On the fire at Saint-Laurent-du-Pont

by Guy Debord

The instantaneous incineration of the dance club[1] in Saint-Laurent-du-Pont, in which 146 people were burned alive on 1 November 1970, certainly aroused strong emotions in France, but the very nature of these emotions has been poorly analyzed, then and now, by many commentators. Of course, the incompetence of the authorities concerning security instruction has been revealed: these instructions are well conceived and minutely spelled out, but making them respected is quite another matter because, effectively applied, they more or less seriously interfere with the realization of profits, that is to say, the exclusive goal of capitalist enterprises in both their places of production and the diverse factories in which diversions are distributed or consumed. The dangerous character of modern [building] materials and the propensity for horrible decor to become the decor of horror have already been noted: "One knows that the polyester ceilings, the use of plastic covering on the walls and the inflatable seats burned like straw and cut off the retreat of the dancers, who were surprised in their race against death" (Le Figaro, 2 November 1970). This time, one can say, the diversions from boredom revealed an extreme and localized case of the general pollution and its costs. Beyond the current discontent with the interdependent specialists, who reserve for themselves a monopoly on the protection of society as well as a monopoly on the construction of all buildings, many people have been sensitive to the particular horror of exit denied to all those who flee, already on fire or close to it, by a barrier specially created to only open towards the interior and to close again after the passage of each individual: it is a question of avoiding the situation in which someone might enter without paying. The slogan on the signs carried by the parents of the victims a month later -- "They paid to enter, they should have been able to leave" -- seems to be obvious in human terms, but it is fitting to not forget that this is not obvious from the point of view of political economy, and the difference between these two projects is only and simply knowing which one will be the strongest. Indeed, to enter and to paid is the absolute necessity of the market system; this is the only necessity that it wants and the only one that preoccupies it. To enter without paying is to put the market system to death. To enjoy oneself (or not) on the inside of the air-conditioned trap, to possibly leave it -- all this has no importance for it, nor even any reality. At Saint-Laurent-du-Pont, the insecurity of the people was only the slightly undesirable by-product -- the nearly negligible cost -- of the security of the commodity.

But all this -- the fact that a class is responsible for such accidents -- is banal, even if at this moment men begin to find the reigning banalities that mutilate them and kill them to be astonishing and correctable. Nevertheless, the slaughter at Saint-Laurent-du-Pont has been more deeply felt than many other catastrophes, such as the rupture of a dam or an airplane crash. The importance of the fact -- as always -- can be read in the lies and the hesitations in which the spectacular news covers it. No one envisioned lying about the number of victims, as at Gdansk,[2] Mexico[3] or the rue Gay-Lussac.[4] But to attenuate as much as possible the violence of the brute fact, one has paradoxically hidden the number of survivors. At the moment when the pyre started, several people were strolling outside the building; several others immediately managed to get through the door. One has not wanted to cite the precise number of those who managed to get out, so as to not face the number of those who remained blocked within. Thus, many naive people have been able to believe that dozens of people (if not more) escaped. Nevertheless, some time later, the French police conducted an investigation, which gathered together the testimony of around thirty people who frequently went to the "Cinq-Sept" dance club. It goes without saying that included in this number were all those who were present [and survived] the night of the fire. Subtracting the six or eight people who were already outside, one can conclude that at most a dozen of those who were inside managed to get out. Fifteen times that number were burned alive.

How does this mass death differ from what happens to groups of people assembled by chance in a large store or on a train? The deaths at Saint-Laurent-du-Pont were almost exclusively young people, and the majority of the boys and girls were 16 to 20 years old. In addition, they were in the main poor people, young workers, many of them children of immigrant workers. Saturday night in Saint-Laurent-du-Pont was an example of the genre of life that market abundance offers the young and the workers: many of them have cars, and one can go as a group to pay the entry fee at a cheap place and be there together. This wasn't an attempt to leave solitude and boredom, but to experience a moment of the boredom that was supposed to be more amusing than the others. It is to this youth, which no longer accepts its conditions of existence, that the people at l'Isere offer -- as a salary for their weekly labor -- food, gasoline [for their cars] and the pleasures of Saint-Laurent-du-Pont. What else would they want? Those whom one bludgeons over there one burns over here.

Several days later, when the population of Saint-Laurent-du-Pont found it good to be in solidarity with their mayor, who was briefly sanctioned, the small firms in the area decided to strike for an hour, but as Le Monde for 8-9 November remarked, "at the most important company in the area, a cold-lamination factory (...) the personnel were not in complete agreement (...) Moreover, the petition that had been circulating was directed at voters, thus setting aside people younger than 21. But those who have been so much more sensitive to this discrimination than the victims of the fire at 'Cinq-Sept' have been for the most part people younger than 21."

The discrimination is much serious [than that] and its causes are profound. The three journalists from Le Figaro who together signed the article published on 2 November reported in the following terms what one of the escapees, Jean-Luc Bastard, said concerning what took place at the door: "We did everything to save as many people as possible. We pulled on the arms and legs that were thrust out in front of us. With our jackets soaked in the stream close to the dance club, we put out the flames on the clothes of those whom we managed to free. Car drivers stopped on the side of the road and watched us. Some were amused and laughed at us, refusing to participate in the rescue. Only two or three of them helped us." (Emphasis added).

When other newspapers subsequently quoted this witness, what he said about the drivers who refused to rescue the young people and laughed at seeing them burn was, as if by chance, suppressed. Nevertheless, this was the most sensational bit of news. Modern journalism knows how to sacrifice its narrowly professional imperatives in order to support the general interests of the society that produces it, and fire summons fire. In any case, one sees that journalists hardly merit any reprimand for "having over-heated the public," to quote the particularly unfortunate wording of Le Monde in its edition of 10 November. The automobile drivers of the region knew quite well that this dismal [funebre] dance club was a place for youthful consumption (thus, drugged hooligans and the lazy underworld) and for those adults who had renounced [this] life, whose numbers were greater than the capitalists and the members of several partially privileged social strata; that is to say, a place for all the victims of a system that estimates that the only thing that belongs to them (as existence and as property) is the alienation with which they are identified. The youth are detested; they are envied because they are thought to be freer than the adults, who at least keep their heads bowed (everything leads one to believe that the majority of the voters are monogamous). Nevertheless, this hatred of the young, which is only a passing figure for the more motivated hatred that is in the process of reappearing due to the return of class struggle (in which the totality of the aspects of [this] life is being put into question), reaches a level of violence unknown back in the days when the illusion of national and human communities was still believed in by the classes in conflict. A bourgeois contemporary of [Adolphe] Thiers certainly helped out a worker who'd come out of a burning building. At least until the 1950s, many of the settlements in Northern Africa were made for Arabs. But today's hatred of the youth is of a completely exceptional nature. And this only superficially derives from the governmental propaganda that is distributed by the mass media[5] for this purpose. Those resigned to self-mutilation do not detest the revolutionary affirmations of the youth because they are falsely informed about them by the spectacle, but more profoundly because they are spectators. To the excellent formula that a group of young revolutionaries[6] once enunciated -- "We are not against the old, but against what has made them old" -- the resigned people of today sincerely respond (if they dare), "We are not against the young, but what makes them live." In what happened at Saint-Laurent-du-Pont, as well as in the photo of the destroyed face of Richard Deshaies (which has been posted upon the walls of Paris), one can already read (as obvious as a paving stone or a charge by the CRS) the climate of civil war.

Violence has always existed in class society, but the current revolutionary generation has only begun to see that -- in the firms and on the streets -- violence can exist on both sides: thus the scandal and the televised worries of the government. Today, the proletariat and the youth know that they produce fear [in others], and the young workers (at the C.E.T. as well as in the factories) are the youngest of the young and the most proletarian of the proletarians. Because they produce fear, one hunts them down. And, by the same token, these young workers must learn to produce fear more efficaciously in order to vanquish their adversaries. At Saint-Etienne in La Courneuve, the cafe owners throw them out. Each time it is a question of "teaching them a lesson," and indeed it is a lesson than tens of thousands of people are learning. The escapees from Saint-Laurent-du-Pont remain far too few in number and too overwhelmed by the blow dealt against them to continue to object to the owner(s) of the dance club, that is, once they have attempted to lynch the profiteer in a justified rage. If they had done so, no doubt there would have been reprimands from Leftist journalists and Trotskyist bureaucrats. But, in the words of a song from the old French Revolution and with respect to the massacre of the governor of the Bastille: "How could one find fault with that?"

It has been a hundred years since the young have been this resolved to destroy the old world, and never in history have the young been so intelligent. (The poetry that is in the SI can now be red by a girl of 14 years; on this point, the desire of Lautreamont has been fulfilled.)[7] But, finally, it is not youth -- as a passing state -- that threatens the social order: it is modern revolutionary critique (in acts and in theory), the rapid expansion of which can be dated from the historical moment that we have lived. It begins in the young people of a particular moment, but it does not age. This phenomenon, which gets bigger every year, is not cyclical: it is cumulative. It is history that is at the gates of class society; it is its death that knocks. Those who reprimand the youth are actually defending themselves against proletarian revolution, and this amalgam condemns them. The fundamental panic felt by the owners of this society who are confronted with the young is founded upon a cold calculus, quite simple, but which one would like to keep hidden behind the display of so many stupid analyses and pompous exhortations: from now on, between the ages of 12 and 15, young people will be adults, adults will be old, and the old will be dead. One can easily imagine that the leaders of the class in power absolutely (and rather quickly) need to reverse the underlying decline in the level of their control over society. And they begin to think that they will not be able to do so.

[1] All through this text, Debord will employ the Anglo-American word "dancing" to refer to dance clubs.

[2] In December 1970, Polish workers seized the shipyards at Gdansk and were eventually slaughtered.

[3] In October 1968, students, workers and activists occupied the main square in Mexico City and were eventually slaughtered.

[4] In May 1968, Parisian students, workers and activists built barricades on the rue Guy-Lussac and were eventually crushed by the CRS (the number of people killed is not known).

[5] English in original.

[6] The "Front de Liberation de la Jeunesse," publishers of Tout.

[7] This phrase would be repeated in The Real Split in the International: A Public Circular of the Situationist International, published April 1972.

(Originally written in 1971, for publication in the 13th issue of Internationale Situationniste. Translated by NOT BORED! July 2009. All footnotes by the translator.)

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