France: Still Revolting

Class, race, power, geography: Why Paris and its suburbs just keep burning

Being the center of Western cultural history (if never of military-economic dominance), Paris is more like a diorama than a living metropole: the museum of modernity, the monument museum, the museum of museums.

This preservationist urge has many intertwined roots and implications; chief among them is that the city’s 20 arrondissements (especially the inner 10) remain occupied by the überbourgeosie. Reversing Stateside logic of white flight, Paris (and, less rigorously, many another French and European town) offers a white core, and suburbs of another color. Our understanding of the word “suburb,” and the kind of life it suggests, is so powerful it can be hard to grasp the difference. While there are some well-heeled enclaves like Neuilly-sur-Seine (home to Gerard Depardieu and former Neuilly mayor/ current interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy), the banlieues now in flames around Paris more often resemble the center of Detroit, wasted holding areas for a working class whose presence is only occasionally requested by prevailing economic conditions. The classic film of suburban life isn’t the Stepford Wives but La Haine (Hate), Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 fearjerker. The “Neuf-Trois</ a>” (a postal code forSt-Denis) is Compton and Queens rolled together</ a> just north of Paris, home to hardcore hip-hoppers includingSupreme NTM. Nique ta mère may be slang for “fuck your mother,” but their best album translates as “Paris under bombs.” That’s the sound of the suburbs around here.

Great effort and expense goes into maintaining the boundary between the collar and the nation’s beautiful throat. At the metro stations serving as main gates to the downtown, consistently named for French Revolutionary history, police routinely harass and intimidate youths as they deboard. Because the suburban rail runs to Les Halles at the center of town, the complex found there, once upon a time the center of working-class life, is being torn up and bourgeoisified . . . for the second time in a generation. Unlike the events of 1968, these begin at enforced distance from monumental Paris, separated from history itself. "How do people make history</ a>,” askedsome French folks about the Watts riots, “under conditions designed to dissuade them from intervening in it?"

Now that question has come home again. The prohibition against the ‘hood coming to town is so forceful that these riots spread to other cities before leaping the invisible Parisian walls: a circulatory motion of stark historical interest. Meanwhile, such an urban geography has implications both tactical and theoretical. Because the riots are not flaring in centers, they can’t be isolated and contained.

By the same token, the hand-wringing line about how the rioters may have legit causes for anger, sigh, but really are just despoiling their own streets, deep sigh — a rhetoric so popular with politicos and self-professsed liberals alike in the United States in 1965 and 1992 — just doesn’t make much sense in this conflagration. A few government honchos experimented with such an analysis last week; it didn’t take. How could it, when the riots are entirely decentered, and sometimes appear to take the shape of an anarchic, darkly joyous siege? Of all the moving quotations in recent newspapers of the world, not the least of them noted, without moralizing, that one thing driving the nightly festival of lights was the simple fact that “it’s fun to set cars on fire.” At last, something we can all agree on.

Though a vast portion of the banlieusards are darker- skinned immigrants and their children, one colorful phrase with real explanatory power is banlieues rouges: “red suburbs,” historically working- class districts which turn out to be, quel coincidence, Communist in spirit and mayoralty. This is by way of saying that there are three ways of understanding the borders between downtown and the ‘burbs, Paris-style: racialized, religious, and economic. Recent news in the U.S. has foregrounded the first two, displaying a withering hostility to reality en route. To lump various French Arabic and French African publics into a single cultural body is to beg the adjectives “stupid” and “racist.” To imagine that the HLMs (the massive housing projects ringing Paris) are zealous, jihadist strongholds is equally ludicrous. That’s not to say that such struggles don’t fall like shadows across every moment; these events are fed by numerous confluences of history, of exclusion and tension. There is no doubt, for example, that the new imposition of curfew can’t help but resonate with the era of the Algerian War</ a>, in which the French Government has after long delayadmitted to crimes including torture, and murder of protesters.

Nonetheless, the last dozen days won’t succumb to suddenly convenient templates about nationalisms, or narratives of Islam balling out of control. Sabine Roddier, a French Lebanese seven-year old living in a suburb of Toulouse, told her aunt Mireille, "It's the revolution! The poor are revolting against the rich, just like in 1789! I wish they'd waited until I was a bit older and my dad would let me go. Now I come home from school and watch the news."

Ah, the optimism of youth. Still, as her aunt reports, “there was no apparent awareness of the fact that she's both foreigner and Muslim in her sense of solidarity. In her eyes, it's just about the empowerment of the lower classes.” As usual, even before 9-11, the news in America hews to the popular fantasy that class war is so last millenium; that the concept of class itself has somehow been “discredited.” Just as 1968 must now be remembered both abroad and by France’s backlash generation as a brouhaha over the spirit of youth and free love and all that — anything but a general strike by two-thirds of the nation's work force — the urge now is to settle swiftly on some sort of cultural explanation, any will do, anything so as not to see this as a long-gathering confrontation between the museum-city’s exiled and unemployed support staff, and the security guards charged with protecting the patrons, the princes, and the museum itself</ a>. It couldn’t possibly be exactly what it is.

 
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