Radical media, politics and culture.

Hoipolloi Cassidy, "Making France and Influencing Media"

Hoipolloi Cassidy writes:

"Making France and Influencing Media"

Hoipolloi Cassidy

My own political Primal Scene: I'm, maybe nine years old, in Paris in the 'fifties, and my mother's hurrying me home because the police have cordoned off the street and started picking up all dark-skinned males. "Algerians," she says, as if that explained anything. Now, fifty years later, there are few Algerians living in the gentrified center of Paris. Some things have changed, some haven't, and there's a lot of explaining left to do.

For one thing, French distrust of North Africans has a long, bitter history, which is also a history of slow improvements. A few years back I wandered into a café in a lower-middle class area of Paris with a friend. My friend ordered at the counter but I didn't want anything. "Ah, said the owner with a smile, Monsieur is observing Ramadan!" This kind of comment was unthinkable fifty years ago.

Yet riots like those going on right now have been going on for years, on and off, in towns and suburbs far outside of Paris, led by disaffected children of immigrants, black, Muslim or both, and for the usual reasons: high unemployment, nothing to do, resentment of racism. The difference this time is that the trashing and burning and assaults that have broken out over the past ten days in the northern suburbs of Paris are too close to ignore. What's new is a desperate desire to make sense of these events. You might even say, in the grand intellectual tradition of France, that they exist above all in their own interpretation.II)
Here's one explanation, raised by the French Left and the French Communist Party in particular: the right-wing French government suppressed the "police de proximité." Police de proximité is roughly equivalent to "community policing," putting a cop on the block who's locally controlled, locally responsible, and who works towards prevention, not repression. This doesn't sound like a reason to start a riot, so let me put in terms every Frenchman or woman understands: the right-wing French government brought in the CRS.

The CRS (Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité) are the most feared and hated element of French society. They were brought in to quell student demonstrations and reoccupy factories in 1968. They are masters of provocation, and they are universally loathed. I recently saw a handful of CRS in a crowded bus in Paris, surrounded by commuters. The CRS spoke loudly, ostensibly among themselves, making crude and threatening comments about the other passengers, especially the younger ones. No one looked, no one spoke, no one took the bait. Just another day on the bus going home. Oh, and by the way: the CRS are under the direct orders of the Minister of the Interior, a certain Nicolas Sarkozy. The CRS were brought in to quell the first disturbances in the suburbs of Paris. That is, they were brought in to quell the disturbances and fan the flames - they couldn't tell the two apart if they tried.

Fifty years ago, in a brilliant, premonitory book entitled France Against Herself, Herbert Luethy pointed out the incredible, contradictory existence of a fascist police state within an open, democratic society. This contradiction goes back to the French Revolution when the Republic, One and Indivisible, found it needed to reaffirm its uniqueness, its indivisibility and generosity by imprisoning, excluding or murdering off all who would threaten it, including of course its own children. A highly centralized authority balanced an iron repression of all non-assimilable elements with remarkable benevolence, arguing that it acted against a part of itself for the greater good of itself as a whole. The theories of a Robespierre are already colonialist: the "immigrant problem" is built into the French political system.

So the riots of the past few days were a matter of semantics even before they had begun: the people of the suburbs could be understood as either French or not-French, either weaker wards of a benevolent Mother France or elements deserving of exclusion because they were Africans or Muslims or immigrants. As a matter of fact the vast majority of actors in these riots are French citizens, many of them third- or second-generation at that. Then again, the French State has always been adept at alternately welcoming and disenFrenchizing various groups, like Jews, for instance.

And that is what Sarkozy had been doing for a while. His earlier promise to "mop up" the suburbs might have been acceptable if it had been directed at a slum in Haiti: more likely it would have passed unnoticed. But to treat other Frenchmen and women like colonial subjects of the State was unacceptable talk, even if it's done all the time in fact, and not to North Africans only.

Much has been written about the meaning of crowds in the French Revolution. For my money the most common form of riot is the "People's Veto:" the crowd can't tell you what it wants, it can only tell you what it doesn't. And the fear from the Left, and the hope from the Right, is that the rioters are saying: "We don't want to be French to begin with."

It's one thing to be French, and perhaps not quite French enough, and to hope your time will come, which has been overall the narrative of all would-be French people, immigrants, Jews, or Muslims. It's another thing altogether when you give up and turn to gratuitous violence.

But turn how? Against whom? Against the State? Against Being French (now redefined as being white, or being bourgeois, or having a car and a job)? Against a MacDonald's, a symbol of neo-liberalism? That is the Pander's Box Sarkozy's opened, and it may be a lot harder to close, for him or for anyone else.