France: Still Revolting


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 for St-Denis) is Compton and Queens rolled together a> just north of Paris, home to hardcore hip-hoppers including Supreme NTM. Nique ta
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
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>,” asked some
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
en route. To lump various French Arabic and French African
publics into a single cultural body
is to beg the adjectives “stupid” and
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
can’t help but resonate with
the era of
the Algerian War a>, in which the French Government has after long delay admitted to crimes including torture, and murder of

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
charged with protecting the patrons, the princes, and the museum itself a>. It couldn’t possibly be exactly what it is.