In praise of riots

People attend a march in tribute to Nahel, a 17-year-old teenager killed by a French police officer during a traffic stop, in Nanterre, Paris suburb, France, June 29, 2023. The slogan reads “Justice for Nahel”. REUTERS/Sarah Meyssonnier

With rebellion, awareness is born.

Albert Camus, The Rebel

Constitutively out of step with the present, the revolt is an impatient epiphany of the future that comes after tomorrow.

Donatella Di Cesare, The Time of Revolt

French politicians – the president, Emmanuel Macron, included – have taken to inebriating themselves with the language of the extreme right to describe dissidence from and protest against government policies. In particular, elements of the country’s population have come to be increasingly described, in the “mainstream news media”, as undergoing a process of ensauvagement [of becoming savage], or, of what amounts to the other side of the same apocalyptic register, of décivilisation [of becoming uncivilised].

In the words of one French senator, Bruno Retailleau (of Les Républicains), “France is in the process of becoming savage, accompanied by a phenomenon of un-civilising itself” [“La France est en train de s’ensauvager avec un phénomène de décivilisation”]. (Le Figaro, 25/05/2023)

The language may be judged as the mere hyperbole of politicians, a propagandistic gamble for votes by political parties of the “centre-right” eager to present themselves as the defenders of “French civilisation” against less-than-French barbarians who inhabit the geographical and cultural-cognitive peripheries of the society. And this discourse was generously into play by politicians and the news media in the wake of the protest after the murder by police in Nanterre of Nahel Merzouk, a 17-year-old French youth of Moroccan and Algerian descent.   

The protests were quickly referred as “riots”, and if initially understood at some level as comprehensible protest, they were quickly judged to have descended into something else, something beyond understanding: aimless and destructive riots.

“Since Friday the 30th of June, the riots that touched hundreds of cities in France changed in nature, taking on an unheard of intensity, with extreme levels of violence, the pillaging of commerce, attacks against public services, civil servants, elected officials and, finally, with thousands of direct victims of fires, violence, destruction and theft.” And all of this in the face of massive police mobilisation: over 40,000 police, including elite anti-terrorism units (the RAID and GIGN) and the use of heavy armoured vehicles. On the 2nd of July, the country’s ministry of the interior proffered an accounting of the damage, until that date: 5000 vehicles burned, 10000 rubbish containers burned, 1000 buildings burned, damaged or pillaged, 250 attacks against police stations, more than 700 wounded among the police. (Le Monde, 04/07/2023) The country, in a few short days was seemingly on the abyss of chaos; or so the narrative ran.

And the rioters were the usual malcontents: the descendents and children of immigrants (read: Maghrebi and black youth) from the neighbourhoods of social and low cost housing, to be found at the peripheries of more affluent city centres (read: ghettos).

What legitimate concerns the first protests might have had were drowned in senseless acts of theft and destruction; so we read, or watch, as the images of street battles with police against the “hoards” fill our screens.

And everywhere, the shock before the unprecedented: the rioters attacked elected officials, most notably, a burning car was rammed into the home of the mayor of the Paris suburb of L’Haÿ-les-Roses, from which his wife and children had to escape, with injuries. (The Guardian, 03/07/2023)

In the sum, the rioters had threatened and attacked the family and the Republic; savages they were and beyond the ken of any civilised behaviour.

“This evening, a milestone of horror and ignominy has been crossed … My determination to protect and serve the Republic is stronger than ever. I will not retreat.”: Vincent Jeanbrun, mayor of L’Haÿ-les-Roses for Les Républicains.

“There must be no yielding to the barbarians”: Eric Ciotti, leader of the political party, Les Republicains.

“Democracy is in the process of being demolished. It is extremely serious. … Now, the republicans must say: ‘that’s enough’. … Today, the question has to be asked: ‘our Republic, what is it? … [We have] reached the end of an overly permissive model where the individual is king.” … A new awakening is necessary, to construct a project of society, [which will rehabilitate authority], in the sense of exigency and respect.”: Françoise Gatel, senator. (Le Monde, 04/07/2023)

The tags painted on street walls and duly reported served to confirm the horror: “The law, it’s us”, “Death to the pigs”, “A good cop is a dead cop”, “You took the life of one of ours, we want a cop”. (Le Monde, 04/07/2023)

And so the police of the country continue in their civilising mission …

Officers from a rapid reaction unit known as BRAV-M arresting the brother of Adama Traoré, a 24-year-old black man who died in police custody in 2016, and whose memory is recalled in annual protests in France, but which this year were prohibited (08/07/2023).

But there is more at stake than mere propaganda, for the political language of civilisation versus barbarism is as old as the reign of oligarchs, who to justify their power and authority, place themselves on the side of order, a civilised and progressive order, but which the riot and the revolt reveals as their order.

When the insufficiently educated or uneducated commoners question, even refuse, their status in the social hierarchy, in anger and rage at those who govern them, then the civil war that underlies society, capitalist society, is unmasked and the nation’s people – so often celebrated in the mouths of politicians – become the masses, the mob, the proletariat, the riffraff, the undesirables, the swinish multitude, the great unwashed, the hoards and swarms of hoi polloi, the slothful and lascivious, the dregs, the trash, the scum of the earth, the outcasts, the vermin, and so much more; the fear and bile of the ruling classes, expressed in a lexical litany as creative as that of any idle clergy, knows no limit before those who would dare to contest it.

The French state authorities recognise a problem, but they ultimately are unable to see beyond the limits of their own vision of what social life should be; and thus they can see nothing but a failure of pedagogy. A counsellor to Macron blames the rioters’ parents for failing to educate their children, Macron accuses social media of facilitating and exacerbating the transmission of the “thrill of rioting” and teachers are called into question for their deficiencies. (Le Monde, 04/07/2023). What does not appear on their horizon – because it cannot – is the systematic racism that characterises the policing of the France’s banlieues, deemed by ethnic and social composition to be outside the law and almost beyond repair, the violence of the country’s police when confronted by any “disobedience” (To cite but one example, among so many: in 2017, a law was passed permitting police to shoot at a vehicle fleeing a traffic stop, if the driver was putting the passengers or passersby at risk. This shooting was the third fatal shooting that occurred during a traffic stop in France in 2023. In 2020, there were three deaths, followed by two in 2021, and 13 in 2022. The victims were often people of black or Maghrebi origin.), including in moments of political protest – in which case, the police have become the central agents of political reform – , that the decades of “neo-liberal” political-economic reforms have condemned whole swathes of the population to precariousness, misery, redundancy and irrelevance, that the promised progress of the oligarchs, for the many, is meaningless and promises only greater wretchedness. Indeed, there is in the end no promise at all, except the accelerated movement towards catastrophe.

In the face of the July riots, the French political class was lost – though not the police –, for how could they respond to rioters without precise social and political demands? The police officer who fired on Nahel was quickly arrested. But as this did little to assuage the indignation of those who felt targeted by the same practices – in other words, they could be next –, riots erupted across the country and they quickly had to be reduced to what the media could in turn easily transmit: chaos.

“There have already been movements with political demands, with protests sometimes marked by violence, but a contained violence. … Here, there is no political message. When you loot a Foot Locker, Lacoste or Sephora shop, there is no political message. It’s pillaging.”: Olivier Véran, government spokesperson (Le Monde, 04/07/2023)

In these few words, the “savage” and “uncivilised” rioters are here reduced to what is most fearful among the ruling classes: they are looters. In other words, the riots were carried out by those who fail to recognise the sanctity of private property and the social-political order constructed around it. And to not recognise this and all of the laws necessary to secure private property’s utility and profitability is to put oneself beyond the law, and accordingly subject to the law’s violence.

And because the looters carry with them racial and ethnic markers, whether they wish it or not, their potentially radical gesture is diluted in a further manoeuvre of marginalisation: being the descendents of formerly colonised peoples of the French empire, they are in fact “unredeemable savages”.

French authorities are herein engaged in an exercise of political translation. The July riots – as was done with all previous riots – must be read from the centre, from heart of sovereignty and political order. From this perspective, any upheaval announces disorder.

However, seen from the perspective of the rioters, it is the reigning order that exemplifies disorder, the “disorder” of arbitrary power over those confined, controlled and exploited by oligarchic political regimes. For those at the many peripheries of power, the order and progress celebrated by Macron, and others of his ilk, are paid for by their impoverished lives, by lives increasingly diminished to levels of mere survival.

The riot, the revolt, however ephemeral, urgently unmasks this reality by sabotaging the time and space of order, the temporalities and geographies of control, creating, (self)-generating, what can be called “a people”.

The riot does not give voice to a political programme – thus the horror that it generates among the managers and administrators of daily. It is not a revolution in the making, with ends aspired to and means clearly identified and evaluated. The riot is an end in-itself; halting time, transgressing borders and limits, it tears away at the envelope of “normality”, thereby becoming a “foundational” moment for different collective realities.

The riot does not institute or constitute; it destitutes, and, as a result, an openness appears on the horizon, through which past revolts shine through illuminating other, possible futures.

Every revolt is a battle, but a battle in which one has deliberately chosen to participate. The instant of revolt determines one’s sudden self-realization and self-objectification as part of a collectivity. The battle between good and evil, between survival and death, between success and failure, in which everyone is individually involved each and every day, is identified with the battle of the whole collectivity— everyone has the same weapons, everyone faces the same obstacles, the same enemy. Everyone experiences the epiphany of the same symbols— everyone’s individual space, dominated by one’s personal symbols, by the shelter from historical time that everyone enjoys in their individual symbology and mythology, expands, becoming the symbolic space common to an entire collective, the shelter from historical time in which the collective finds safety.

Furio Jesi, Spartakus: The Symbology of Revolt

This entry was posted in Commentary and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.