Silent Revolts

Image: clotaire lehoux

Saturday 1st April, 2017

Marie-Hélène Bacqué

The article Total rioting: from metaphysics to politics is an interesting contribution to the analysis of the ‘riots’, taking a perspective rarely seen, that of the  ‘rioters’.

In this commentary, I draw on my own, parallel analysis of the 2005 Paris ‘riots’, ten years on, focussing in particularly on political expression and mobilisation. In particular, I examine how organizations that were created during and after the 2005 revolts attempt to build a national political movement but remain divided by race, class and gender.

My first comment is about the choice of vocabulary. Given that they expressed no clear discourse and nor had any spokespeople, the 2005 events in Paris were “destined to ‘be spoken about’ by those holding the reins of cultural capital”, the media, researchers and political representatives. But during and after the revolts of 2005, various movements, associations and networks sprouted at national and local level trying to have a voice in the political and media space. Since 2005, one of their main issues has been a matter of vocabulary; simply put, how to name or label these events. Where some media referred to the revolts as Jihad or Intifada, more often, the term riots was used. These heavily value-laden terms, have been refused by emerging organizations, who preferred instead the term revolts. As the leader of one such organisation in Clichy sous Bois—where these events started—argued powerfully in his interview with me in 2015:

‘When firefighters or fishermen – who are sometimes far more violent than the inhabitants of the banlieues – get mad, there’s no mention of riots. You hear about angry fishermen, angry fire-fighters and angry farmers. In doing so, their movement is described and, in some ways, justified. Banlieue inhabitants, on the other hand, are violent thugs with no education. That is why we have chosen to use the expression ‘social revolt’, since it was indeed a social and political crisis and that behind the revolts there were demands.’ (emphasis added)

This quotation draws attention to the power of words, and the tenor of these when it comes to representations of social and political world. A salutary reminder for us as reserchers that our ethics of research might then include a consideration of how those involved in our research define themselves and their actions. In my own considerations of these events, I chose to adopt the vocabulary of my interlocutors, understanding these instead as revolts. Indeed, such vocabulary shifts the discourse, linking the 2005 events to the wider repertoire of political mobilization inscribed in the French political history.

My second comment concerns the acknowledgement that involved in these revolts that were not solely angry youths. Truong’s article undoubtedly brings an interesting and timely focus on young people, but the revolts mobilised the neighbourhoods’ populace more widely, as the leader of the organisation in Clichy sous Bois clearly emphasised:

‘There were a lot of people outside, an enormous number of people. The youths weren’t the only ones expressing their anger. There were also parents, fathers and mothers who were there. A lot of people found themselves with a warrant for detention, were subject to tear gas, Flash-Ball shots, insults and psychological violence. Children saw helicopters flying overhead, with projectors glaring into their bedrooms. Very elderly men, like my father, found themselves face-to-face with a CRS (security police) company as they left the mosque in the evening and were forced to walk home single-file along a wall’.

Further analyses of the 2005 revolts therefore need to be attentive to the different ways people were involved and affected. Indeed, in considering these revolts more broadly, it becomes possible to analyse them as a shared experience inscribed in a social and political history. This breaks down the artificial divide that we find in the media and as presented by some researchers that pits ‘rioters’ at odds with ‘inhabitants’. What is here at stake is the definition of an ‘us’ that is at once territorial, social and racialising.

Truong’s article gives an insightful analysing of how some of the youths involved in these events understand this singular experience in the context of their biographies. But as he wrote, ‘Riots cannot be understood without any consideration of the ways in which rioters are imbricated in the society as a whole’. But rather than the moral condemnation of the older residents towards these younger people that Truong higlights, my own research demonstrates that the revolts were also a moment of strong interactions—sometimes confrontations—between several generational and social groups. Understood as revolts, these become moments in a longer process of a ‘political subjectivation in France that articulate different political heritages, social and gender and race experiences.  

Marie-Hélène Bacqué is a professor of Urban Studies at the Université Paris-Ouest Nanterre La Défense. She writes on a range of urban issues including ongoing transformation of neighbourhoods and the implications of this for urban democracy in the US and France.

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