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Neighbourhood Watch in Europe: the French case
Interview with Thierry Chicha, President of "Voisins Vigilants et Solidaires”
In France over the last decade, the Voisins Vigilants et Solidaire (VVS) programme has developed strongly and gained a lot of public visibility. We interviewed its President, Mr Thierry Chicha, to understand the reasons for this rapid expansion, what difficulties they have faced and what their future plans are.
Good morning, Mr Chicha, and thank you for this interview. We have read on your website that the VVS system has now been adopted by more than six hundred French municipalities and some Belgian municipalities, and that more than one million citizens have signed up to it. This growth is unparalleled in any other European country in the last ten years. What is the reason for this increased interest?
Hello EUNWA team and thank you for your interest in the initiative we are developing in France. Things are evolving fast... we are more than 700 cities at the moment. In my opinion, the key to the success of Voisins Vigilants et Solidaires in France is the communication tool. We have invested between 2 and 3 million euros and almost 20 years of work to develop a reliable web platform, mobile application, SMS, and telephone messages exclusively dedicated to the Neighbourhood Watch with all the necessary safeguards.
What is the average size of the municipalities participating in the scheme and in which areas has it developed most?
There is no real rule ... it goes from 50 inhabitants to 500 000 inhabitants.
Have you had the opportunity to reflect on why the VVS scheme has developed more in rural and peri-urban areas than in urban areas? Is it possible that the programme has taken root mainly in areas where there are more solid networks of social and neighbourly relations, which is often absent in cities where anonymity prevails? Do you think that the current organisational and participation model of VVS can also take root in big cities or do you foresee a change of strategy to achieve the "villages in the city" effect?
I quite agree with this first analysis, I would also add the type of housing. Voisins Vigilants et Solidaires is a system that mainly focuses on the problems of theft and burglary, and these problems are over-represented in houses compared to flats. That said, this is not as true today as it was 10 years ago. A city like Marseille, for example, is gradually deploying the system.
What, if any, is the typical profile of the citizen joining the VVS scheme?
As you know, with 1 million participants, the VVS is increasingly a reflection of the French population. Homeowners are obviously over-represented, and the average age is therefore a little higher than that of the rest of the population.
VVS has developed a web platform enabling virtual dialogue between citizens, local authorities, and the police on security issues. Of the one million citizens registered, how many actually use the platform?
Roughly 50% of subscribers receive regular alerts and consult them immediately.
When registering on the VVS platform, do citizens have to subscribe to rules of behaviour? For example, how do you manage the social anxiety that may result from reporting false positives or alarmist messages, and how do you manage any messages of hatred, discrimination, or political controversy?
Of course! All VVSs commit to respecting a charter of good conduct. All alerts are broadcast within a restricted perimeter (delimitation of sectors carried out by the town hall). The VVS are trained in partnership with the Police. All contact details of registered users are checked by our teams. All alerts are checked by our moderators and the authors can be sanctioned.
Without questioning to the personal responsibility of those who carry out actions contrary to the law, do you have a mechanism to exclude from the VVS system those who intervene personally against thieves, as happened in the municipality of Hénin-Beaumont, going beyond the mission of VVS and acquiring prerogatives that are the exclusive responsibility of the police?
Let us specify that there has never been the slightest drift noted in the framework of the VVS system for 20 years and on 1 million members. The event to which you refer has nothing to do with VVS. I am even convinced that it is the absence of VVS that leads to this kind of drift. The inhabitants organise themselves; they are not trained; no framework is set up and that is where it can go wrong. It is important that the public authorities become aware of the problem and rely on a solution validated by the national police in order to structure these angry inhabitants.
Has vigilantism ever developed within VVS communities? We know that these activities are strictly forbidden by the laws of the French state.
In addition to the revenue from the costs of municipalities joining the VVS scheme, do you receive other subsidies from the French state? For example, through the FIPD (Fonds interministériel pour la prévention de la délinquance)?
Membership of the VVS scheme for individuals is completely free of charge, regardless of whether the town council is a member of the scheme or not. Municipalities’ membership represents 95% of our income. Some municipalities can get funding from other local, regional or national institutions, but this does not really concern us directly anymore.
Notwithstanding the controversy between the left and the right in France about the effectiveness of VVS, a million adherents of your device may appeal to politicians as a potential voting pool. Have you ever been courted by any party? And in general, what is your relationship with political parties?
It goes without saying that we are apolitical.
Citizens registered on your web platform can report problems related to safety and urban decay to their municipality (if it is also a member of the scheme) using case codes. Is there a channelling process behind these reports? Who handles the reports? Do citizens who submit reports receive feedback from municipalities?
There are as many operating methods as there are town halls. Our tools (once again, this is the key) allow us to adapt the operation of the system to the size and problems of the municipality.
In France, the political-administrative model is strongly characterised by state centralism and does not include the possibility of citizen participation in policing. Some things have changed since the serious terrorist attacks of 2015-2016. In fact, already in 2011, after the birth of VVS, the French state launched, with the circular of the then Minister Claude Guéant, the "Participation Citoyenne" initiative, a pact of collaboration between prefects, police forces and municipalities under the supervision of the Ministry of the Interior. How did you interpret this decision? Was it an opening of the French State to the participation of citizens in the security of their communities, or was it an attempt to "saturate the spaces" and prevent your "bottom-up initiative" from gaining a foothold outside the institutional sphere? The coexistence of the two systems created some problems for mayors who often did not understand the difference and controversy in the press due to the fact that VVS was paid for (by municipalities). How did you manage this problem?
What was the original intention ... I honestly don't know. One thing is for sure: today the institutions are moving closer to VVS. The simplistic opposition of free VS paying has had its day and many municipalities, police stations, gendarmerie brigades realise that if they want to set up a system that works without being obliged to dedicate a civil servant to it all year round ... VVS is the right solution! Our recommendation is to systematically implement VVS + Citizen Participation.
With the circular of 30 April 2019 the Ministry of the Interior Christophe Castaner states that "private systems can be complementary to the state apparatus", with an implicit reference to VVS. This seemed to us to be a further step forward by the French state towards bottom-up citizen initiatives on security. The subsequent signing, in February 2021, of an agreement between VVS and the “Direction Centrale de la Sécurité Publique” seems to us to have been a radical change of perspective. Do you foresee an operational convergence between the two systems in the future?
This is indeed a big step! And I can't tell you at this time what will happen in the coming months ... we are moving forward on different topics.
VVS groups are present in suburban and rural areas, representing mainly homeowners, often elderly, who fear property crime. In your opinion, does this not pose problems of representativeness, effectively endorsing social fragmentation and the exclusion of undesirable groups? For example, what is the percentage of residents of foreign origin who adhere to the scheme?
This is of course not a question that is asked in the registration form. I have no data to answer this question.
Is there any content on the VVS platform other than community safety issues?
Yes, of course, the VVS have a neighbourhood newspaper and a message board. It is not uncommon in these spaces, which are quite distinct from the alert, to see exchange of messages for lost pets or neighbourhood meetings.
Do you have evidence of the participation of the VVS in other activities and social networks (as is often the case in other European Neighbourhood Watch experiences), committed to the safety and decorum of neighbourhoods, such as the "exploratory walks" that took place in some French cities to reappropriate public spaces invaded by prostitution or drug dealing?
I have no data on this subject.
Given the increased involvement of institutions in the VVS scheme, is there a real possibility that in the future representatives of the VVS will be formally involved in the activities of the CLSPD (Conseil Local de Sécurité et de Prévention de la Délinquance) as was the case in Rennes? This would also allow the voice of citizens to be heard in more targeted prevention and law enforcement actions.
This is already the case in the majority of municipalities that have a CLSPD and VVS.
In your opinion, is there a risk that VVS, which has been promoted as a participatory model on the issue of security, could, in time, serve as a way for local and national authorities to channel citizens' complaints, preventing them from overflowing onto social networks or, even worse, resulting in protest movements, without receiving an effective response from the institutions?
No. I do not feel that the authorities are willing to do this at all levels. Moreover, VVS remains an independent organisation.
On an individual level, citizens involved in the VVS network can be gratified by involvement and active participation, developing feelings of usefulness, and belonging to the community. These activities produce positive concrete effects such as the reduction of thefts and a greater sense of security in the neighbourhood. In general, do you think that VVS can also contribute to lobbying for better local and national security policy?
Our DNA is not to lobby but to do. We are currently working on various projects: video protection, securing shops, connected alarms, partnerships with housing stakeholders, etc. In this way, we hope to contribute in a very modest way to the reduction of insecurity. We obviously give our full support to the police, gendarmes, and municipal police officers, it is thanks to them that we sleep peacefully.
It is certainly complex to establish a statistical correlation between the presence of Neighbourhood Watch activities and a decrease in predatory crimes. There are many variables to consider, from the Covid pandemic to the arrest or displacement of thieves operating in a particular area, to the general reduction in these crimes. The French press reports different percentages of effectiveness, and the Ministry of the Interior speaks of a 40% reduction in crime. The difficulty of measuring the real impact represented by citizens' participation in the security chain is common to all European Neighbourhood Watch realities. What is your opinion about this?
The reduction in crime is undeniable ... but by how much? We do not have the time or the means to conduct a large-scale study on this subject.
We will follow the development of VVS with great interest. We look forward to interviewing you again to follow your new developments.
I would like to add one last point: In partnership with the EUNWA, we have always wanted to deploy an effective Neighbourhood Watch in Europe. The approach that we have implemented in France is working. If some of you wish to rely on us to develop your NW in your country, we would be delighted to help you, in particular by providing you with all our tools.
Thank you very much Mr. Chicha!
Visit the website of Voisins Vigilants et Solidaires www.voisinsvigilants.org
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