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French riots (deux types)

To be surprised that there’s a riot in France almost seems like a joke—since there seems to be a riot every other week in France. From childhood, I remember “French riots” being a joke—that the farmers were burning lamb carcasses on an autoroute to protest EU subsides, that the fishermen had blockaded a port, that the students had shut their lecturers out of the Sorbonne, that the trade unions were in combat with the French riot police—that was just “what the French are like”.

So to say “there’s a riot in France” is almost not news—France has a recognisable “riot season”; and, for the Anglo-Saxon, it’s all connected to a certain Gallic surliness and obstreperousness, so that the waiter at a rather grimy Parisian bar will just slam down your café au lait with a look of pure contempt because you had the effrontery to order a coffee. <<Tiens>>, <<Tiens>> ???? You look at him to say, “What have I done wrong? I even ordered in French,” and he sort of snarl-shrugs at you—it’s the antipode to the American girl at Starbucks, who almost congratulates you on your name, “Thaaam, great job!!!”.

The French republic only exists in theory, whereas for Americans democracy is actual—it’s great you exist because you exist, you’re already super-special because everyone is (“Great job!!!!”). Yet the French remain aloof and, as the Anglos used to say, “bolshy”—hence “riot season”, “strike season”. That’s what it is to be French, resentful and surly—on the look out for an excuse to strike (refuse to serve you the coffee).

However, you have to draw a distinction between the French “riot season”—which is Lindy—and the race riots from the banlieues (“black swan” events). The whole “riot-strike season” is political theatre, it’s a tradition—it’s a way the French work out disputes among themselves, it’s anti-fragile “stable chaos” (many small riots, global stability). If you see Parisian teachers or students throwing dug-up cobblestones at riot cops that’s basically like if you went to watch some folk dance in Brittany—and both sides, cops and rioters, know that really.

If you actually think that means “the revolution is imminent, the French state is on the verge of collapse” you’re deluded (populists seem to think this way quite often, in their rhetoric—“The mainstream media doesn’t report the protests in France.” Yes but there are always protests like that in France—it’s just Anglos aren’t so “expressive” as the Frenchman with his cobblestones and tear-gas grenades)—a similar relationship exists with black civil rights activists in America, a certain amount of, as those in the academic biz say, “performative” riot and protest is expected when the police kill a black man; but both sides know it’s usually a ritual.

As noted, the French riot season strengthens the French state—it’s anti-fragile, it’s connected to the divide between Paris and the rest of France that has never really been resolved (the divide is as profound as any State-Federal divide in America, probably more so in fact—so that some would argue France has never been a “proper” country and is in some ways akin to Imperial Russia, a heterogenous state held together by an alien aristocracy until the revolution). If anything, it would be a sign that the French state was about to collapse if “riot season” didn’t happen—if the usual low-level strikes stopped (quiet before the storm).

However, the current riots are different—because they are not orchestrated by Frenchmen. These riots, more rare, come from the banlieues—from the suburbs, which, contrary to the Anglo-American situation (the French just have to be different), are where the racial minorities live (with the centre reserved for the French and the higher classes). These riots are more rare, they’re sparked by the same issue as in America—the police kill a man from a minority racial group.

These events have no deep history in France—it doesn’t go back “to the Revolution” or to the Paris-region divide. The first major event was the 2005 race riots, after which the then-president Sarkozy promised to “Kärcherise” the suburbs. The Kärcher is a high-pressure water hose that you might use to clean the streets after the teachers’ union has rioted over their pensions in August; it’s a German brand, so Sarkozy sounded particularly “Nazi” when he said it, to progressive ears—“the German cleansing device.” Needless to say, nothing happened—or, perhaps, literal high-pressure hoses were used to clean up after it was all over.

These riots—the riots of the blacks and Arabs—are black swan events. These are anomalies and when these events happen it means there’s a serious problem in France—it’s not just the local folk dance. This time it has been claimed that a live grenade has been thrown at the police and it is known—the French army has even conducted exercises on this basis—that, sooner or later, these riots will turn into low-level urban warfare.

Of course, multiple French intellectuals, from Houellebecq to Faye, have spoken about or fictionalised just such a scenario—and there’s even a Netflix series about such prospective events (with the suburban kids the heroes against the whites, naturellement). So it’s all expected, just something we’re drifting towards—but when it comes to a French riot it’s important to make this distinction if you don’t want to miss the next revolution.


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1 Comment

Jun 30, 2023

>the suburbs, which, contrary to the Anglo-American situation (the French just have to be different), are where the racial minorities live (with the centre reserved for the French and the higher classes). The French are wise not to yield their cities to a menace like the Americans would.

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