Embers of riots burn on in eerie silence

October 27, 2006

They revelled in the street fighting of 1968. So where were the French intellectuals in the 2005 suburban riots, wonders Andrew Hussey.

It is almost 12 months since the first skirmishes between police and a handful of disaffected youths in the Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois led to full-scale riots and violent disturbances in cities across France.

At the height of the troubles - the overheated nights of November 6 and 7 - more than 1,500 vehicles were burned in French suburbs. And in the days that followed, riot police stood guard on the Champs-Elysees and around the Sorbonne, apparently preparing for a storm of violence, which in the end never came. What was most surprising then was the almost total silence on the part of French intellectuals during the ensuing year. The events of November 2005 were the greatest convulsion that France has known since 1968, when the student-led riots paralysed the Government of Charles de Gaulle and almost led to a new French Revolution. Then, intellectuals from Jean-Paul Sartre downwards fell over themselves to offer their version of events. This time, however, not even the greediest of intellectual media tarts - including the flamboyant Bernard-Henri Lévy - has had anything of substance to say.

Nonetheless, this outburst of concerted but seemingly random violence profoundly shocked the French nation and the world. The most remarked on difference from 1968 was that the rioters were obviously not well-heeled students raging against their parents' values but the multiracial and often Muslim underclass inhabitants of la banlieue . These shoddily built suburbs were thrown up in the 1970s and 1980s to accommodate a fast-growing immigrant population, their lack of the most basic social infrastructure and inadequate transport links to the city centres heightening the banlieusards ' sense of exclusion from mainstream French life.

There has been a plethora of interesting publications on the subject of the riots, including Yann Moulier-Boutange's La Révolte des banlieues, ou les habits nus de la République and Sadek Hajji and Stéphanie Marteau's Voyage dans la France musulmane . But these texts, the first of which equates the figure of the Parisian banlieusard with the bogeyman figure of the 19th-century anarchist or 21st-century terrorist, the second being an intriguing journey along the margins of French society, were not written by intellectuals. They are conspicuously not the kind of authoritative theoretical political statement that emerged in the wake of 1968, prompting a series of mini-revolutions in French thought through the 1970s in the name of post-structuralism and politics championed by the likes of Jean Baudrillard, Philippe Sollers, Gilles Deleuze and Julia Kristeva.

One unconvincing explanation for the silence of the intellectuals is that those leading lights who might have been able to offer an interpretation of events are either, in the case of Baudrillard and Sollers, now ageing figures, or, in the case of Jacques Derrida and Deleuze, dead. Only slightly more persuasive is the argument that while 1968 could be understood in France's great tradition of neo-Hegelian Marxism, the recent uprising - the French intifada - is the product of a complicated matrix of global and local tension that has left most contemporary thinkers literally baffled. The Situationist philosopher Guy Debord, author of The Society of the Spectacle , may be one of the few exceptions, arguing back in the early 1990s that the next French Revolution would come from the "dangerous classes" in the suburbs. But Debord committed suicide in 1994.

It makes it all the more ironic that the only truly piercing voice has been that of the philosopher Alain Finkelkraut, a Jewish intellectual hitherto known as a disciple of Hannah Arendt and Emmanuel Levinas and an enemy of Debord, famed for his attacks on the generation of Leftists inspired by 1968. In the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz he described the rioters as "wreckers", whose only motivation, like the students of 1968, was entirely negative; in this case, a hatred of France and the Republic.

Finkelkraut, for all his neocon posturing, is the thinker who probably comes nearest to something like the truth. One of the real reasons why the riots have caught intellectuals unawares is because they are a direct attack on the universal values of the French Republic. Likewise, the rioters wrong-footed a government whose social policies so far have also been conceived as a defence of those values. Put simply, the French establishment consistently refuses to acknowledge that the various multi-ethnic communities who live in la banlieue have any other identity - whether religious or cultural - than as a French citizen. Years of unemployment and poverty have made most banlieusards deeply cynical about what this status means.

This week, Le Parisien reported that the level of tension in the suburbs has again started to rise. As these issues remain ignored or misunderstood by French intellectuals, so France can look forward to another baffling winter of discontent.

Andrew Hussey is head of French and comparative studies at the University of London Institute in Paris and author of Paris - The Secret History , published by Viking Penguin, £25.00.

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