Le Monde diplomatique: Surveilliance, the Law & the Rules

Le Monde diplomatique
March 2008

Surveillance, the Law and the Rules

France established a national security alert system, Plan Vigipirate, in 1978 to mobilise police if a foreign power tried to provoke domestic destabilisation. After 9/11 the legislation was extended to counter terrorism. Private enterprise took advantage of the new climate of fear and now, thanks to the surveillance industry, order reigns without a police presence.

by Martin Mongin

Everywhere we go – supermarkets, car parks, shopping malls,
offices, railway stations, universities, museums, sporting
events, even public libraries – we are under surveillance. We
have got used to showing identity documents and letting
security professionals search our bags. We do what we are

In France over the past decade the security industry grew by
an average 8.5% a year. It employed 150,000 people in 2007
and is expected to employ another 60,000 by 2015 (1). Plan
Vigipirate – and the war on terror – have served as
convenient pretexts for shops and offices to bring in
security personnel. We are constantly told that this is for
our comfort and security. But the real motivation is
economic: to deter thieves, prevent damage and ensure the
appropriate use of public facilities and spaces. The purpose
of security guards and their technology (CCTV, alarm systems)
is to guarantee the security of the establishment – its
goods, fittings, personnel and takings.

The presence of guards across the entire social field is
having invisible effects whose origin can be traced back to a
fundamental confusion about their status, function and
powers: what exactly is this “security” that guards are
supposed to guarantee and which justifies the constant
increase in their numbers? The media rarely examine the issue
from a legal point of view. This ill-defined occupation, with
its enormous potential for abuse, creates ambiguity around
itself. Daily encounters with guards lead people to confuse
distinct conceptual and geographical spheres of social life
and to adopt inappropriate behaviour. Their omnipresence
tends to blur the major distinctions that constitute society:
between public and private spaces and between the law and
mere regulations (rules set by an institution).

The security industry encompasses a wide range of professions
(security guards, fire safety officers, anti-theft agents,
dog-handlers, CCTV operators, patrol officers) and activities
(on-site security, money transportation, personal security,
surveillance, handling technical equipment). On the grounds
that they are all related to security, functions multiply and
often overlap: a fire safety officer may also handle crowd
control in a museum or deal with suspects in a mall.

Imperceptible slippage

According to the industry, a guard’s work “mainly consists of
greeting visitors and controlling access, patrolling
premises, overseeing safety procedures, responding to
emergencies, alerting and guiding emergency teams, and
writing reports on events” (2). But this definition entails
an imperceptible slippage from investigation to prevention
and thence to intervention and even repression. In most cases
the public have little idea of the extent of a guard’s
powers. There are certain uniform constants – epaulettes,
badge, earpiece, walkie-talkie – the main purpose of which is
to establish an asymmetrical relationship, based upon
authority and power, that has no legal standing.

In a white paper published in 2003, Quebec’s ministry of
public security pointed to “one of the main problems that
private security poses today in western countries, the
overlapping of roles between the public services and private
security… The absence of regulations of deontology and
ethics governing the private security industry is likely to
create a vast confusion… as regards practices which are
acceptable and those that are not… Such a situation can
also cause citizens to confuse the mandate of protecting a
client’s profits, by the owner of a private security agency,
and the mandate of public security of the policemen, towards
the community” (3).

In France employers, ill-informed or determined to exploit
the situation, often grant security personnel rights to which
they are not entitled (4). But, as strict regulations
stipulate, security guards are not police officers. “In the
exercise of their functions, [security personnel] must wear a
distinguishing uniform. There must, however, be no risk of
confusion with the uniforms worn by agents of the public
services, specifically the national or local police, or
customs agents” (5).

From a symbolic point of view security guards, however
dressed, present themselves as representing the law, or at
least as representing its representatives. I use the word
“symbolic” because the origin of the complex of invisible
effects produced by the presence of guards can be traced back
to the impressions that they inspire in people. There is
nothing subjective about this: the impressions are
considered, deliberate, and sustained. A calculated attempt
to inspire fear underlies the generation of this power of

If the police stand between the individual and the law,
security guards should stand only between the citizen and the
police. They should be on the side of the forces of law and
order, whom they should warn of any offence committed; but
they should be no more than an extra link in the process of
applying the law. In practice, they have other
responsibilities – observing, monitoring and raising the
alarm; operating in the name of security-related imperatives;
overseeing the observance of a prescriptive code; sometimes
equipped to respond to violence; initiating a relationship of
power or authority – all of which confuse the public mind.
Everywhere they are employed, they threaten us with the law.

Just ordinary citizens

It is extraordinary that the media never make the crucial
point that security guards are just ordinary citizens with no
more powers, privileges or authority than the rest of us.
Most of the time they exceed their authority, but they are as
subject to the law as we are (6). Like anyone, a security
guard can make a citizen’s arrest, as defined by article 73
of the French criminal code, but only if the offender is
caught in the act of committing an offence punishable by
imprisonment. Every citizen has powers that security guards
are reluctant to concede. In reality such offences, along
with the fires and illnesses that guards are supposed to look
out for, remain infrequent. (Perhaps they’re just very
efficient at preventing them.) The problem is that, unlike
the official fire, police and ambulance services, who are
called only after an incident, guards must wait patiently for
a problem to arise. And if it does not they may be tempted to
counter boredom or justify their presence by latching on to
more trivial events.

Their everyday work has far less to do with the law than with
regulation. They spend much less time arresting alleged
delinquents, and detaining them until the arrival of the
police, than ensuring that the public observes the internal
regulations of commercial spaces (7): no food to be consumed
outside designated areas; no flash photography; no
distribution of political leaflets; no sharp objects; no
sitting on the grass. Guards are there to enforce regulations
like these, even if they have no formal authority to do so.

Security personnel operate in privileged spaces that have
been described as “mass private property” (8). Although malls
and multiplexes are private spaces managed by an individual
or company, they are open to the public and much of our
social life occurs within them. These ambivalent spaces are
distinguished from traditional public places by the fact that
they are functional. That is, their raison d’être and
legitimacy of access and use are predetermined, and coded by
a set of internal rules. The area will be sub-divided into
mono-functional units (rest room, eating area, smoking room)
where people know exactly what they are allowed to do, where
every movement has been plotted in advance, every action
anticipated. It is a logical space, based on a finite system
of necessary relations between objects, people and signs,
every part of which is subordinated to the realisation of
this general plan.

Only those individuals willing to conform to that plan are
welcome. Supermarkets, car parks, cinemas and museums are all
functional spaces. Anybody who does not respect their
functions, or who breaks their rules, may not have broken the
law, but is “undesirable”. Management will be tempted to
restrict access, distinguishing between those who are welcome
(clients, subscribers, users, consumers, workers) and those
who are undesirable (loiterers, gangs of teenagers,
demonstrators): every individual who enters the space
simultaneously belongs to both categories.

Pranks and offences

Supermarkets use advertising and free parking to attract
consumers, throw open their (automatic) doors and greet new
arrivals with a smile. In principle, and reluctantly, every
visitor must be welcomed as a potential consumer; but, again
in principle, that visitor is also suspect and therefore
undesirable as a potential delinquent. The guards are there
to prevent or handle any event that goes beyond the
functional framework, because every incident has a cost,
however minimal, for the manager of a commercial
establishment, in turnover, attendance, reputation or image.

The function of guards is purely preventive. They have the
right to be present and to advise the public of the
establishment’s internal regulations. But if those
regulations are infringed, they have no power to deal with
the offence themselves. All they can do is point out the
rules, record the incident and, if appropriate, summon the

In practice the guard’s uniform, behaviour and attitude plays
on the double register of law and regulation, and tends to
inflate a prank into an offence and the most minor event into
an act of delinquency. “Deviant” individuals, confused as to
whether they are really dealing with a representative of the
law, tend to accept the rebuke as a legal call to order. They
assume that their behaviour is illegal, rather than merely

The confusion is partly due to the formalisation of an
informal power relationship. It is the result, not so much of
the existence of internal rules as such, but of the decision
to have them applied by professionals from outside the
establishment. Until recently it was up to the
establishment’s personnel (librarians, shop managers, counter
clerks) to deal informally, in a humane, spontaneous fashion,
with anyone who breached the rules. Now guards, employed by
subcontractors, are responsible for applying the letter of
the law, following set procedures, informing their superiors,
writing reports and accounting for their actions. Flexible
power relations have given way to mechanical procedures. The
same causes must always have the same effects.

The philosopher Michel Foucault showed how invisible effects
could be produced by this sustained confusion between the
regimes of the law and of regulation, a confusion
characteristic of disciplinary societies. “It succeeds in
making the power to punish natural and legitimate, in
lowering at least the threshold of tolerance to penality. It
tends to efface what may be exorbitant in the exercise of
punishment. It does this by playing… the legal register of
justice and the extra-legal register of discipline against
each other” (9).

The effect of the presence of security guards in public
places, or places to which the public is admitted, is to
overlay the social field with the logic of what Foucault
called the carceral world, giving legal endorsement to
disciplinary mechanisms and the decisions and punishments
that they imply. “Carceral continuity and the diffusion of
the prison-form make it possible to legalise, or in any case
to legitimate disciplinary power, which thus avoids any
element of excess or abuse it may entail… By operating at
every level of the social body and by mingling ceaselessly
the art of rectifying and the right to punish, the
universality of the carceral lowers the level from which it
becomes natural and acceptable to be punished” (10).

The regime of the rule, to whose extension guards contribute,
threatens to undermine individual freedom. It persuades
people to accept relations of authority more easily, to be
more subservient to displays of power, to normalise their
behaviour, and to repress any eccentricity or extravagance.
In the process it pre-empts any political demonstration or
act of civil disobedience that might prevent its own renewal.

In the name of the necessities of an alleged “security” that
requires justification, those in charge of mass private
property call on visitors to respect regulations that are
often a threat to liberty, and employ professionals to
supervise them. There is something fascistic about this;
although it is best described as micro-fascism (11). There is
no over-arching plan determining its application, no
individual instigator, no founding text to enounce its
general doctrine, no conspiracy. There is merely a coming
together of individual wills that reinforce each other to
constitute a diffuse authoritarian regime whose centre is
everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere – a regime that
offers little purchase for anyone seeking to topple it.

Martin Mongin is a professor of philosophy and a member of
the Institut de démobilisation in Rennes

(1) See the website of the SNES, France’s national union of
security companies, http://www.e-snes.org

(2) Ibid.

(3) Ministère de la Sécurité publique, “Private Security:
Partner in Internal Security”, Quebec, 2003;

(4) The French national rail company, the SNCF, sometimes
expects its security guards to carry out the functions of the
transport police. See Paul Stilatti and Olivier Cyran, “Quand
la SNCF sous-traite le gardiennage”, CQFD, 14, Marseille,
July 2004.

(5) Law 83-629 of 12 July 1983 on private security
operations, article 10.

(6) Ibid, article 13.

(7) In its list of security and surveillance skills, the SNES
website specifically mentions “checking onsite security
procedures”, “overseeing the application of the procedures
laid down” and “enforcing the regulations”.

(8) See Clifford D Shearing and Philip C Stenning, “La
propriété privée de masse”, Problèmes politiques et sociaux,
La Documentation française, Paris, November 2006.

(9) Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the
Prison, Penguin, London, 1991.

(10) Ibid.

(11) See Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Two Regimes of
Madness: Texts and Interviews 1975-1995, Semiotext(e), Los
Angeles, 2006.

Translated by Donald Hounam

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