’s drivers they judged to be conducting themselves in a manner dangerous or simply discourteous to others. This initiative was perceived by the public as making a positive contribution towards safety and civility on roads – so much so that it considerably reinforced the public image of the haulage company in question. Moreover, during recent city riots in England, popular newspapers made headline appeals to the general public to ‘shop a moron’ – to denounce to the police those they personally recognized from video surveillance footage as committing acts of violence, theft, arson and looting.
In France not only would solicitations of this kind be considered a Big Brother style encroachment on personal liberty but dangerous in that they provide too great a temptation for individual human perversity to divert them to malicious, selfish ends by encouraging people to inform on others for reasons of personal animosity, jealousy or desire for revenge (perhaps the national memory has not forgotten those somber days of Nazi occupation when denunciation was rife), and accordingly best left to those professionally appointed to carry out the task. For in France it is not impossible that the English haulage company’s publicity campaign could have been exploited for personal financial gain. This, at least, is what the experience of my businessman neighbour, Monsieur Martin, would suggest.
Now Monsieur Martin’s firm has a small fleet of delivery vans on the sides of which the company name, together with email address and telephone number used to be displayed. I say ‘used to’ because Monsieur Martin has now deleted the phone number. Why? you may ask. Simply because he was receiving more and more calls from people claiming that one of his vans had bumped into their car, causing considerable damage, before driving on without stopping. In reality, these allegations were simply fraudulent attempts from members of the general public to save their no-claims bonus by attempting to make Monsieur Martin’s firm liable for damages resulting from an accident which the claimant himself was probably responsible for in totally unconnected circumstances. Seeming proof of this was supplied by the fact that not one single person has yet accepted Monsieur Martin’s systematic invitation to provide him with a written claim containing name and address, along with details of the circumstances in which the ‘accident’ occurred!