Remarks on the Riots of Autumn 2005 in the French Banlieus

During the autumn of 1965, the Situationist International distributed The Decline and Fall of the Spectacular-Market Economy (published in Internationale Situationniste #10, March 1966). This text, written by Guy Debord in the aftermath of the August 1965 riots in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, was intended "not only to support the insurgents of Los Angeles, but also to contribute to providing them with reasons, to explain theoretically the truth for which practical action here expresses the search."[1] One recalls that from the 13th to the 16th of August 1965, the black population of this underprivileged neighborhood rose up. An incident between the inhabitants of Watts and the police was at the origin of the riots, which for four days that opposed insurgents to the forces of order. On the third day, the rioters looted the armories and opened fire on the police. It took the intervention of the army to reconquer the neighborhood, street by street. Previously, the insurgents had looted the stores and set them on fire. At the end of August, the balance sheet of the riots counted 37 f=deaths (27 of them black people), more than 800 injured and 3,000 imprisoned ($27 million also went up in smoke). The Left, through the intermediaries of its press organs, politicians and appointed thinkers (in the USA, as elsewhere) unanimously deplored the irresponsibility of the Los Angeles rioters, more particularly, the looting and burning of the stores and markets.

In The Decline and Fall of the Spectacular-Market Economy, the situationists first indicated that the Watts riots contributed to the surpassing of "the crisis of the status of the blacks in America" to "that of the status of America, at first posed by the blacks."[2] Consequently, "this was not a racial conflict" (the blacks did not attack the whites, but only white police officers), but a class conflict (as Martin Luther King himself recognized). Even more, the situationists emphasized that the revolt of this Los Angeles neighborhood was directed "against the commodity." The Watts insurgents, as "a class with no future globally," that is to say, "that part of the proletariat that cannot believe in its chances of promotion and integration, took literally the propaganda of modern capitalism, its publicity of abundance."[3]

Today, one can't forget all this. Not so much for the purposes of a comparative analysis of Watts and Clichy-sous-Bois as for the taking up, in the very terms of the situationists, the double question of "supporting" and "contributing to providing them with reasons" by relating it to the rioters of the autumn of 2005.

The malaise that each person allows himself to recognize in "the crisis of the banlieus"[4] did not start yesterday. The malaise is first of all the distant consequence of the disastrous urban politics of the great housing blocs constructed during the Gaullist period. The accelerated degradation of living conditions, the lack of efficaciousness in the different local political administrations, and the budgetary cuts of the last few years (plus the inequality, the discrimination and the endemic precariousness [of employment] that are the lot of the inhabitants of these areas) can only produce an explosive situation sooner or later. There has been abundant writing and speech-making on this subject. Today everyone knows what it all goes back to.

This certainly wasn't the first time that riots have broken out in the cities. But the phenomenon had remained localized until now. It was the insulting remarks of Sarkozy[5] that provoked the generalized conflagration of the banlieus. Or, rather, they played the role of the drop of water that made the vase overflow (because it was full). In this story, the Minister of the Interior indulged himself in an exercise that was comparable to that of Ariel Sharon when he paraded along the Esplanade of the Mosques in a provocative fashion, with the consequences that one knows all about.[6] Some people put forth the nature and extent of the destruction over the course of three weeks of riots and the difficulties of those, all of modest means, who suffered from them. Alright, but this society got the rioters [casseurs] and torches that it merited. One can only say that, in the context of "social violence" [casse sociale], the police's racism and their harassment of the young people in the cities maintain feelings of injustice and revolt that a mere spark can transform into a riot. One knows who had fanned the flames that Clichy-sous-Bois provided.

The commentators who shared this opinion have nevertheless regretted the absence of "political consciousness" among the rioters: principally through the destruction of equipment thought to favor "the integration" of the children of immigrants. It is true that Power is no longer [in] a localized place against which one could march, nor even those places (factories, administrative or governmental buildings) that the workers occupy during a general strike, but -- as "the Friends of Nemesis"[7] have written -- "a diffuse order, the manifestation of which is everywhere, like the market-value that is constituted in the moments of the economic cycle (through the production, circulation and consumption of commodities), and in which human beings vegetate without work and especially without income; which the offensive against the system recognizes everywhere, in the supermarket as in the school, in the building of the Public Treasury as in a festival hall, in automobiles as in the means of transportation (...): there no longer exists an accessible place where Power alone can be hindered or attacked."[8]

This made clear, how could one not support the young rioters of Autumn 2005? And this, it goes without saying, includes support for the people indicted during the riots and an demand for amnesty for all those who were convicted. On the other hand, it appears difficult (to take up the second part of the question) "to contribute to giving them reasons," "to explain theoretically the truth for which practical action here expresses the search." Before saying more precisely how this exercise is particularly difficult, I must make a detour.

At the end of November [2005], Editions Amsterdam published a work by Yann Moulier Boutang, The Revolt of the Banlieus, or the Republic's Undone Clothes.[9] To begin with, this short book made up an advanced analysis of what has been sketched out. Not without justice, Moulier Boutang revealed that this "transgression" (the disorder and destruction created by the young rioters) "was probably the only means for them to make our society -- so accommodating of the forms of violence that are permanent and much more profound -- understand that the death of two of their own constituted an unbearable transgression." He also remarked that the three weeks of rioting finally succeeded in making the banlieu a "social question," whereas thirty years of Leftist and Rightist politics had only produced minor effects and derisory announcements. Further on, when he refers to the urban riots of the black minority of the USA in the 1960s and '70s, Moulier Boutang adds, "not displeasing[10] to the fanatics of 'the French exception,' the riots of October and November 2005 had all the qualities of the urban revolts of the ethnic minorities, which are words that must burn the lips of the proud technocrats of urban programming and those of the republican ideologies," the author summarizes in one phrase the contents of his book. The rest proceeds from there.

Above all, this university scholar, a professor of economic science at the University of Compiegne (better known as the editor of the journal Multitudes), knows his classics poorly. The Decline and Fall of the Spectacular-Market Economy resolutely put the accent (I emphasized the phrases) on the "social" and "class" dimensions of the urban riots in the USA. It would be difficult to refute this if one wants to bother reading the text. This perspective does not exclude the existence of "ethnic problems," but the Los Angeles riots provided the evidence that insurrections in the black ghettos cannot be reduced to these "problems" (the struggle for "civil rights" contains them). From this point of view, Watts surpassed the strict "racial question" to propose a radical critique of the advanced form of capitalism (which USA expresses ideally).

Same thing for the French banlieus. The young rioters, primarily black or Arab, expressed through their revolt -- beyond a rejection of racial discrimination -- the more or less diffuse feelings of the majority of the inhabitants of the so-called sensitive neighborhoods, namely, the refusal of a "life of shit" in the margins of the society that are the most directly confronted with the degradation of the conditions of existence. These very inhabitants render this refusal in their own fashion when -- complaining about the burning of their car or the destruction of the neighborhood school -- they say they understand the rioters.

On the other hand, Yann Moulier Boutang blames a "republican model" (the principal objective of his book), which he takes to be principally responsible for the current situation in the banlieus. Others will willingly embrace his meaning when his critique bears upon "a badly commanded colonial heritage," on a defense of the State in strong nationalist accents or on the republicans' claim to arrogate for themselves the model of the universal. One can add to this list an obsession with Islam: most particularly intellectuals and mediatics,[11] from the constant references to the September 11th attacks to the mobilizations in favor of the law against headscarves.

Not good enough. Above all because this demonstration remains limited by the framework of the "model."[12] And then, especially (I would say), Moulier Boutang blames a "republican model" by implicitly defending another model, just as questionable as the one on which his exercises his critical spirit. Since it is a question of communitarianism, this defense and illustration certainly borrows more from the marked-out roads of the social sciences[13] than it aligns itself with the mode of belonging. Moulier Boutang thus speaks of "communitarian affirmation" by making it clear that communitarianism faces the camp directly (which is not false). Truthfully, this opposition mixes two other models that are almost superimposable: a "French social model" (promoted by the rest of Europe, according to our author) and an "Anglo-Saxon model." What distinguishes us is a long historical development, already seen in the relations of Church (Catholic and Protestant) and State in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Whence comes the finding of a "practically mono-Catholic religious subfoundation in France, the country in which the Edict of Nantes was revoked," which, according to Moulier Boutang, emerged "into the refusal of recognizing under any form -- except when disguised as its contrary -- all forms of collective minority." The author (rightly so) commends the Germans and the English for having begun to rename the streets bearing the names of celebrated battles, without saying a word about the particular splendor given a year before to the bicentennial of the Battle of Trafalgar in England by Mr Blair, whereas the anniversary of Austerlitz passed here without any mention (in a context, it is true, in which it seemed preferable to adopt a low profile after the vote by the National Assembly on the calamitous article concerning "the benefits of colonization"). On the question of "positive discrimination," so dear to the communitarians, our university professor (embarrassed by Sarkozy's recent conversion) becomes a contortionist so as to say -- if one understands him correctly -- that the matter would be better said in English ("affirmative action") than in French. [14]

One has indeed understood: by blaming a "republican model" in the name of a "communitarian model," we have not advanced an inch. One had to wonder -- upon hearing a spokesperson from the "Natives of the Republic" proclaim this past November on a public broadcasting radio station that "a black banker is a black" -- if this was not a flashback. The example of Condoleezza Rice, reflecting the lie of the State by refusing to recognize -- when confronted with criticisms made of the Bush Administration -- the racial nature of the help and assistance during the disaster in New Orleans, appears to be particularly significant. Finally, Moulier Boutang finds himself to be a defender of the "communitarian affirmation" when he responds to me that, notwithstanding the political choices that he hasn't made, the presence of Ms Rice at the head of American diplomacy proves the superiority of the "American model" over the "French model" (or the European one) in matters of integration.

We hold on to this term "integration" because it reoccurs in the writings of the majority of the commentators when they evoke the "young people of the banlieus" or "those "descended from immigrants." Some put forth the role of the republican State in the domains of employment, housing and education, others privilege the case-by-case [scenario] by wanting to give responses adapted to the "specific" problems of each of the communities. Is it not fitting to dwell upon the meanings of the word "integration," polysemous as it is? And to approach the question from a symbolic point of view, despite or in spite of the exclusion and the segregation of which these young people are the victims, to speak here of a successful integration?

To compare Watts and Clichy-sous-Bois is to want to "support" the rioters of 2005 by striving to demonstrate -- contrary to the reductionist analyses (whether they emanate from the reactionary, republican or communitarian camps) -- that the November revolts constituted one of the nth episodes of a confrontation, the social character of which (in terms of class conflict) cannot be denied, except if one were to want to preach for one of the last two shops.[15] It is indispensable to recall this before addressing what distinguishes Watts and Clichy-sous-Bois. I have begun to approach it by evoking a "successful integration." Because the "young people of the banlieus" are also the children of this world. The children of "happiness in consumption," the TF1 and M6, American TV series, fast food,[16] jalopies, pubs and brands. Rap music represents a good indicator of this ambivalence.[17] On the one hand, we are confronted with words of revolt, which expressed itself in acts during the autumn of 2005; on the other hand, we are in a world in which the reign of the commodity is celebrated without reservations. That this "culture" (beyond rap) can accommodate sexist, homophobic or simply sectarian attitudes only surprises those who, as a result of wanting to adhere to "the air of the times," have unlearned all critical requirements.

Another detour, this time more "trivially" political, is necessary. The crushing vote-count of candidate [Jacques] Chirac in the second round of the most recent presidential election has relaxed a Right that nevertheless appears on its last legs: it only has for an argument the increases in security measures, in which the Right involved the PS [Socialist Party], which -- wanting to answer this unfortunate challenge -- has discredited itself to the extent that it cheerfully toes the line of the unique motivation to satisfy Jospin's government.[18] The two Raffarin governments, the furthest Right France has known since Vichy, had brutally passed the reforms that summoned the management and certain "elites" from the beginning of the 1990s (and that a social movement had forever postponed in 1995). This vengeful Right was even more relaxed[19] when a test-drive gave it complete satisfaction. The weak mobilization of he Left, even the extreme Left, before the vote on the Perben-Sarkozy laws (the most liberty-killing laws since the era of the Algerian War) allowed it to realize the objectives of its neo-liberal politics without concerning itself with a possible electoral reversal in an election that had no national stakes.

One must emphasize, moreover, that reform changed camps. Today, it is the Right that appears reformist. The governmental Left thus finds itself deprived of its principal arguments. The Right only harvests what others have sown. This change of paradigm is one of the effects -- perverse, some say -- of the mobilization of the "elites" and intellectuals (formerly situated "on the Left") in favor of a "modernization of society": clearly the completely historical necessity of adapting to the evolution of the worldwide economic movement. It is another fashion, in a certain way, of celebrating the uncrossable horizon of capitalism (the last word being rarely pronounced, since our experts prefer the euphemistic "market economy").

Perhaps one day historians will associate the birth of Sarkozyism (a mix of Thatcherism, Berlusconism and Le Penism) with the riots of autumn 2005. Sarkozy, for a moment unsettled by the refusal of the two families of [the boys killed in] Clichy-sous-Bois to meet with him, rapidly retook the advantage. His troops, over the course of a week end,[20] demonstrated their capacity for maneuver and tactical skill by reoccupying the terrain. Today it is a question of a well-organized faction: a leader, a strategy, a demagoguery that pays off. The reprise by the Sarkozyist Right of the recurrent themes of the extreme Right is all the more dangerous because this faction hopes to reach the totality of its power in 2007.[21] These are, moreover, the seeds of a totalitarian society -- a new look[22] totalitarianism that reconciles republicanism, populism, economic liberalism, communitarianism, culture people,[23] and social and police surveillance -- that appears in the declarations, reports,[24] and even the legal propositions emanating from the Sarkozyist faction. How can we halt the Rightwards and extreme Rightwards spiral in which this country is caught? It would already be an element of a response to affirm the necessity of reclaiming a culture of confrontation. At the minimum there are the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who marched in the streets of the large cities last autumn, demanding Sarkozy's resignation. The young rioters at least had the feeling of having been heard.

here is a shared point between December 1995 and November 2005. During the strikes [of 1995], a great many salaried workers in the private sector were to a certain extent represented by the strikers, who were mostly salaried [railway] workers in the public sector who occupied their workplaces to demand the withdrawal of the Juppe plan. They were the first who, in the absence of others, contributed to the success of the demonstrations, which -- principally in the provinces -- drew crowds comparable to those of the Popular Front's marches. In November 2005, the inhabitants of the cities affected by the riots condemned the actions of the rioters, despite understanding their reasons. They also found themselves represented, paradoxically, by those who nevertheless had the merit of expressing -- contrary to soothing or mendacious declarations -- the feeling of dereliction among those very inhabitants. It is at once proof of the importance of the one (the capacity to make a government retreat concerning the principal objective of its seven-year term) and the other (this unprecedented, generalized questioning of the banlieus), and the proof of their [respective] limits. The "defensive" nature of December 1995 kept this movement within the limits of a contest of iron irons with the Juppe government. Contrary to 1968, no passing would permit "the world such as it is" to be put back into question. Also knowing that the Right had learned lessons from 1995. The Right was inspired by the Thatcherian example of ceding nothing (on the front of health insurance and even more so concerning retirement). Here as well this politics found itself facilitated by the efforts and declarations of intellectual elites that demanded the reforms necessary for the modernization that would [in turn] demand the globalization and "new spirit of capitalism."[25] On the side of the banlieus, the impossible mobilization of the "living forces" of the country concerning a common objective, namely, Sarkozy's resignation (as the indispensable preliminary to a more complete and radical questioning) hypothesized the question of the desirable link between the revolt of the banlieus and the social movement that it could generate.

The margin -- for those who have not renounced (to speak like Andre Breton) "transforming the world" and "changing Life" -- appears to be narrower than ever. But, in their way, did not the young rioters of November also express -- with the force and violence of despair (from which Walter Benjamin said hope would come), but without formulating it and, even less, theorizing it -- the "indestructible part of refusal" that has been bequeathed to us by all those whose emancipatory project expects to sign the death sentence of this world? One will respond to me that there is a world of difference between such a refusal and that of the young rioters. No doubt. One cannot today draw from Clichy-sous-Bois the [same] lessons that the situationists drew from Watts. Between the recognition (made in full knowledge of the subject) of this difference and the temptation to adopt the discourse of the fable of the [sour] grapes, there is nevertheless another margin. It separates those who have not renounced the desires to read, interpret, even modify our present according to the "promise of humanity " -- represented by Marx and the workers' councils, the libertarians and the Spanish Revolution, the utopia of [Charles] Fourier, the Paris Commune, Rimbaud and Lautreamont, the surrealists, Adorno and critical theory, the situationists and May '68, etc. -- to which we are still indebted, and those who, wanting to be no less "critical," no less "hostile to this world," but for whom the die is cast (it is true that cynicism, passive nihilism and resignation generally accompany the "results that sing a different tune").

The unprecedented extent and specificity of the riots provided the proof that one cannot deal with the "problem" of the banlieus without putting all of society into question. Any punctual solution will find itself condemned in advance as long as this world still exists as it is. The specialists are already covering the question over with an impossible re-plastering. This is certainly not the first time that one tries to apply a skin-plaster to a wooden leg. What does it matter? Perhaps never has this world given so many reasons for us to want to finish it off; but never has the realization of such an objective seemed so faraway or so compromised. How to reconcile the cares of preventing the worst and reaching "the inaccessible star"? Nevertheless, it will not be said that nothing has been done to try to surpass the contradiction just a little. Such is the ambition and the limit of the present contribution.

Max Vincent
January 2006

[1] Though written in French, the first version of this situationist classic that was circulated was an English translation made by Donald Nicholson-Smith. In Ken Knabb's translation of the French version (Situationist International Anthology), he renders this sentence as follows: "not only to justify the Los Angeles insurgents, but to elucidate their perspectives, to explain theoretically the truth for which such practical action expresses the search."

[2] In Ken Knabb's translation, this sentence reads: "The issue is no longer the condition of American blacks, but the condition of America, which merely happens to find its first expression among the blacks."

[3] Author's footnote: The presence of the term "abundance" proves, if proof were needed, that this ext dates from the middle of the 1960s. One must bear in mind what separates us from what some have called the "Glorious Thirty." This is of course one of the differences that separate Watts from Clichy-sous-Bois (we will not return to this particular aspect of the change of epoch).

[4] Though banlieu can indeed to translated into English by "outskirts of the city" (or "outer boroughs"), we have preferred to leave it untranslated, so as to suggest its marginality. Note in this context that the ostensibly English word "ghetto" is in fact an untranslated Italian word.

[5] Nicolas Sarkozy, the French Minister of the Interior, referred to the rioters as "scum," promised "zero tolerance" and said that he intended to "clean up the banlieu with a Karcher," that is, with a high-powered industrial cleaner.

[6] Ariel Sharon visited the al-Aqsa mosque compound in East Jerusalem 28 September 2000, and thereby triggered the second Palestinian intifada.

[7] Author's footnote: [Translator's note: From a Supper of Ashes to Embers of Satin.]

[8] Our translation of this text attached the following footnote to this passage: "Like a supposedly 'terrorist' organization, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, power has 'embedded' itself everywhere, in and among the 'civilian' population, as a form of protection."

[9] Yann Moulier Boutang (born 1949) was a member of the March 22d Movement as a student in 1968. In 1973, he met and became strongly influenced by the Italian Marxist Antonio Negri. Since 2000, Moulier Boutang has been the editor of Multitudes. The text of an article called The old "new clothes" of the French Republic is available online.

[10] Author's footnote: Is it necessary to incriminate the extreme rapidity of the writing of this book, which was published at the end of November, or to think that it is necessary to render fanaticism even more fanatical by taking such license with the language?

[11] There is no English equivalent for the word mediatique, which suggests more than just "media" or "mediatized" and includes "spectacular."

[12] Author's footnote: Jacques Ranciere, in The Hatred of Democracy, dedicates several pertinent pages to this question.

[13] Author's footnote: It is not indifferent to us to remember that sociology, once associated in its most critical phase with the possibilities of transforming society, is today mostly dedicated to aiding the management of the collectivity or the production of social ties. The News Spirit of Capitalism (by Boltanski and Chiapello) is one of the rare and remarkable exceptions.

[14] Author's footnote: Jacques Derrida has devoted himself to the same exercise several years ago with the famous [phrase] "politically correct."

[15] Author's footnote: The "reactionaries" recognized this confrontation but they drew conclusions that were diametrically opposed to those that are expressed here.

[16] English in original.

[17] Author's footnote: On this subject, read Rap or Revolt? by Louis Genton (Editions Place d'armes).

[18] Author's footnote: Namely the reduction of the work week. This RTT [reduction of work time] surpassed the framework of the law properly speaking to take a more symbolic dimension. The Right was not deceived by it because it had principally concentrated its attacks against the "reduction of work time" that was condemned to ridicule (cf. the Petainist declarations of Raffarin on work). Management, through the blackmail that was represented by the abandonment of the RTT in exchange for the promise of not generalizing it to Cenon (Fenwick) and other places, assuredly took the upper hand. The absence of union or political solidarity worthy of the name, and the absence of local shifts that denounced this unacceptable blackmail, brought about the capitulation of the salaried workers. At Cenon, the unions (with the exception of the SUD) all signed an accord that made official the end of the 35-hour law, which proved, if proof was necessary, the decay of the union movement. There were other parties responsible: the PS [Socialist Party] only mediocrely defended a law that carried the name of one of the old ministers from the Jospin government, and the Leftists were more concerned with the 2007 elections.

[19] Author's footnote: Note added 2007. One now knows the fate of this adjective, during the Spring [2007] presidential campaign in particular. But, so far as I can verify it, this was not at all the case in January 2006.

[20] English in original.

[21] Nicolas Sarkozy won the 2007 presidential elections.

[22] English in original.

[23] English in original.

[24] Author's footnote: The "Benisti Report" vertiginously placed the "first-delinquent" pointer over the entrance to the nursery school. With the exception of the foster children, welcome to the club: that of the "new dangerous classes."

[25] Author's footnote: It is necessary to cite Jacques Attali, who is too funny for words, writing in 1996: "It is more than a political program that one must imagine, it is a cultural revolution: the acceptance of the new as good news, of precariousness as an asset, of instability as an urgency, and miscegenation as wealth; the creation of tribes of nomads ceaselessly adaptable, freeing a thousand energies and bearers of original solidarities." Nothing has better translated the "new spirit of capitalism" in a single sentence.

(Written by Max Vincent and published by L'Herbe entre les paves. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! 20 October 2007. All footnotes by the translator, except where noted.)

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