“Night of Barricades” Erupts Against French Elections

1718

A “Night of Barricades” sprang up last night, as thousands of people across France rejected the ongoing elections which seek to pit the neoliberal Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron, formerly of the Socialist Party (SP), against Marine Le Pen of the neo-fascist National Front (FN). Le Pen over the past few years has attempted to streamline the party, ‘cleaning up’ it’s more outwardly neo-Nazi elements, while picking up support from Steve Bannon and Donald Trump. During the election (which will now go to a runoff on May 7th), over 50,000 soldiers and police were deployed to polling booths, in the wake of a shooting by a gunman.

We present the following texts and interviews as a potential way of understanding what is happening in France as well as how it relates to our own situation here in the US. Across the world, the “Washington Consensus” of neoliberalism is breaking down and center-right liberalism is squaring off with neo-fascism. The first comes from Ill Will Editions and features an interview in Le Monde (center-Left French daily newspaper) with Julien Coupat and Mathieu Burnel, two people that French authorities have long tried to associate with the Invisible Committee, who authored The Coming Insurrection and To Our Friends. In this interview, they critically discuss the elections and their implications.

The second is a piece from CrimethInc. and is entitled, The State of Emergency and the Totalitarian Drift of the State: A Report from France, which discusses how France has moved towards fascism and totalitarianism in the wake of various terrorist attacks and how revolutionaries should respond to the current crisis.


Interview with Julien Coupat and Mathieu Burnel

Le Monde: What do you make of the presidential campaign?

What campaign? There was no campaign. There was a soap opera, a fairly worn-out one at that, to tell the truth, full of twists and turns, scandals, dramatic tension and suspense. Much brouhaha, a tiny frenzy, but nothing that managed to pierce the wall of generalized confusion. Not that there is any lack of followers for each candidate, tossing-about with varying degrees of fanaticism in their virtual bubbles. But this fanaticism only deepens the feeling of political unreality.

A graffiti that went up in Place de la Nation during the Mayday demonstration last year stated: “There will be no presidential election”. It suffices to project ourselves ahead to the day after the final round of the election to grasp what’s prophetic in this tag: whatever happens, the new president will be as much a puppet as the current one, the legitimacy of their governance will be just as lacking, just as minoritarian and impotent. This fact isn’t solely due to the extreme withering of politics—to the fact that it has become impossible to believe honestly in all that is done and said there—but is likewise due to the fact that politics is a derisory means of confronting the depth of the current disaster.

the threat that it represents serves only to force our participation in procedures nobody believes in anymore, to make us vote while “holding our nose,” meanwhile dragging the terms of the public debate so far to the Right as to allow the mainstream political system to falsely appear as an escape from it

What can politics and its proclamatory universe do when confronted by the concomitant collapse of ecosystems and subjectivities, of the wage society and the global geopolitical order, the meaning of life and the meaning of words? Nothing. It only adds to the disaster. There is no “solution” to the disaster we’re going through. To think in terms of problems and solutions is only one more aspect of this disaster, a way of safeguarding us from any serious questioning. What’s called into question by the current state of the world is not merely a political system or a certain form of social organization but a whole civilization, that is to say, ourselves, our ways of living, of being, of relating and thinking.

The buffoons who mount their platforms to boast of the “solutions” they’ll be strong enough to enact once elected are only pandering to our need for illusion, our need to believe that some kind of decisive change exists that would spare us, and spare us above all from the need to fight. All the “revolutions” that they promise us are only there so that we may avoid changing who we are, to relieve us of any physical or existential risk. They’re candidates for the deepening of the catastrophe. Seen in this light, it would seem that for some people the need for illusion is virtually insatiable.

You say that, but never in an election have there been so many candidates vowing to “flip over the table”. And how can you brush-off the enthusiasm in recent weeks for the candidacy of Jean-Luc Mélenchon?

Jean-Luc Mélenchon is nothing, since he’s already been everything, even a Lambertist. He’s only the surface projection of the Left’s impotence in the face of the course of the world. The Mélenchon phenomenon is a fit of desperate credulity. We need only look to case of Syriza in Greece or Ada Colau’s mayorship in Barcelona to know that the “radical left”, once installed in power, can do absolutely nothing. No revolution can be launched from the heights of the state. Still less in these times, when states are more submerged than at any prior time.

All the hopes placed in Mélenchon are destined to be disappointed. The “radical left” governments that claim their base in “popular movements” wind up defeating them [venir à bout] not by repression but by depression. The very virulence of the Melenchonists testifies sufficiently to their need to convince themselves of what they know to be a lie. To invest this much energy in conversion, one must already be unsure of believing it oneself. And anyway, no one has ever toppled a system by following its rules.

Elections were never intended to allow us each to express ourselves politically, but rather to rejuvenate the adherence of the population to the machinery of government, that it may consent to its own dispossession. These days they’re no more than a gigantic mechanism of procrastination. They exist to prevent us from having to think about the means and forms of a revolution that would start from what we are, from where we already are, from our existing contact with the world [depuis là ou nous avons prise sur le monde].

What is more, as with every presidential election in this country, there is a sort of sickly resurgence of the national myth, of the collective autism that fantasizes a France that never existed. The national has become a plane of impotence and neurosis. Our power to act lies both prior to and beyond its level, overflowing it on every side.

But what do you propose? To let Marine Le Pen gain power?

It is obvious that Marine Le Pen has a precise function within the French political system: the threat that it represents serves only to force our participation in procedures nobody believes in anymore, to make us vote while “holding our nose,” meanwhile dragging the terms of the public debate so far to the Right as to allow the mainstream political system to falsely appear as an escape from it, even though it forms its keystone.

Obviously, the question today is not of exiting the Eurozone but of exiting of the economy, the same one that transforms us into rats. Obviously the problem is not the invasion of “foreigners” [étrangers] but our living in a society in which we are strangers [étrangers] to one another and to ourselves. Obviously the issue is not one of restoring full employment, but of ending the need for everything we do, the bulk of it nonsensical, to be done just to “earn a living”. Obviously, it is not a question of “doing politics differently”, but of doing something other than politics—it has become clear that politics is, at all levels, only the reign of feints and shenanigans.

No revolution could be crazier than the times in which we’re already living – the days of Trump and Bashar, Uber and the Islamic State, Pokémon hunting and the extinction of bees. To become ungovernable is no longer an anarchist fad, it has become a vital necessity, inasmuch as those who govern us are obviously at the helm of a ship that is headed toward the abyss. Even the most measured observers admit that politics is decomposing, and describe the current campaign as “elusive” only to avoid having to say “non-existent”. There is no reason we should submit to a ritual that has become so obviously harmful. We’re tired of understanding why everything goes wrong.

So you think there is nothing to expect from these elections?

Certainly, there is: their derailing [débordement]. A year ago, it took only a few Youtube’rs and a handful of high school students to catalyze an intense months-long battle over a labor law. What was then translated into regular street clashes was nothing other than the extreme discrediting of the political apparatus, and consequently a refusal to allow oneself to be governed.

Do you think that the day after these elections, which have been a form of democratic blackmail from the very first moment, the disgust with politics will be lessened one bit? Do you think that everyone will continue to sit in front of their screens and quietly observe the madness of the spectacle of politics? That it won’t occur to people to ​​fill the streets with our bodies rather than these dreamed-after candidates? Do you think that these elections have any chance of appeasing the restlessness of our souls? It is naïve to think that the generation that cut its teeth politically during the conflict last spring, and has only continued to develop since then, is just going to swallow this deception, with the promise of nothing more than organic veggies at the supermarket and a constituent assembly.

For months now, not two weeks have gone by without clashes in the streets of this country, over Theo [a youth who was beaten and sodomized by the police in a Parisian suburb –IWE], over the police, or anywhere the Front National tried to hold its little meetings. Obviously, this still remains minoritarian, and the non-event of the elections will of course take place. The question, then, is how we can ensure that the interstellar vacuum that will flare up after the elections, whoever the winner is, will be something other than the fact of “young people” being degraded by a disproportionate display of police force?

For this, we urgently need to re-arm our political perceptions and imagination. To decipher this era, discern whatever possibilities it contains, and locate its practicable paths. To insist that there was no presidential election, that this circus has dragged on long enough, that this world must be stopped as quickly as possible, from wherever we are, without awaiting the abyss. Let’s stop waiting, and reclaim confidence in ourselves. Then we can say, like Benjamin Fondane (1898-1944): “The world is finished. The journey begins.”


The State of Emergency and the Totalitarian Drift of the State: A Report from France

It appears that the French Republic is reaching a tipping point, a fundamental break with the way that rule has functioned here for three decades. Everything indicates that the political legitimization of racism and violent policing must either lead to tyranny or provoke an uprising. These two forces—tyranny and revolt—define the moment we are experiencing in France today. The confrontation is now permanent. In the following report, the second installment in our series leading up to the French elections, we explore these developments and the prospects for revolutionary movements in France.

Today, a year and a half after the declaration of the state of emergency, we count the dead, the wounded, the imprisoned. It has long been the case that ten to fifteen people die at the hands of the police each year in France, always from lower-income neighborhoods. But the level of violence has increased under the state of emergency, extending to the entire population. This supposedly exceptional regime, declared by the President after the attacks of November 13, 2015, gives the police extended power to arrest people, search premises without a warrant, and prohibit demonstrations. It bears a colonial pedigree: the legislation for the state of emergency was passed in April 1955, during the French occupation of Algeria.

At the time, the aim of the exceptional regime was to forcibly subdue the Algerian nationalist movement by releasing state repression from any legal constraints. The special powers it gave to the police led to the generalization of torture and summary executions in Algeria and also in France. A state of emergency is the hallmark of arbitrary repression and the establishment of a security regime; it paves the way for escalating racist violence and the opening of internment camps, without doing anything to prevent further terrorist attacks.

A state of emergency is the hallmark of arbitrary repression and the establishment of a security regime; it paves the way for escalating racist violence and the opening of internment camps, without doing anything to prevent further terrorist attacks.

The rise of identity-based discourse across the entire spectrum of the political class over the past thirty years has led to this: the designation of certain categories of the population as enemies, creating a covert war within the national territory that is justified by racist discourse and the legitimization of the police. In December 2015, a month after the state of emergency was declared, police officers brutally beat Zohra Kraiker and her two sons. In July 2016, Adama Traoré died in the hands of the gendarmes at the age of 24. In February 2017, a 22-year-old man, Theo, was beaten by the police and raped with a nightstick. In March 2017, police murdered Liu Shaoyo, a 56-year-old Chinese citizen, at his home in front of his children.

Internal Enemies

The lessons of thirty years of designating internal enemies and using working-class districts as a laboratory of repression are now being deployed against demonstrators of all stripes. It is inherent in this exceptional regime that it tends to extend its scope. The first unsanctioned demonstration under the state of emergency resulted in 344 arrests, without anyone being charged with a single crime; this set the tone for everything that followed. The police have arrested and injured thousands of protesters at the demonstrations of the past year, whether sanctioned or unsanctioned. At least 2031 political activists and trade union members have faced trial over the past 13 months.

France is a police state. No police officer has ever been convicted, even for murder, if the police unions support him. In recent months, armed, hooded, and aggressive police officers have held dozens of unauthorized street demonstrations of their own. The police were received in the Presidential Palace and received 250 million euros for new weapons. Two months later, a law was passed relaxing the conditions that justify self-defense for the police, giving them a license to kill. The murder of Liu Shaoyo took place only a month later.

External Enemies

The totalitarian drift of the state and institutionalized racism is even more blatant in the case of migrants. Living on the streets, they suffer cold and sickness; they are dehumanized, harassed, and imprisoned. Officers arrive early in the morning, take position in a neighborhood where migrants sleep together, and surround them with the now-familiar kettle. Sometimes they kettle an entire neighborhood, locking up everyone they catch, residents included. At the police station, migrants are often asked to sign an OQTF form (accepting the obligation to exit French territory within 30 days) on the false premise that it is an application for a place in a shelter.

Between July 31 and December 1 of 2016, more than 5000 migrants were arrested in the street, many of them repeatedly. More than 200 were placed in detention centers, and hundreds received orders to leave France. When not simply denying the facts outright, politicians use the state of emergency and the fear of terrorism to justify these police operations; in reality, they take place mostly on the margins of the law, with the aim of ensuring that migrants do not assert their rights. There are centers of “administrative detention” in which migrants are locked up, accused of only one crime: not being citizens.

Revocable Citizenship

France is proud to be the homeland of human rights. But chartered rights granted by a government or sovereign can also be revoked on account of real or imagined emergencies. Like people in the United States, we live in a country that can deny rights and put people on lists, often for purely political reasons. After the attacks, coinciding with the declaration of a state of emergency, the President proposed inscribing in the constitution “la déchéance de nationalité,” the ability to revoke the French nationality of any person committing an offense “constituting an attack on the fundamental interests of the nation.” This proposal has been withdrawn, formally speaking, but it continues in practice. In the eyes of the state, the inhabitants of working-class neighborhoods are sub-citizens, just as migrants are subhuman.

Governance by Exceptional Regimes

Likewise, the rights of those who are ostensibly considered citizens may be revoked if they exceed the narrow framework of behavior permitted by the state. This is being inflicted on Antonin Bernanos at this very moment. He was arrested on the testimony of an anonymous informant—who lawyers later discovered to be a cop—on the charge of having participated in the burning of a police car during a demonstration against a gathering of extreme right Police Unions. His guilt has never been proven; at best, he is accused of having been present at the demonstration in question, or of frequenting the “antifa environment.” In spite of all this, he spent 10 months in prison, in “preventive detention,” until his trial. Then he obtained the right to be released pending his first hearing, but this right is subject to a measure of exile: he must leave Paris to live in the north.

Indeed, pre-trial detention and exile measures have been used extensively over the past year and a half. This form of banishment takes us back to the Middle Ages, showing that the rights of the citizens may be suspended at any time.

The Resistance

People challenged the state of emergency in the street starting from the very first day. Since November 2015, simply meeting in public space is an act of rebellion.

The year 2016 saw a long and tenacious social movement, a rare thing with the Left in the Presidency. Finally, autonomous confrontational elements began taking the head of the demonstrations—“le cortège de tête”—rather than the back, as was traditional in France. Revolted by police violence, more and more people joined the autonomous bloc to confront the police. Even “Nuit Debout” rejected the state of emergency.

The support committee for Adama Traoré succeeded in organizing an exemplary mobilization, despite fierce judicial repression. To break the mobilization, the police sent several of the murdered young man’s brothers to prison. But every time the police killed or injured someone, it only renewed the mobilization: wild demonstrations took place every day for three weeks in Paris and its suburbs after young Theo was raped by police, and the murder of Liu Shaoyo has revived the mobilization again.

In some cities, the outrage has gone so far that the Socialist Party and the Prime Minister were forced to cancel their meetings for fear of confrontation. This occurred in Rennes, where no demonstration is ever reported to the authorities in advance, a tradition since the police murdered a trade unionist in 1968. At a time when all the candidates in the upcoming election are vying with each other for the backing of the police, and are trying to define a “French identity” on a clearly racist basis, it is delightful to observe that in the streets, the identity that is asserting itself more than skin color or religion is best summarized by the slogan everyone chants at demonstrations: “Tout le monde déteste la police.”

Everyone hates the police.

Elections: Only bad choices

The presidential election appears to affect nothing in this situation, as if it were taking place in another world. The only notable change is that some masks are falling. The corruption cases of the political elites follow one after another.

A series of scandals have beset the candidate of the Right. First, he fictitiously employed his wives and his two children with the money of the Senate. Then he was offered clothing tailored by a lobbyist of French neo-colonization in Africa. Then it was an undeclared loan of 50,000 euros, then a watch offered, then checks from the Senate. The same candidate maintains that while earning 20,000 euros a month he cannot manage to put money aside. He presents a program of austerity while living in a castle and taking advantage of public funds. In spite of all this, he maintains his candidacy and says he is a victim of a set-up. To galvanize his base, he has been radicalizing his speech and spreading conspiracy theories. This puts him at the same level of speech as the extreme right candidate Marine Le Pen, since the two contesting the same electorate.

The third candidate is the neo-liberal candidate Emmanuel Macron. Previously, he was a banker at Rothschild and a member of the current President’s government, but he still claims to represent a break with the political class in business. In this election, he is positioned as a pro-European and thus appears to be the best candidate, compared with the probability of Marine Le Pen reaching the second round. The reality is that his alternative to national isolationism is simply the individualized personal isolation of neoliberalism. He wants to continue the destruction of the labor code that he began when he was the minister responsible for the budget; he wants to make employees face their bosses alone, without trade unions or laws to defend them. In the neoliberal model, we will not live anywhere, we will travel by Uber from one Airbnb to another, blown about “flexibly” before the winds of the market, without ever meeting anyone except those we do business with, and we will spend our pay just to be able to work.

The fourth candidate is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the candidate of the supposed “radical left,” who has been contorting himself skillfully not to appear as such—for example, by making crowds sing the national anthem for him, distributing thousands of French flags in meetings, or advocating the return of military service. Even as a “radical leftist,” he does not take many risks; like the entire French political class, he has adopted most of the identity discourse that was previously exclusive to the far right. Mélenchon is the candidate who promises to renew the Left as a way to restore the strength of state.

The polls place these four candidates neck and neck, so it is difficult to guess who will be in the second round of elections, though the far-right candidate and the neo-liberal candidate seem to be the favorites. In any case, whoever is elected will inherit and maintain the repressive apparatus that the previous governments have put in place. In this regard, the election offers only bad choices: do we prefer to be governed by an overtly authoritarian government, or by a covertly authoritarian government?

But we should also watch how many people will abstain from voting. Each of the four candidates claims to break with the establishment, but they are all connected to it, whether via their direct interests or their class interests. It seems that more and more people understand this. Furthermore, holding elections while the state of emergency is still in effect, so it is possible to prohibit any demonstration, raises doubts about the “democratic” nature of the situation.

All these institutions exist above all to preserve capitalism. No change will be possible without confronting them directly, by popular mobilization. Besides, as the writer Georges Darien put it, “Only revolutionaries think that honesty is really possible.” In order to live honestly, we must break down the hierarchies that corrupt humanity.

The Future of the Movement

For all these reasons, our anti-authoritarian movement bears a tremendous responsibility. We must be able to welcome all the new people who are coming to us, to offer them political perspectives and propositions that can be put into practice. If we fail to do so, they may swing to the other side, the side defined by identity and nationalist isolationism. This is our hour. We have to rise to this situation—this situation that we have desired for a long time—or bear the consequences.

Some priorities:

  • Take responsibility for being inclusive and welcoming.
  • Intensify the force of attack while protecting the participants and supporting the victims of repression.
  • Develop the ability to accommodate several forms of expression in our demonstrations, as not everyone may be able to confront the police physically. It should be possible to support confrontational tactics in a variety of ways.
  • Control the narrative. It is not enough to despise the society of the spectacle; we must gain ascendancy over it.
  • Improve life immediately. This includes all the autonomous practices our movement has developed, such as opening squats to house people, redistributing food, and helping those who have problems with the police to hide when they have to, especially migrants.
  • Finally, laugh—laugh a lot. Give ourselves the means to laugh by inventing actions that are both offensive and enjoyable.
  • Imagine something better than this closed world would constrain our imaginations to. Our survival is closely linked to our ability to imagine a world that is wider and freer and richer than this small world of padlocks, property lines, and batons that is presented as immutable.

Text courtesy of Radical Cinema.