28 03 06

Images of Fire

The banlieue riots and the unanswered question of the welfare state

Brian Holmes

Violence is the hard drug of the information society. It interrupts the program, it cuts through the rhythm of stress, entertainment and boredom that passes for ordinary experience. The images of violence sear into your mind, like witnesses of the present. That's how I remember the nights of October and November in France. I can still see the images of the flames, the skeletons of the burning buses. I can still hear the strange thud of the exploding cars, I can still feel the tension that separates the police with their helmets, tear gas and flashball guns, from the ghetto kids with their hoods and scarves, their paving stones and Molotov cocktails. All that happened so close to where I live, but so far away, worlds away from the city center; I only saw it through the media. For three weeks, it looked as though Gaza, Beirut and Baghdad had come to the outskirts of Paris, Strasbourg and Marseilles. Then the pressure of the image subsides, the memory blurs and fades, until a new convulsion – like the huge social movements unfolding in France right now - comes to chase away what seems unforgettable. Just as the riots themselves chased away what had seemed unforgettable: the "no" vote on the referendum for a European constitution.

What's hidden in the blazing light of the mediated image? I want to look back on those nights of October and November, when a European society was literally "under fire." The point is to find another interpretation for the images of violence, so they don't appear as proof that race wars are inevitable in Europe, and in the world. By comparing the riots in the banlieues with the middle-class protests unfolding in France right now, it can be shown that what's at stake is an old but still unanswered question: the transformation of the welfare state in response to the demands of the global economy. This is a case where the representation of violence directly influences its organization, through the effects that the image exerts on electoral politics. It has become the responsibility of intellectuals, and of all citizens, to work both with and against this "hard drug," which seems to generate an anxiety that can only be quelled by massive police deployments, or by the militarization of society itself – as we've already seen in the US, and to a lesser extent, in Great Britain.

What happened, then, in the poorest districts of the French suburbs, from October 27 to November 17, 2005? The events began with the death of two teenagers, Bouna Traore and Zyed Benna, who ran in fear from a squadron of police on their way back to Clichy-sous-Bois, in the northeast of Paris. They were returning home from a soccer match and they didn't have their papers on them. Along with a third boy they scaled a fence and hid in a dangerous transformer for a period of around thirty minutes, until both were electrocuted. Local youth, convinced that the boys had been pursued to their deaths, began to riot in Clichy that night, following a pattern which has become typical in France, after every killing of immigrant children at the hands of the police.

As you probably know, disturbances in the housing projects, or "cites," are anything but rare in France these days. In the course of the year 2004, approximately 20,000 cars were burned; in the first nine months of 2005, that number had already reached 28,000. That's an average of a hundred a night. The events of Clichy-sous-Bois would probably never have have made it beyond a byline in the local papers if the interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, had not provoked outrage by calling the inhabitants of the suburbs "scum" on October 26. And the insurrection might never have spread if police hadn't thrown a tear-gas grenade in front of an occupied mosque in Clichy, on the night of October 30. After that, the riots began to multiply in the Paris region, then throughout the country, finally touching almost 300 different communities. Each suburb seemed to compete for visibility. Buses, schools, stores, municipal buildings and garbage cans were set ablaze by relatively small groups of youths, armed with gasoline, matches and large quantities of stones, used for confrontations with the police. Some 10,000 automobiles were ultimately torched, including 1,400 on the single night of November 7. Over 4,000 arrests were made and some 600 individuals were condemned to prison sentences. Yet no deaths and few serious injuries could be directly attributed to the insurrection - a fact which must mean something. The events were finally stopped by what seemed like the sheer fatigue of the protesters, but also by the imposition of special police powers under a state of emergency, using a law that dated from the Algerian war. The colonial overtones of that law were lost on no one; and the latent racism of French society suddenly appeared in broad daylight, embodied by the Interior Minister.

What were the reasons? The complaint of the mainstream left was that there were no spokesmen, no explicit demands, no political representation – only wordless violence. The right was  much more explicit. A deputy minister blamed the outburst of violence on "polygamy" – the very reason that colonial France had used to deny citizenship to Muslim Algerians. Sarkozy also voiced that argument, but insisted more heavily on the need to repress organized gangs. The specter of Islamist terror networks in the suburbs was raised, in the international as well as the national papers. A book by a certain Charles Pellegrini, hot off the presses in November 2005 under the title Banlieues en flames, can give you an idea of the rhetoric. On the fourth page, Pellegrini quotes the center-right newspaper Le Figaro: "Projections based on data from the National Institute of Statistics show that if immigrant fertility does not change, in around 25 years, by 2030, their mass with their descendants could represent some 24 percent of the total French population." This is the language of invasion: "The development of immigration remains preoccupying, since from 1997 to 2002, the number of foreigners who took up residence on French soil has grown by 70 percent." Pellgrini openly scorns the cultural programs that the left set up in the suburbs: "The remedy bears no relation to the malady, which translates into delinquency, violence and Islamism, imputable to a minority, concentrated in the housing projects, in total rupture from our society."

Despite the vitriol, the special information service of the French police declared, in a report leaked to the papers, that there was absolutely no evidence of any organization between the rioters, or of any links to Islamist groups, or even any encouragement from local imams. Instead it was stated that "the youth of the problem districts feel penalized by their poverty, the color of their skin and their names... It seems as though they have lost all confidence in the institutions, but also in the private sector, the source of desires, jobs and economic integration." Some 4.7 million people of both French and immigrant origins, or approximately 8% of the urban population, live in mass housing projects in the 752 so-called "sensitive urban zones," where unemployment rates for youth from 16 to 25 years old can reach as high as 40 percent. This is a dull, slow violence; it can't be captured in an image. The "sensitive zones" are clearly segregated from the city centers: they are difficult to reach by bus and have no access by metro or tramway. The housing stock is decayed, educational and sporting facilities are of abysmal quality, drug trafficking is common. Residents complain of job discrimination based on their names and their address. Local police have been withdrawn from these zones by the recent right-wing government; but punitive raids are frequent, and resentment of the cops is the reason most often given for joining the insurrection.

None of these problems are new. The first riot in the French banlieues occurred in 1979, at a time when mass unemployment had already set in, and when those who could afford it had already fled the suburbs. In the 1980s, the Socialist government of François Mitterrand set up special rehabilitation funds and cultural programs under the name "developpement social des quartiers" (DSQ); but these were considered a failure by 1990, when rioters in the projects outside Lyons destroyed the rock-climbing walls that were supposed to give them some healthy entertainment. Subsequent programs focused on the demolition of large complexes and their replacement by middle-income housing. But community associations were also supported, and subsidized jobs were created for the so-called "older brothers," who were basically assigned to keep the peace in their neighborhoods. Two decades of Socialist government brought great advantages to the middle classes, to state functionaries, unionized labor, cultural workers and also to the new urban professionals of the information society; while at the same time, significant efforts were deployed to put a lid on the intensifying problems of mass unemployment, without any cure for the underlying causes. Social democracy, cultural development, welfare: what all these words really signified was a state of slow decay or "suspended animation" for the banlieues.

In a book entitled Quand la ville se defait (When the City Falls Apart, 2006) the sociologist Jacques Donzelot shows how the notion of welfare first arose in the late 19th century, as a way of defending society from the potential violence or disease of its members, who were increasingly gathered at close quarters in the city. This protection of society from the individual was achieved, he says, through the individual's protection by society: unemployment benefits kept workers from falling into poverty, and therefore from becoming dangerous criminals; while health insurance and sanitary services kept them from succumbing to potentially contagious diseases. The postwar apartment complexes, built from the 1950s to the 1970s at the height of the French welfare state, were supposed to be an apotheosis of this double protection. They sought to create a healthy new city for all the social classes, from the production-line worker to the top engineer; and they monumentalized this condition of urban equality, using modular architecture to create a symbolic relation with the modern industries that brought wealth to everyone. But the dream fell apart with the collapse of the industrial economy on which it was founded. Donzelot shows that from the early 1980s onward, the urban condition in France tended to fracture into three separate zones: the single-family housing developments of the new exurban communities, built for  middle classes fleeing both the violence of the suburbs and the rising rents of the city; the gentrified historical centers, increasingly occupied by new professionals trying to catch the rising wave of the information society; and finally the decaying suburbs, where unemployed industrial workers and migrant families are relegated to the failed modernism of poverty, immobility and social invisibility. The question he seems to be asking, is just to what extent these three zones can really become hermetic to each another, before something really breaks.

To grasp what the triple division of the city means in political terms, I think you have to understand that France, along with Austria, Belgium, Italy and Germany, has a "corporatist" or "continental conservative" type of welfare state – as distinguished from the social-democratic and liberal versions (cf. G. Esping-Andersen, The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism, 1990). Under the French version of the corporatist welfare state, the payment of the most generous pensions, health plans and unemployment benefits is supposed to come from special mutual funds established by specific professions and branches of industry. The state only administers those funds, which will typically be disbursed to middle-class families living in the detached housing of the exurban communities. But the state also has to fill in the gaps, both when the mutual funds can't cover their obligations, and when a minimum of universal coverage becomes necessary for the unskilled employees and jobless people outside of the corporatist system. It's exactly this universal-minimum coverage that has been inexorably cut over the last twenty years, along with other public provisions like education. The cuts leave the inhabitants of the banlieues on the short end of the stick, while the rest of the population begins to tremble in fear at the increasing crime and delinquency of the suburban children. Meanwhile, the new professionals and business elites gathering around the speculative project of gentrification call for lower taxes, less regulation and greater labor flexibility, in order to continue profiting from the information economy – and, they say, to provide new sources of employment for the former industrial workers. But these demands, in their turn, strike fear and resentment into the hearts of those who depend on the largess of the state. As Donzelot shows in his book, a sharp contradiction then arises between the people concerned with society's protection of the individual, or social security, and the people concerned with society's protection from the individual, or civil security. The former, who are often state functionaries, are pushed them to the far left of the spectrum, represented in France by the Trotskyist parties, which rally around the defense of public services; while those more concerned with civil security, often lower-income whites who couldn't leave the suburbs, are pushed to the far right, represented by the National Front, with its slogan of "France for the French" and its appeal to the strong-arm language of authority.

The most recent effect of this contradiction between civil and social security was a deep split of the popular vote between the far right and the far left in the April 2002 presidential elections, a split which decimated the Socialist candidate in the first round and, to everyone's astonishment, positioned the National Front candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen as a possible president. Frightened leftist voters then helped bring Jacques Chirac to power by an overwhelming majority. But his center-right government, while mouthing the civil-security rhetoric of the National Front, has in reality proceeded to implement the neoliberal agenda of the business elites – which means flexibilizing the labor markets, lowering the taxes on capital, and eliminating the deficits of the corporatist welfare state. This is basically the program of the Lisbon Agenda for the competitiveness of the European Union in the info-economy, which is also the program adopted in Germany, via the Hartz reforms and Agenda 2010. It was applied successfully in France to raise the retirement age of teachers, railway workers and other state functionaries. But it was also applied to cut the Socialist programs of support for community associations and jobs for the "older brothers." And the price for those cuts was the insurrection. So what's represented in the images of political violence that you saw coming from France in October and November of 2005 is not an Islamist uprising in the heart of Europe, but instead a defensive reaction against a racist-influenced attempt to finally dismantle the minimum social-security protections that had kept the suburbs in a state of isolation and suspended animation over the last two decades.

With its combination of a neoliberal economic agenda and a fascistoid appeal to authority, the center-right UMP – that is, the French version of neoconservatism – has reopened the question of the welfare state with a vengeance. And it is continuing to do so today. Under the cover of a law for the so-called "equality of chances," devised in the wake of the November uprising, the right is now attempting to flexibilize the labor force of young people up to 26 years old, by instituting a job contract that can be freely terminated by the employer at any time during a two-year trial period. This is the CPE: Contrat première embauche. That law is being challenged by a truly massive coalition of high school and university students, temp workers, unionists and anti-government forces, all assembled in the refusal of increasingly "precarious" social conditions. What you see on the images now coming out of France is the circulation of political violence out of the suburban zones to which it had been relegated, and into the gentrified centers of the historical cities. The interesting thing will be whether the precarious children of yesterday's middle classes can surmount their parents' fear – and corporatist self-interest – to make anything more than a merely rhetorical common cause with the insurrectionalists of the banlieue. As usual, that will depend a lot on how violence in the images gets represented, and by whom. The symbolic targets of the protests are in any case the same: the school system (but this time it's the Sorbonne); the automobile (but this time it's the fancy ones parked on the Left Bank); and finally, of course, the police. What the right appears to be looking for now in France is a massive confrontation with all the social forces that have any inclination to defend the welfare state, as though they were driven to see whether a neoliberal agenda can really be imposed by neoconservative means. The outcome of this confrontation remains, in my view, highly uncertain.

I'm not going to try to predict what will happen over the next few weeks. Whether violence will erupt again in the banlieues, and how far it will continue to circulate through the center cities, is something you will be able to see with your own eyes, through a multiplicity of media. I will predict, however, that over the next few years in Europe, the question of the welfare state is going to remain open, and that situations like the ones in France will happen in other countries, at greater or lesser degrees of intensity. Because the "corporatist" model of the welfare state has become clearly untenable in the post-industrial information society; but European populations do not seem to be willing to permit its replacement by a liberal, Anglo-Saxon model. What will dominate the agenda on the social policy front is instead the Danish notion of "flexicurity," which is an attempt to strike a balance between flexibility and social security. What this involves, paradoxically, is deregulating the labor markets and, at the same time, offering unemployed workers exceptionally high benefits (up to 90% of their former income). The reason it works is that the Danes also impose reeducation programs and guided job searches that keep the unemployed from remaining too long beneath the care of the state. These flexicurity programs are a very interesting attempt to adapt the social-democratic form of the Nordic welfare states to the new demands of the information society; and it's now becoming important to see how they could be transferred to the more complex situations of larger countries like France and Germany. But what I want to suggest, in conclusion, is that the "hard drug" of violent images has already injected itself to the notion of flexicurity, and that it will continue to overdetermine the burning question of the welfare state in Europe.

The French banlieue riots made us forget the "no" vote on the European constitution; then the controversy over the Jyllands-Posten caricatures made us forget the riots in the banlieues. This time, the issue was not the welfare state, but freedom of expression; and the site of the conflict was not the closed world of the French suburbs, but the wide-open theater of the "clash of civilizations," opposing so-called "Western values" to the Islamist forces at work in the Middle East. However, if you look behind the image of Danish embassies burning in Tehran, Damascus and Beirut, you will see that over the past ten years, precisely during the time it developed the flexicurity programs, Denmark has become an explicitly racist society, whose political agenda has been shaped decisively by the far-right Danish People's Party. The twin issues of this party are fear of foreigners and protection of the welfare state. It's as if the benefits of education, and of mobility through society, could only be extended to white people – so as to protect the limited number of high-quality jobs available in the information society. And in fact, the conflict over the caricatures was also an occasion for the People's Party to win support from traditional social-democratic voters. As in France, the danger is that social benefits can be regained, and maybe even reinforced, behind the rising barrier of racism.

Now, by saying this, I am not trying to deny that the affair of the caricatures was manipulated by Islamists in Denmark and in the Middle East, and by the Syrian and Iranian governments, because it clearly was, as important accounts have proved ( The manipulation is something serious, which can have long-term consequences. What I am trying to say is that it's an illusion to believe that the problems of unemployment in Europe can be solved by a simple appeal to the information society, because the contemporary economy also involves a tremendous amount of low-end service jobs which are increasingly being done by immigrants, for the benefit of aging and retired whites. The neoliberal economy thrives on exactly those jobs, which can also be performed by people without any papers at all, people exposed to every kind of exploitation. To fail to address the economic situation of immigrants, to allow their children to slide into delinquency and violence, and then to instrumentalize the specter of criminality for the election of right-wing governments whose liberal agendas which can only leave those immigrant populations durably marginalized, or even spatially segregated as in the case of France, is the surest way I can imagine to guarantee that the growing Muslim populations in Europe will not take the road of secular, enlightened society, but instead will succumb to the propaganda of Islamist forces which are, in effect, very desperately trying to win their favor. But the Islamization of Muslims in Europe can only give rhetorical fuel to the neoconservative program of a security system at home, and a neocolonial empire for the hinterland. Over the next ten years, the real question of the welfare state, and the real contradiction between the logics of civil and social security, will revolve around the treatment of immigrant populations in Europe, and their inclusion to, or exclusion from, the benefits of the  information society. Only if this problem is solved within the EU, on what I'd like to call the substantial or constituent level, can Europe expect to have any positive impact on the rest of the international system, of which it is obviously an inextricable component.

The point of this text has been to show the entanglement of an entire set of economic dispositions, social forces, rhetorical strategies, political formations and generations of human beings, forming a system that gives effective meaning to the images we see on television, in the press and on the Internet. But the point is also to step outside that deadly entanglement, which is still founded on the consumer society, on the structure it has been given by the state, on the pyramid of retirement savings still seeking its path toward the financial sphere, and on the way that speculative investment of every kind – even in the info-economy – still ends up driving the classic imperialist scramble for resources, and above all for oil. The strange irony of the October-November insurrection is that its raw material was gasoline, its exalted target was the motorcar, and its true destination was the broadcast media. But that was the only way to get a message – even a speechless one – into the infotainment veins of welfare-state capitalism, which is still massively Fordist, despite everything about the factory system that has ended in failure.

So now I want to suggest a kind of thought experiment. Next time you see images of fire, with smashed schools, burning cars, and confrontations with the cops, think about all that's behind them, and try asking a few questions. What would it take for every group of people, with their faces, their problems, their qualities, their locations, to become visible to each other in a society that wasn't sealed off into hermetic zones and dead-end streets? What sort of education could be an entirely liberating experience, that gives direct access to tools you can use? What kinds of mobility can be built into the urban fabric, and how do people find their paths through a society that has become radically unequal? Finally, what confrontations could be staged with the outdated forms of the state, that wouldn't always bring us face to face with the eternal return of the police?

If it becomes possible to see the images of fire in this way, as a blazing language of unanswered questions, then maybe, just maybe, Bouna Traore and Zyed Benna won't be dead for nothing – "mort pour rien," the words you could read on the tee-shirts, as the witnesses walked silently through the city of Clichy-sous-Bois on Saturday the 29th of October, 2005.

Brian Holmes