Paris is burning
It is the same car on fire, the same close-up on firemen grabbing onto their hoses, trying to put the fire out that you will see on CNN, Fox, MSNBC, you name it. Newspapers have headlines on “Paris burning”, because that’s an easy title, and also because if you actually went beyond Paris there’d be a lot of explaining to do, and explaining takes time, and time is money. The English word for banlieue is suburb, but the connotations couldn’t be more different. Where American suburbs are mostly defined by their middle-class inhabitants, fleeing the grit of big cities and their ghettoes, French suburbs are where the ghettoes are.
Regularly, big chunks of the inner city ghettoes of America are taken over by the middle-class, generally by hipsters, artists and other wealthy young bachelors. The general movement of the middle-class, though, is towards the outside, towards suburbs that never stop growing. With the Michigan Lake shore to the East, Chicago has been pushing West, invading what until recently was mostly corn fields. The counties to the West of Chicago lead the country for new houses and development. Just like the city center before, the immediate western suburbs of Chicago have lost in reputation with their democratization.The white middle-class has therefore been pushing further yet. New subdivisions are popping all over, and it is said that within the next ten years, Yorkville, some 70 miles away from Chicago, will be considered a far-western suburb.
The local situation had slightly improved after the 1960s civil rights struggle, but it has grown worse too. Chicago is one of the most segregated city in the USA, and it shows. Like many other American cities, Chicago is cut into ethnic villages (map), Little Italy, Greektown, etc., which if not as clear cut as their name implies, still shows for a history of separation. Black people have historically occupied the subtly named Bronzeville area, on the South Side. What civil rights have brought in legal recognition has been economically wiped out along the years. The white middle-class has generally fled public schools; in Chicago, 50% of public school students are black and 38% Latino . Some fifty years after the integration of schools, segregation is more present than ever, and it’s completely legal. Economics and racism: a recent article published in the Chicago Sun-Times shows that the gentrification of Bronzeville is mostly carried out by the local black middle-class. A young man interviewed in the paper stated he didn’t feel bad that the rise in rent pushed long-time poor residents out of the area. There was a time when the black higher middle-class lived here, so we’re only returning Bronzeville to its original state, he says. And this is the law of the free market; these people live on my taxes, they can’t complain if I want to live here too, can they?
So of course, when the average American hears about young MUSLIM immigrants setting Parisian suburbs on fire, he wonders. He might have visions of long-bearded hordes pillaging Versailles. For so many journalists mentioning the deeper problems which might have triggered such an explosion, you will find double questioning dubious experts on possible links with Al Qaeda, to ask if the riots started in Germany and Belgium do not reveal a concerted effort to spread fundamentalist-inspired chaos across Old Europe.
You can laugh, you can cry, you can get irritated. From the generally correct NPR to the generally disgusting Fox News, treatment of the event in the media covers the whole gamut. The sole constant is incredulity, it seems. Even those who always snickered at France’s republican ideal of human rights with sugar on top did give it some credibility. If anything, we always had a reputation as being too pacifist, too weak, too left. I have seen people get antsy and ask, but who do they think they are, those immigrants, to come and mess around your country! They find it unbelievable, in such an open and nice country as France. Ah. It does take time to explain French history, doesn’t it.
- Find the error
- These cars were burned by serious political activist with a message.
Police on my back
I usually try to remind people of how it all started, this time. Two teenagers died electrocuted in a power station while fleeing police. That usually catches people’s attention. But then if you mention that police wanted to check their ID, you have another problem. In the US, you usually have your ID checked by police when they suspect som ething is going on, or when they catch you in the middle of something. The concept of random ID check is largely unfathomable. So I then start singing the legend of the French police: its legendary
violence, its legendary racism, its legendary impunity. I share personal, though in regard of the situation banal, stories. I know those have an effect, because I have seen my American wife react to police ID checks before a few years back. I thought the officers were relatively polite, regarding, and she thought the whole thing was outrageous. It’s all in the perspective.
My perspective, that of a pure Frenchmen with roots in Martinique and Lorraine, is quite intriguing to Americans. I try to show them that from my own point of view, Islam is but a footnote to this story, that some would like to push up and turn into a title for different motives. They wonder. Since they’ve been told the difference between Sunni and Shi’a, a lot of people here think they know about Islam. In Iraq, those groups fight each other, you know. Nobody seems to realize there might be here a little of the old Belgian colonial technique: support one group to submit the other, develop antagonisms, act in the shadow and let it all grow. Suggest that some are nicer than others, Hutus against Tutsis, and when it finally explodes you can always say it had always been that way. Classic.
But I digress. You know, I say, beyond the fact that they lasted about two weeks, these riots aren’t quite as unique as they were made to be. We have riots pretty much every year, in France. Oh yeah?, they say, worried.
Oh yeah. The first time I heard about the death of those kids, on the internet, on the radio, I remember thinking: well here we go again, another police murder, tomorrow the riots. I try to compare. It is a little bit like LA ’92 after Rodney King got beat up, except two teenagers died. It’s a little like Watts ’65. but not really. Those riots were a lot deadlier, in a country where you can buy guns at the supermarket, and where cops use their guns often. In France, you burn cars, you burn garbage cans, you throw stones, mostly, and usually cops are the ones doing the shooting.
Riots are also demonstrations gone bad, or well, depending on your perspective. Some of the corporate media weasels you hear lamenting the lack of political involvement among French youth once threw rocks, or pretended to, in the May 68 riots. For a good cause, not out of despair, they say, and definitely not for fun! Yeah right. They would like us to believe they were going to demonstrations the way others go to church. The truth is, you will always find a good proportion of demonstrators who came out for the atmosphere. High school demonstrations thus always provide a double opportunity: you can skip school for a good cause. You learn about politics early, in France...
And there is always the fear and/or the hope that things will go awry, because with the French police it happens more often than not, so much so that you expect it to always go bad. Strangely enough, their reaction is usually invertedly proportional to the threat posed by the demonstration. In Metz, we saw our share of demonstrations coming close to major outbreaks, throughout the 80s, when coal miners and steel workers were fighting to keep their jobs. The city sleeps but we have a préfecture , it attracts people...
How many useless displays of strength; Metz invaded by coal workers and bulldozers, Metz invaded by the farmer’s union’s tractors, the prefecture attacked by farmers, the square covered in manure, cops not doing a thing, farmers would fight back, you know, they’re not exactly the feeble, cigarette-smoking bleeding heart liberals we face in antifascist demonstrations...and this is just local. Oh yeah, they smile; Americans know about our national sport; the strike. That’s right, we’re number one. And proud of it. Strikes have always been accompanied by brutal police interventions; flashballs  have replaced billy clubs and other murder sticks, but cops still display their unique brand of enthusiasm. That’s what it used to be like in the US too. Whatever happened? I am not sure. Nowadays, picket lines are made two to three people carrying full-body placards, who cannot stop walking in circles on the sidewalk. Nobody remembers the likes of Joe Hill, police massacres of yore, gangsters sent to break strikes for Henry Ford. Different times, different perspectives.
So if police brutality is so commonplace, and if those riots aren’t an islamist plot against France, what’s with all the fuss? We’ve never heard so much about it before. Chaos spreads past borders, is that how it usually goes too? Over 6000 cars in two weeks, that’s normal for France?
No, of course not. Sitting here listening to the radio, watching TV, I wonder what is so amazing about these riots. Images, as usual, won’t tell you a thing. They could have been shot anywhere in the French suburbs, at almost any time in the past twenty years. It is always the same line of riot police, the same youth in sportswear giving the finger against a background of raging fire, the same teargas bomb exploding in the distance, the same guys dragged down the street by police, the odd cop hit by a rock. If it lasts more than a night, you will get the courageous journalist who dares enter the area to parlay with indigenous populations, back almost turned to the camera, nodding at every complaint voiced by the masked youths, eyes focused, serious and maybe a little sad, the camera trembling a little, this is real, we’re in the middle of it, some of these guys probably burned cars yesterday night, yes ma’am, and our journalist is way ballsier than cops; he comes out there to see them face to face and solve problems.
We’ve been watching these riots for so many years, and we haven’t got sick of them. Well, this is a nice production. I realize this here in the US probably better than I would in France: the wild titillation of the riot lies whole in that it never happens at home, even when it does. Join the colonial army and travel. Riots always occur in a place where "the law is soft", as successive governments reminded us. This probably explains why farmers always get away with it; by taking their riots to the prefectures, they provide themselves with the best possible safety. Even if they start beating up cops, even if they dump manure all over, it can only be a demonstration gone, bad, never a riot, because there can be no such thing as a riot around an establishment of the Republic. The scum, the savages who live in the suburban no-man’s-lands came a long time ago from the dark confines of the savage continent, where they had long been watched over by colonial powers with the severity of a good father. Now they’re here. Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy says that maybe we haven’t been strict enough with them. They only understand the language of the whip. They carry the colonies with them.
Behind the lines of riot police, jumping up and down so we can see him over their shiny helmets, Sarko screams and yells, promises to powerclean the ghettoes, to eradicate the scum and reestablish order, understanding the problem at the same time. You go, Nico. Scum, it seems, lives among honest people. Oh well. Riot police are used to letting God sort them out; in demonstrations, they charge, and if the demonstrators move slowly and comprise elders and children, it’s all good. It’s not so easy to beat up people who run and hide. Not fair. Recently they even asked Sarkozy to shut the fuck up, because his taunts did not make it easy for them on the ground. It seems they make our dusky natives run faster.
Since good ol’ police repression techniques aren’t enough, we’ll use good ol’ colonial techniques. Why not. When American troops drop white phosphorous and napalm bombs-both forbidden weapons-on Iraqi civilians, they are in colonial mode. As Sven Lindqvist showed in his A History of Bombing, bombing civilian populations was common practice in the colonies before it was ever used in Europe. Natives are guilty of being who they are, wherever they are. A gathering in a mosque? Powerclean that shit, or drop a teargas grenade, that’ll be good too. The natives are getting restless, set cars on fire, set their reservation on fire? Let’s declare a state of emergency. A friend recently remarked that people seem to think the rioters stupid for setting their own neighborhoods on fire. As if they did not mean to do it. As if they had a choice. “Can you imagine if they’d even tried to go to Paris? They would have all been killed.” And she’s probably right. They’ve been killed for much less before. Round up the wagons! Shoot when you see the whites of their eyes!
State of emergency
- Find the error
- These cars were burned by savages with no respect for the Republic.
A reminder for our good liberal journalists in France, who advise to understand the riots without encouraging them, because if setting the Tuileries palace on fire  is OK, burning cars is unforgivable, and doing it without a semblance of political agenda even more despicable: when you were young and throwing rocks at the nazi-like French riot police back in May 68, when you were terrorizing the middle-class and decorating the Sorbonne with oh-so-subtle portraits of Mao and Stalin, never did President Charles de Gaulle declare a state of emergency. He knew middle-class partying when he saw it. The coup d’état d’urgence the UMP is pulling is very ironical in historical perspective, and so colonial in its process. We are all children of the Republic, whispers little Jacques Chirac, but you, her dark children, you better behave! Farmers can cover prefectures in pig shit, Corsican terrorists can blow up whatever looks like government property and give press conferences about it, but the state of emergency will only be declared, as usual, in case of problems in the colonies. It has only been declared twice before: in 1955 in then French Algeria, when the war for independence started, and in New Caledonia in 1984, when clashes between natives and colonial French reached a peak. And now, in the inner colonies, the free-trade zones of soft law. Pretty cool, huh?
Ultimately, the government’s reaction makes for the originality of this situation, more than the riots themselves. This has been brewing for years, but our politicians have finally managed to figure out a way of profiting from it. No, Sarkozy, we do not really expect you to recognize that you are using fear to your advantage. You just do it, that’s good enough. Three months of emergency? How will police take advantage of the situation to reestablish the republican order threatened by suburban hordes? They can usually do whatever they want; what are they going to do now that they can really do whatever they want?
Legal suspension of rights, monopoly of legitimate violence...I am reading a book about King of Belgium Leopold’s Congo, King Leopold’s Ghost, by Adam Hochschild. The monarch’s personal colony saw a century of ultra violence, with entire populations enslaved, mutilated for rubber, massacred for ivory, beheaded for sport, cozily tucked away in the heart of darkness, where nobody bothers to look too far. It is estimated that 10 million people died from diverse abuses under Belgian rule. Officially, it was all in the name of progress, and, utter irony, in order to fight Arab slavedrivers... but we usually know better about other people’s flaws, about other countries’s colonies. In France we know the war in Viet Nam better than the war in Indochina, because it’s not as close to home, because it’s easier; Americans seem to have forgotten the type of war they’ve always waged against third-world countries, in Cuba, in the Philippines, in Haiti... So I won’t dwell on the fact that France too was in Congo, I won’t talk about Algeria or Madagascar, but you can look into it yourself.
I don’t really think they will reestablish slavery in the ghettoes. What difference would it make, when you can keep the scum as lumpen proletariat ? As Seb noted in a past article, when the downtrodden, the masterless men revolt, the authorities rarely feel threatened. What do they want, anyway? They want to burn stuff, right?
They are so scary, cooped up in their reservations, boo! Tremble, honest Frenchman! But do not worry too much, Sarkozy protects you. He shudders but does not fail; many things are at stake here, you see, the coming presidential elections in 2007, for which we have to decide who from Sarkozy or Villepin has the biggest pair of balls. It’s serious stuff. Close at hand are all the necessary ingredients for a good security spectacle: three months ripe with possibilities of old-fashioned pacification. We will send our brave soldiers to face the terrible suburban savages, and everybody will be happy.
As a conclusion, I will echo Aimé Césaire in his Discourse on Colonialism , Sven Lindqvist, Hannah Arendt and so many others: among other things, fascism is also the intrusion of the colonial in the metropolis. I think about it, from America, where Bush is desperately trying not to sink in his own shit, when in France a heroic right wing votes to limit civil liberties, because it is so ballsy to kill flies with riflebutts. It’s clean, it looks good, order is great, especially when it starts with the Other, whomever he might be, the savage, the nigger, the raghead. Sleep well, Frenchman, Nicolas is taking care of it all. Can’t wait for February, when we really feel safe.