Riots and strikes in France this week have been widely publicised. Refineries have been closed, rail travel affected, and according to the BBC, “Riot police battled protesters in Paris and other cities, making 77 arrests, while 15 officers were injured and cars and shops were vandalised.” Much has been made of the activities of ‘casseurs’, the hard line activists who allegedly turn peaceful strikes into violence. I went to Paris on Monday with some trepidation, and later I went to the Place de la Republique on a very wet evening to see the Nuits debout for myself.
I am curious as to who these people are, and specifically what ideology stands behind them. At the back of my mind is the comparison with the 1968 student riots. These appear to have been started by students protesting over university issues, and then joined by the unions. The resulting strikes caused chaos nationwide; General de Gaulle is said to have lost his nerve and fled Paris. One of the student organising groups, the Sorbonne Occupation Committee was dominated by Situationists. Debord’s works were widely quoted and used as slogans.
The events of last month (and this, by the look of things) seem very different. Firstly they do not seem to have been started by students and they are based around union grievances against a law restricting the terms of workers. Le Monde on 28 Mai, refers to two groups, l’Action anti-fasciste Paris-Banlieue (AFA) and the Mouvement inter luttes independent (MILI). Despite articles on their site like Pourquoi la révolution ? I can find few if any references to intellectual mentors. According to Le Monde, MILI was founded in 2013 in Paris by ‘une trentaine de lyceens’ to support a foreign colleague threatened with expulsion from France. The AFA came to notice after the death of Clement Meric after a street fight in 2013 between left and right wing activists. (Four people have been charged but the case has not yet been finally heard.) A letter in Liberation on 27 Mai also refers to the influence of Julien Coupat, accused of trying to sabotage an express train in 2009, and said to be the author of ‘L’Insurrection qui vient. According to Wikipedia, this claims that “the 2005 French riots … are significant for a radical change in the way that French youth has understood the social struggle”….the decompostion of all social forms is a ‘godsend’: as Lenin saw the factory workers as the proletarian army, “le chaos “impérial” moderne forme les “bandes”, cellules de base de leur parti imaginaire, qui s’agrègeront en “communes” pour aller vers l’insurrection”. Coupat also edited a magazine called Tiqqun, which produced two issues, in 1999 and 2001, and is said by Wikipedia to be “very influenced by the work of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, as well as Guy Debord, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Martin Heidegger, among others.” Agamben is written up by Wikipedia, but I don’t understand the article: he seems to base his ideas on Foucault’s ‘biopolitique’ but in a way that has led to ‘heated debates with Foucauldians’. (Yawn…)
There are some great graffiti, but the small sample I saw didn’t seem to have any coherent theme.
The 27 May Liberation has a self-dramatising interview with two anonymous ‘casseurs’ (although they call themselves anarcho-autonomes’, or ‘ultragauches’, or adopt the slang term the Police use to describe them, the ‘Totos’.) The term ‘Black Bloc’ is also used: ‘qui, contrairement aux idees recues, ne designe pas un groupe d’individus, mais un mode operatoire consistant a se regouper et circuler, les visages masque… chex eux, le recours a la violence est juge legitime,meme si les degres de radicalite different’.
The two activists are quite scathing about other ‘left’ groups: “Ce qui est cool dans ce mouvement, cest de voir le desoeuvrement des organisations traditionelles… les groupuscules mao-trotskystes qui, en manif, continuent a vendre leurs canards refugies sous des abribus a cause de la pluie.”
They describe themselves: “Il faut aussi que les gens realisent qu’on est des personnes normales. One est plein a avoir un boulot, on n’est pas des jeunes desoeuvres qui n’avons rien a perdre. Des fois, on jette des paves sur des banques, mais on est aussi hyperjoyeux…Je ne suis pas une machine violente pret a assumer la prison. Des fois, la nuit, quand j’entends une bagnole, je crois que c’est le BAC…”
There does not seem to be a large digital angle to all this. They are not a new ‘cyber party’ like the Icelandic Pirate Party or Podemos, even though the ‘Nuits Debout’ protest seems to take some inspiration from the Spanish 15-M movement. I can see none of that sense of a new exciting cyberpolitics that I felt at the recent Kings College conference.
Meanwhile, France is rather glum, not helped by torrential rain. Le Figaro on 1 June described foreign despair about “… cette France ou l’on peut s’attaquer a une voiture de police a coups de barre de fer; ou un syndicat d’arriere-garde a l’ideologie marxiste peut mettre a l’arret les trains, les metros, les ports, les aeroports, les raffineries; ou les manifestations a repetition peuvent degenerer en batailles rangees…”
But as with all these things, you can exaggerate. I read that article in a pavement cafe whilst waiting for Eurostar to take me home (which it did on time, without interruption.) Plus ca change…