Brian Holmes on Wed, 9 Nov 2005 14:39:09 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> 12th night

It's a strange experience, but I'm sure quite familiar to many: a hidden war, one
you constantly hear about without seeing.

Today I felt compelled to go where I never do, across the canal, then across the
ring road, then across the suburban towns by foot and by tramway. First the city,
the warm afternoon, people smiling - glad to be inside. Then beyond the ring road,
through the low, gray, poverty-struck constructions of the 1940s and 50s, surging
with people of all origins; across the no-man's lands between huge tower blocks;
to the incredible modernist housing projects around Bobigny, so tall and
forbidding and clean. But the shoddy decaying estates where the cars burn and the
stones fly and the kids stand off against the police are further out, you have to
go specially by bus, people look at you and wonder what you're there for, that was
not my intention. Instead, just the need to remember what's beyond the ring road,
at walking distance, the other world of the class-divide inscribed in the urban

Now that the children and grandchildren of the immigrants who built the postwar
prosperity of France have spoken the only language that the elites can hear - the
language of fire and bricks - what's gonna happen next?

Tonight is the 12th night of this collective speech. For years I thought something
like Watts was coming to this country. This is it, but without all the guns. Maybe
they'll appear next time, when it's organized. For now, the wild improvisation of
stones and molotov cocktails and roving confrontations with the cops is the only
thing these young people could do. The cars and buses and schools are still
burning as I write. Bagdad is the word on everyone's lips.

In a wierd way, many of them - to judge from the interviews - still seem to
believe some change for the better is possible. But the situation has been the
same for at least 15 years, just getting worse as long as I've lived here. The
socialists made feeble attempts to reverse the trends in the late nineties; it was
always cosmetic, then the right came and exchanged its own ineffective programs
for the earlier ones. But its programs mostly wore uniforms, and the sight of
Africans and Arabs (as those of North African or Middle Eastern origins are called
here) getting IDed for no other reason but the color of their skin has been the
typical panorama on the street for years now. Sometimes kids get killed in the
scuffle. And even if you didn't hear about it, there's always a riot.

It was common knowledge that areas of certain estates had become off limits to
outsiders, especially at night; if you listened, you found out that isolated
eruptions were longer, more intense than the media let us imagine. Some said that
any attempt to disturb the patterns of drug traffic was worth an explosion, then a
retreat. And everyone knew that official unemployment levels were above 20,
sometimes up to 40 percent in the poorest areas.

Now it's better to go all the way, to push the violence as far as your body can
stand it, to rival with your neighboring towns and with the distant urban regions
to see who can destroy more, who can shock more, who can burn more, who can have
more crazy dangerous fun - it's the last chance to pierce through the scorn and
oblivion. I am sure this is the way the rioters feel and I sure don't blame them.

Now we've heard what the response will be. The right-wing government has announced
four points, or that's what I got out of Villepin's grotesque chat on the
television: 1. Repression, a curfew, the restoring of order at all costs. 2. The
resumption of the budgets that they cut for associations and schools. 3. The
pursuit of their longer-term project of destroying the old, decayed 1950s and 60s
housing, and replacing it with more livable construction. And finally, 4. An
attempt to apply their fancy new workfare programs (contracts, training sessions,
or internships for some 50 thousand people within 3 months were the promises).

No one will miss the historical irony: the emergency powers on which the curfew is
based come from a 1955 law that was drafted for application in the colony of

What the state needs to do is rebuild the housing, to add on the sporting,
cultural and leisure facilities that never existed for the poor quarters, to
double the education budgets, to institute affirmative action laws and ensure the
employment of an entire generation, to set up co-development programs that can
follow the remittance money back to all the places that the contemporary European
labor force comes from in Africa and the Middle East, and above all, to open the
ranks of society - positions in business, civil service and political
representation - to all those French people whose ancestors aren't the Gauls. But
for 30 years the state has claimed it can't do these things, because of the
crisis, because of Maastricht, because of neoliberalism.

What's happening in France is a powerful and shocking event because it has
extended spontaneously across the country and no one yet knows when it will stop.
What's more, it's so obviously justified, even if people in the suburbs are in
agony for the loss of their peace of mind, their vehicles, their markets and
schools. But the right and the neofascists can turn these events into an excuse
for a deeply repressive society, they can play the clash of civilizations to the
hilt. A lot depends on what happens in the next few nights, whether a paroxysm
results in more deaths. Whatever happens, the shock will be inscribed in the
future of this country. It's a turning point.

So far I've heard no one mention that the transformer where the two kids from
Clichy-sous-Bois got electrocuted while trying to hide from the police has just
been privatized, along with the entire public electricity system. You see an
idiotic ad with a brainless young middle-class couple gushing over the beauty of a
stainless-steel windmill, a dam or a nuclear reactor that they're about to own
shares in. When just yesterday everyone owned it - it was a public service. As if
that did us a lot of good.

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