Violences urbaines

Images of fire

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[Here is a slightly extended version of the text I read on Sunday night, at
the Boell Foundation in Berlin, for an event connected to Jordan Crandall’s
Under Fire program. Thanks to Anselm Franke, Thomas Keenan, and above all
Gene Ray for pushing me a little further on this one. – Brian Holmes
first image:

Violence is the hard drug of the information society. It interrupts the
program, it cuts through the rhythm of stress, entertainment and boredom
that passes for ordinary experience. The images of violence sear into your
mind, like witnesses of the present. That’s how I remember the nights of
October and November in France. I can still see the images of the flames,
the skeletons of the burning buses. I can still hear the strange thud of
the exploding cars, I can still feel the tension that separates the police
with their helmets, tear gas and flashball guns, from the ghetto kids with
their hoods and scarves, their paving stones and Molotov cocktails. All
that happened so close to where I live, but so far away, worlds away from
the city center; I only saw it through the media. For three weeks, it
looked as though Gaza, Beirut and Baghdad had come to the outskirts of
Paris, Strasbourg and Marseilles. Then the pressure of the image subsides,
the memory blurs and fades, until a new convulsion – like the huge social
movements unfolding in France right now – comes to chase away what seems
unforgettable. Just as the riots themselves chased away what had seemed
unforgettable: the “no” vote on the referendum for a European constitution.

What’s hidden in the blazing light of the mediated image? I want to look
back on those nights of October and November, when a European society was
literally “under fire.” The point is to find another interpretation for the
images of violence, so they don’t appear as proof that race wars are
inevitable in Europe, and in the world. By comparing the riots in the
banlieues with the middle-class protests unfolding in France right now, it
can be shown that what’s at stake is an old but still unanswered question:
the transformation of the welfare state in response to the demands of the
global economy. This is a case where the representation of violence
directly influences its organization, through the effects that the image
exerts on electoral politics. It has become the responsibility of
intellectuals, and of all citizens, to work both with and against this
“hard drug,” which seems to generate an anxiety that can only be quelled by
massive police deployments, or by the militarization of society itself – as
we’ve already seen in the US, and to a lesser extent, in Great Britain.

What happened, then, in the poorest districts of the French suburbs, from
October 27 to November 17, 2005? The events began with the death of two
teenagers, Bouna Traore and Zyed Benna, who ran in fear from a squadron of
police on their way back to Clichy-sous-Bois, in the northeast of Paris.
They were returning home from a soccer match and they didn’t have their
papers on them. Along with a third boy they scaled a fence and hid in a
dangerous transformer for a period of around thirty minutes, until both
were electrocuted. Local youth, convinced that the boys had been pursued to
their deaths, began to riot in Clichy that night, following a pattern which
has become typical in France, after every killing of immigrant children at
the hands of the police.

As you probably know, disturbances in the housing projects, or “cites,” are
anything but rare in France these days. In the course of the year 2004,
approximately 20,000 cars were burned; in the first nine months of 2005,
that number had already reached 28,000. That’s an average of a hundred a
night. The events of Clichy-sous-Bois would probably never have have made
it beyond a byline in the local papers if the interior minister, Nicolas
Sarkozy, had not provoked outrage by calling the inhabitants of the suburbs
“scum” on October 26. And the insurrection might never have spread if
police hadn’t thrown a tear-gas grenade in front of an occupied mosque in
Clichy, on the night of October 30. After that, the riots began to multiply
in the Paris region, then throughout the country, finally touching almost
300 different communities. Each suburb seemed to compete for visibility.
Buses, schools, stores, municipal buildings and garbage cans were set
ablaze by relatively small groups of youths, armed with gasoline, matches
and large quantities of stones, used for confrontations with the police.
Some 10,000 automobiles were ultimately torched, including 1,400 on the
single night of November 7. Over 4,000 arrests were made and some 600
individuals were condemned to prison sentences. Yet no deaths and few
serious injuries could be directly attributed to the insurrection – a fact
which must mean something. The events were finally stopped by what seemed
like the sheer fatigue of the protesters, but also by the imposition of
special police powers under a state of emergency, using a law that dated
from the Algerian war. The colonial overtones of that law were lost on no
one; and the latent racism of French society suddenly appeared in broad
daylight, embodied by the Interior Minister.

What were the reasons? The complaint of the mainstream left was that there
were no spokesmen, no explicit demands, no political representation – only
wordless violence. The right was much more explicit. A deputy minister
blamed the outburst of violence on “polygamy” – the very reason that
colonial France had used to deny citizenship to Muslim Algerians. Sarkozy
also voiced that argument, but insisted more heavily on the need to repress
organized gangs. The specter of Islamist terror networks in the suburbs was
raised, in the international as well as the national papers. A book by a
certain Charles Pellegrini, hot off the presses in November 2005 under the
title Banlieues en flames, can give you an idea of the rhetoric. On the
fourth page, Pellegrini quotes the center-right newspaper Le Figaro:
“Projections based on data from the National Institute of Statistics show
that if immigrant fertility does not change, in around 25 years, by 2030,
their mass with their descendants could represent some 24 percent of the
total French population.” This is the language of invasion: “The
development of immigration remains preoccupying, since from 1997 to 2002,
the number of foreigners who took up residence on French soil has grown by
70 percent.” Pellgrini openly scorns the cultural programs that the left
set up in the suburbs: “The remedy bears no relation to the malady, which
translates into delinquency, violence and Islamism, imputable to a
minority, concentrated in the housing projects, in total rupture from our

Despite the vitriol, the special information service of the French police
declared, in a report leaked to the papers, that there was absolutely no
evidence of any organization between the rioters, or of any links to
Islamist groups, or even any encouragement from local imams. Instead it was
stated that “the youth of the problem districts feel penalized by their
poverty, the color of their skin and their names… It seems as though they
have lost all confidence in the institutions, but also in the private
sector, the source of desires, jobs and economic integration.” Some 4.7
million people of both French and immigrant origins, or approximately 8% of
the urban population, live in mass housing projects in the 752 so-called
“sensitive urban zones,” where unemployment rates for youth from 16 to 25
years old can reach as high as 40 percent. This is a dull, slow violence;
it can’t be captured in an image. The “sensitive zones” are clearly
segregated from the city centers: they are difficult to reach by bus and
have no access by metro or tramway. The housing stock is decayed,
educational and sporting facilities are of abysmal quality, drug
trafficking is common. Residents complain of job discrimination based on
their names and their address. Local police have been withdrawn from these
zones by the recent right-wing government; but punitive raids are frequent,
and resentment of the cops is the reason most often given for joining the

None of these problems are new. The first riot in the French banlieues
occurred in 1979, at a time when mass unemployment had already set in, and
when those who could afford it had already fled the suburbs. In the 1980s,
the Socialist government of François Mitterrand set up special
rehabilitation funds and cultural programs under the name “developpement
social des quartiers” (DSQ); but these were considered a failure by 1990,
when rioters in the projects outside Lyons destroyed the rock-climbing
walls that were supposed to give them some healthy entertainment.
Subsequent programs focused on the demolition of large complexes and their
replacement by middle-income housing. But community associations were also
supported, and subsidized jobs were created for the so-called “older
brothers,” who were basically assigned to keep the peace in their
neighborhoods. Two decades of Socialist government brought great advantages
to the middle classes, to state functionaries, unionized labor, cultural
workers and also to the new urban professionals of the information society;
while at the same time, significant efforts were deployed to put a lid on
the intensifying problems of mass unemployment, without any cure for the
underlying causes. Social democracy, cultural development, welfare: what
all these words really signified was a state of slow decay or “suspended
animation” for the banlieues.

In a book entitled Quand la ville se defait (When the City Falls Apart,
2006) the sociologist Jacques Donzelot shows how the notion of welfare
first arose in the late 19th century, as a way of defending society from
the potential violence or disease of its members, who were increasingly
gathered at close quarters in the city. This protection of society from the
individual was achieved, he says, through the individual’s protection by
society: unemployment benefits kept workers from falling into poverty, and
therefore from becoming dangerous criminals; while health insurance and
sanitary services kept them from succumbing to potentially contagious
diseases. The postwar apartment complexes, built from the 1950s to the
1970s at the height of the French welfare state, were supposed to be an
apotheosis of this double protection. They sought to create a healthy new
city for all the social classes, from the production-line worker to the top
engineer; and they monumentalized this condition of urban equality, using
modular architecture to create a symbolic relation with the modern
industries that brought wealth to everyone. But the dream fell apart with
the collapse of the industrial economy on which it was founded. Donzelot
shows that from the early 1980s onward, the urban condition in France
tended to fracture into three separate zones: the single-family housing
developments of the new exurban communities, built for middle classes
fleeing both the violence of the suburbs and the rising rents of the city;
the gentrified historical centers, increasingly occupied by new
professionals trying to catch the rising wave of the information society;
and finally the decaying suburbs, where unemployed industrial workers and
migrant families are relegated to the failed modernism of poverty,
immobility and social invisibility. The question he seems to be asking, is
just to what extent these three zones can really become hermetic to each
another, before something really breaks.

To grasp what the triple division of the city means in political terms, I
think you have to understand that France, along with Austria, Belgium,
Italy and Germany, has a “corporatist” or “continental conservative” type
of welfare state – as distinguished from the social-democratic and liberal
versions (cf. G. Esping-Andersen, The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism,
1990). Under the French version of the corporatist welfare state, the
payment of the most generous pensions, health plans and unemployment
benefits is supposed to come from special mutual funds established by
specific professions and branches of industry. The state only administers
those funds, which will typically be disbursed to middle-class families
living in the detached housing of the exurban communities. But the state
also has to fill in the gaps, both when the mutual funds can’t cover their
obligations, and when a minimum of universal coverage becomes necessary for
the unskilled employees and jobless people outside of the corporatist
system. It’s exactly this universal-minimum coverage that has been
inexorably cut over the last twenty years, along with other public
provisions like education. The cuts leave the inhabitants of the banlieues
on the short end of the stick, while the rest of the population begins to
tremble in fear at the increasing crime and delinquency of the suburban
children. Meanwhile, the new professionals and business elites gathering
around the speculative project of gentrification call for lower taxes, less
regulation and greater labor flexibility, in order to continue profiting
from the information economy – and, they say, to provide new sources of
employment for the former industrial workers. But these demands, in their
turn, strike fear and resentment into the hearts of those who depend on the
largess of the state. As Donzelot shows in his book, a sharp contradiction
then arises between the people concerned with society’s protection of the
individual, or social security, and the people concerned with society’s
protection from the individual, or civil security. The former, who are
often state functionaries, are pushed them to the far left of the spectrum,
represented in France by the Trotskyist parties, which rally around the
defense of public services; while those more concerned with civil security,
often lower-income whites who couldn’t leave the suburbs, are pushed to the
far right, represented by the National Front, with its slogan of “France
for the French” and its appeal to the strong-arm language of authority.

The most recent effect of this contradiction between civil and social
security was a deep split of the popular vote between the far right and the
far left in the April 2002 presidential elections, a split which decimated
the Socialist candidate in the first round and, to everyone’s astonishment,
positioned the National Front candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen as a possible
president. Frightened leftist voters then helped bring Jacques Chirac to
power by an overwhelming majority. But his center-right government, while
mouthing the civil-security rhetoric of the National Front, has in reality
proceeded to implement the neoliberal agenda of the business elites – which
means flexibilizing the labor markets, lowering the taxes on capital, and
eliminating the deficits of the corporatist welfare state. This is
basically the program of the Lisbon Agenda for the competitiveness of the
European Union in the info-economy, which is also the program adopted in
Germany, via the Hartz reforms and Agenda 2010. It was applied successfully
in France to raise the retirement age of teachers, railway workers and
other state functionaries. But it was also applied to cut the Socialist
programs of support for community associations and jobs for the “older
brothers.” And the price for those cuts was the insurrection. So what’s
represented in the images of political violence that you saw coming from
France in October and November of 2005 is not an Islamist uprising in the
heart of Europe, but instead a defensive reaction against a
racist-influenced attempt to finally dismantle the minimum social-security
protections that had kept the suburbs in a state of isolation and suspended
animation over the last two decades.

With its combination of a neoliberal economic agenda and a fascistoid
appeal to authority, the center-right UMP – that is, the French version of
neoconservatism – has reopened the question of the welfare state with a
vengeance. And it is continuing to do so today. Under the cover of a law
for the so-called “equality of chances,” devised in the wake of the
November uprising, the right is now attempting to flexibilize the labor
force of young people up to 26 years old, by instituting a job contract
that can be freely terminated by the employer at any time during a two-year
trial period. This is the CPE: Contrat première embauche. That law is being
challenged by a truly massive coalition of high school and university
students, temp workers, unionists and anti-government forces, all assembled
in the refusal of increasingly “precarious” social conditions. What you see
on the images now coming out of France is the circulation of political
violence out of the suburban zones to which it had been relegated, and into
the gentrified centers of the historical cities. The interesting thing will
be whether the precarious children of yesterday’s middle classes can
surmount their parents’ fear – and corporatist self-interest – to make
anything more than a merely rhetorical common cause with the
insurrectionalists of the banlieue. As usual, that will depend a lot on how
violence in the images gets represented, and by whom. The symbolic targets
of the protests are in any case the same: the school system (but this time
it’s the Sorbonne); the automobile (but this time it’s the fancy ones
parked on the Left Bank); and finally, of course, the police. What the
right appears to be looking for now in France is a massive confrontation
with all the social forces that have any inclination to defend the welfare
state, as though they were driven to see whether a neoliberal agenda can
really be imposed by neoconservative means. The outcome of this
confrontation remains, in my view, highly uncertain.

I’m not going to try to predict what will happen over the next few weeks.
Whether violence will erupt again in the banlieues, and how far it will
continue to circulate through the center cities, is something you will be
able to see with your own eyes, through a multiplicity of media. I will
predict, however, that over the next few years in Europe, the question of
the welfare state is going to remain open, and that situations like the
ones in France will happen in other countries, at greater or lesser degrees
of intensity. Because the “corporatist” model of the welfare state has
become clearly untenable in the post-industrial information society; but
European populations do not seem to be willing to permit its replacement by
a liberal, Anglo-Saxon model. What will dominate the agenda on the social
policy front is instead the Danish notion of “flexicurity,” which is an
attempt to strike a balance between flexibility and social security. What
this involves, paradoxically, is deregulating the labor markets and, at the
same time, offering unemployed workers exceptionally high benefits (up to
90% of their former income). The reason it works is that the Danes also
impose reeducation programs and guided job searches that keep the
unemployed from remaining too long beneath the care of the state. These
flexicurity programs are a very interesting attempt to adapt the
social-democratic form of the Nordic welfare states to the new demands of
the information society; and it’s now becoming important to see how they
could be transferred to the more complex situations of larger countries
like France and Germany. But what I want to suggest, in conclusion, is that
the “hard drug” of violent images has already injected itself to the notion
of flexicurity, and that it will continue to overdetermine the burning
question of the welfare state in Europe.

The French banlieue riots made us forget the “no” vote on the European
constitution; then the controversy over the Jyllands-Posten caricatures
made us forget the riots in the banlieues. This time, the issue was not the
welfare state, but freedom of expression; and the site of the conflict was
not the closed world of the French suburbs, but the wide-open theater of
the “clash of civilizations,” opposing so-called “Western values” to the
Islamist forces at work in the Middle East. However, if you look behind the
image of Danish embassies burning in Tehran, Damascus and Beirut, you will
see that over the past ten years, precisely during the time it developed
the flexicurity programs, Denmark has become an explicitly racist society,
whose political agenda has been shaped decisively by the far-right Danish
People’s Party. The twin issues of this party are fear of foreigners and
protection of the welfare state. It’s as if the benefits of education, and
of mobility through society, could only be extended to white people – so as
to protect the limited number of high-quality jobs available in the
information society. And in fact, the conflict over the caricatures was
also an occasion for the People’s Party to win support from traditional
social-democratic voters. As in France, the danger is that social benefits
can be regained, and maybe even reinforced, behind the rising barrier of

Now, by saying this, I am not trying to deny that the affair of the
caricatures was manipulated by Islamists in Denmark and in the Middle East,
and by the Syrian and Iranian governments, because it clearly was, as
important accounts have proved
The manipulation is something serious, which can have long-term
consequences. What I am trying to say is that it’s an illusion to believe
that the problems of unemployment in Europe can be solved by a simple
appeal to the information society, because the contemporary economy also
involves a tremendous amount of low-end service jobs which are increasingly
being done by immigrants, for the benefit of aging and retired whites. The
neoliberal economy thrives on exactly those jobs, which can also be
performed by people without any papers at all, people exposed to every kind
of exploitation. To fail to address the economic situation of immigrants,
to allow their children to slide into delinquency and violence, and then to
instrumentalize the specter of criminality for the election of right-wing
governments whose liberal agendas which can only leave those immigrant
populations durably marginalized, or even spatially segregated as in the
case of France, is the surest way I can imagine to guarantee that the
growing Muslim populations in Europe will not take the road of secular,
enlightened society, but instead will succumb to the propaganda of Islamist
forces which are, in effect, very desperately trying to win their favor.
But the Islamization of Muslims in Europe can only give rhetorical fuel to
the neoconservative program of a security system at home, and a neocolonial
empire for the hinterland. Over the next ten years, the real question of
the welfare state, and the real contradiction between the logics of civil
and social security, will revolve around the treatment of immigrant
populations in Europe, and their inclusion to, or exclusion from, the
benefits of the information society. Only if this problem is solved within
the EU, on what I’d like to call the substantial or constituent level, can
Europe expect to have any positive impact on the rest of the international
system, of which it is obviously an inextricable component.

The point of this text has been to show the entanglement of an entire set
of economic dispositions, social forces, rhetorical strategies, political
formations and generations of human beings, forming a system that gives
effective meaning to the images we see on television, in the press and on
the Internet. But the point is also to step outside that deadly
entanglement, which is still founded on the consumer society, on the
structure it has been given by the state, on the pyramid of retirement
savings still seeking its path toward the financial sphere, and on the way
that speculative investment of every kind – even in the info-economy –
still ends up driving the classic imperialist scramble for resources, and
above all for oil. The strange irony of the October-November insurrection
is that its raw material was gasoline, its exalted target was the motorcar,
and its true destination was the broadcast media. But that was the only way
to get a message – even a speechless one – into the infotainment veins of
welfare-state capitalism, which is still massively Fordist, despite
everything about the factory system that has ended in failure.

So now I want to suggest a kind of thought experiment. Next time you see
images of fire, with smashed schools, burning cars, and confrontations with
the cops, think about all that’s behind them, and try asking a few
questions. What would it take for every group of people, with their faces,
their problems, their qualities, their locations, to become visible to each
other in a society that wasn’t sealed off into hermetic zones and dead-end
streets? What sort of education could be an entirely liberating experience,
that gives direct access to tools you can use? What kinds of mobility can
be built into the urban fabric, and how do people find their paths through
a society that has become radically unequal? Finally, what confrontations
could be staged with the outdated forms of the state, that wouldn’t always
bring us face to face with the eternal return of the police?

If it becomes possible to see the images of fire in this way, as a blazing
language of unanswered questions, then maybe, just maybe, just maybe, Bouna
Traore and Zyed Benna won’t be dead for nothing – “mort pour rien,” the
words you could read on the tee-shirts, as the witnesses walked silently
through the city of Clichy-sous-Bois on Saturday the 29th of October, 2005.

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