For three weeks,
in the ghettos of the poor suburbs, euphemistically named “sensitive
neighborhoods,” on the outskirts of the outskirts, thousands
of cars were burned, public utilities devastated, troops of police
There is nothing new about what sparked these incidents: the absurd
death of two adolescents seized by panic, in the course of “normal
police behavior.” Comparable police blunders also occurred
in the past, and nearly always lootings and burnings were the inevitable
response. But such incidents were localized.
Nor is there is anything new in the methods employed or the visible
targets: For many years now, notably in Alsace, cars are burned
on New Year's Eve or at the time of more obscure commemorations.
And for a long time schools have been vandalized by schoolboys expelled
from school; buses or police cars stoned; passengers methodically
robbed in public transport.
What is new today is the immediate extension of this violence, its
rapid spread to the provinces, well beyond the borders of a spontaneous
and unpremeditated movement.
This is a movement without explicit demands, except the resignation
of a Minister of the Interior disqualified by his remarks and, as
everybody knows, scorned by his superiors. This is a movement impossible
to reduce to ethnic or racial demands. If the majority of the rioters
are of Maghreb or African origin, some of them are Asian and French.
This is also a movement irreducible to the category of youth, for
the majority of the youth—unlike those of May 1968, or the
demonstrations against the CIP in 1994, or the secondary school
movement of last spring—, have no associations there.
This is, moreover, a movement without spirit or class consciousness—a
movement typical of those common uprisings that blur conventional
distinctions: a movement of "imperative revolt" due to
permanent poverty and daily humiliation. But it is also a movement
without strategy, a movement more prone to gaze at itself on television
screens, drawing its ephemeral strength from the media coverage
it produces, and thus depending on the self-censorship of information
put in place to avoid "the telethon effect." It is a movement
nevertheless more Luddite than playful, sustaining itself at the
source of real despair, but lacking utopia, its horizon limited
by bars and block towers.
For sociologists, journalists and certain revolutionaries, this
movement is incomprehensible since it resists the well-oiled arguments
they use to explain social movements: neither social analysis, nor
the study of the composition of class succeeds in defining its specificity.
These riots are made by an unidentifiable mob—rebellious bodies
whose existence is reduced to bare necessity, and who have not found
any other language than that of destructive gestures.
Let us not fool ourselves; in everyday life many of this mob
are detestable; some are numbed by religion, many alienated by consumerism,
or enthusiasts of masculine values, sharing with the masters of
society the stupid worship of sport (some riots were suspended during
televised football games). Many are contemptible in their behavior
toward women—whose absence in the riots signals an unacceptable
limitation. Most of this mob would certainly not be friendly to
What is remarkable, however—beyond them—is their revolt.
Through their actual contradictions, they represent the dark face
of a vengeful social unconscious held back for too long, as those
in bygone days representing the “dangerous classes.”
But, at the risk of plunging back even more bitterly in their poverty,
it will be necessary for them to draw on the lessons of their recent
experience in order to gain lucidity. Already they have seen at
work the repressive role of the imams and of Islam, mere auxiliaries
to the police— as is all religion. This movement still has
to get rid of all forms of puritanical and masculinist morality
so that women will join them as equals—like the women fire-raisers
of the Paris Commune in 1871—to take an active part in all
future stuggles. Likewise, they must have done with the stupid gang
rivalry that nails them to their “territories” and deprives
them of a mobile offensive. And finally, they must learn to choose
more directly political targets.
In a society in which all previous forms of belonging, and therefore
of associated consciousness, have been wiped out, these events testify
to the eruptive and uncontrollable return of the social question,
firstly under an immediately negative form, that fire—emblem
of all apocalypses— symbolizes. Indeed, unlike the rebellions
in Los Angeles in 1965 and in 1992, the population of the districts
here did not massively join the rioters. And in contrast to May
‘68 neither poetry nor brilliant ideas are on the barricades.
No wildcat strike is going to spread widely with these troubles.
But the rulers have been given a good hotfoot and have been forced
to unmask themselves.
A democracy which, in order to face up to a quantitatively limited
movement (considering the number of participants), has been obliged
to put back in force an old colonial law, but also to reveal its
constituent deception: that is, where the police abuse their powers,
the state of emergency gives to their abuse the legitimacy that
it lacks. What we long ago called "individual freedom"
is today known as the “discretionary power” of the cops.
In a flash, such warning lights have revealed—during these
November nights—the return of a possibility that seemed to
be lost: that of throwing power into a panic even when its forces
are harassed in a disorganized manner through the whole territory
by a handful of forsaken social casualties. From now on, we can
imagine the strength of an uprising that would—beyond the
inhabitants of the ghettos—include the whole population suffering
from the rise of impoverishment, and would turn into civil war against
the organs of capital and the state.
Beyond recent infernos presented as the very image of a nightmare,
it is time that the dream of concrete utopia is raised anew.
The Paris Group of the Surrealist Movement