Qui Fait la France?

2 April, 2012


The Eventful History of a Mobilisation by Artists Against Inequality and in Favour of a Different Kind of Literature

Karin Amellal and Mohamed Razane When, as founding members of the collective Qui Fait la France?, we published our first novels in 2005 and 2006, the proximity of the “crisis in the banlieues1 was on everyone’s mind. As always in this respect, we wondered what name to give to this terrible moment of confrontation, contestation, and protest, which had begun in Clichy-sous-Bois, in Seine-Saint-Denis, in October 2005.2 We are in a sense the children of those riots – or of that revolt. Moved and made indignant by the fate of these lost territories, which have been neglected by the state and public authorities for decades, we could not sit idly by and watch from our ivory towers on the pretext that we—writers, artists, teachers—had ourselves managed to escape the ghetto by the work of our pens and minds.

Trapped in the ghetto

Since roughly the 1980s, when the “problem of the banlieues” began to appear, we in France have gotten into the habit of not looking at reality, of throwing a veil of ignorance over the tragic situation of these zones which lie just outside our major cities, Once the promising new homes of immigrants in the 1950s and ’60s, the banlieues have gradually been transformed into true urban ghettos, due partly to the economic crisis of the 1970s and its social effects, but also to the indifference of public authorities. To employ the term “ghetto” in reference to those peripheral areas, which the official euphemism calls “sensitive urban zones” (zones urbaines sensibles), raises a central problem: was the condition of these districts and their inhabitants the result of the deliberate, premeditated intent of the public authorities, or did it occur spontaneously, as a result of socio-economic segregation? The answer, in France, is very clear: there has never been any institutionalised urban segregation and, from this point of view, and given the historical connotations of the term, it is highly contentious to speak of “ghettos.” And yet, given the nature of these quarters, it seems not only possible but necessary to do just that. With youth unemployment approaching 40% in some areas, an absence of health and employment infrastructure, and a concentration of pauperised inhabitants who are mainly of immigrant origin (and therefore subject to intense social and racial discrimination), these quarters are very much zones of social demotion or isolation, or—and for some of them this metaphor is not excessive—open prisons that it is almost impossible to leave, places where families live in isolation, in insalubrious housing, deprived of essential public services. From this point of view, yes, there are indeed urban ghettos in France. This situation is, as we have said, the result of several decades during which political will and the public authorities were anaesthetised in relation to the development of urban ghettos. It is a consequence of the inadequacy of an “urban policy” which was supposed to act in a coordinated fashion, simultaneously addressing buildings, urban development and the urban fabric, and the social characteristic of the “difficult quarters,”3 notably through the zoning policy initiated in the 1980s. At the start of the new millennium, more than thirty years after the first measures to promote “urban renewal” and social diversity, the changes in these quarters left much to be desired. Given the conditions in the banlieues, especially for the young, the recourse to violence and delinquency were at one and the same time symptoms of the difficulties experienced in a worsening environment and also a radical means of expression and protest, as expressed in rap or, on a more political level, by the MIB (Mouvement de l’Immigration et des Banlieues), founded in 1991. Thus, on several occasions in the early 1980s and in early 1990s, violent riots broke out in the most deprived quarters of the banlieues,4 like prolegomena or dress rehearsals for the much more widespread riots of autumn 2005. Neither the governments of the Left, which were in power from 1981-1993 and again from 1997-2002, nor those of the Right of 1993-1997 and 2002 to the present, have been capable of truly registering or understanding the changes afoot in these territories, or of identifying figures capable of giving coherence to the social movements, let alone of providing satisfying solutions in the various fields of public action for the people who live there, in terms of jobs, education, security and housing.

The sad fate of “persons of immigrant background5

In this very gloomy situation, the fate of people of immigrant background needs to be emphasised, for to us, most of whom are French nationals of foreign origin, the way in which this segment of the French population was perceived and constantly vilified on all kinds of pretexts was intolerable, and deeply opposed to republican principles and ideals of equality, universalism, and humanism. In the first place, and since, in the 1980s, questions of integration and immigration have become mixed up in political discourse, driven by the rise of the Far Right. The banlieues, home to high concentrations of people of immigrant background, have become an object of fear and intense distrust to many among the French population. The great victory of the Far Right, and of the National Front in particular, is to have imposed and validated in public and media discourse the idea that “the problem of immigration” can been conflated with the “problem of integration,” and, by extension, with the “problem of the difficult quarters” where most of the populations concerned live. By the first decade of the 21st Century this confusion had become systemic. It reached its paroxysm in the presidential campaign of 2002, in which the Right made security one of the central issues—in counterpoint, therefore, to the integration of populations of immigrant background. Nicolas Sarkozy, who was then the Interior Minister, was already the politician who most obviously symbolised this determination, imposed by the electoral power of the Far Right, to prioritise themes taken from the National Front in order to maintain or win back the electorate lost to the extreme.6 Secondly, in this general context in which fear and distrust with regard to the disadvantaged neighbourhoods and those who live there are stoked by much of the media—which, to a large extent, have little knowledge of these territories—people of immigrant background are the victims of various forms of stigmatisation and rejection that fuel the machinery of discrimination. We might consider in this regard the negative light in which Islam has been viewed by mainstream public opinion over the last decade,7 encouraged or influenced by a large section of the political class and the elites on the insubstantial basis of micro-phenomena8 that have been blown out of all proportion and have quickly come to be presented as general phenomena in order to distract opinion from the true problems of French society, which they are desperately powerless to change. This sadly rather successful attempt to scapegoat the Muslims of France (or those associated with them), and make them expiatory victims in order to satisfy fantasies and feed the fears of the public, is nothing new. Its history extends from the pharmakoi of ancient Greece to the infinitely more tragic fate of other religious minorities in our history, in particular, of course, the French Jews. This example of negative representation of part of the population, which is only one among many, feeds a discriminatory mechanism that afflicts the same segments of the population twice over: first, in the imagination and in representations (notably in the media), with consequences that are psychological or symbolic (stigmatisation, the revelation of a stigma, that is, a physical or social characteristic constructed, perceived, and articulated in discourse as a handicap or a taint), and, secondly, through discriminatory actions, for example in the field of access to jobs, which, beyond the psychological impact (the feeling of being excluded, marginalised, or ostracised) also has a consequence that is more serious, because it is more material and tangible, namely that of being deprived of a good, a service, or an opportunity. The fact of discrimination in employment means that the victim is refused work, and therefore excluded and left in a precarious state. Finally, the social consequences of racial or religious discrimination reflect the fact that in France, despite the legal arsenal inherent in what is still presented as a republican “model,” cultural differentiation is a factor in social hierarchisation. In other words, in France, despite the “colour-blind” character of our institutions and legal principles (founded on the foremost among these, the principle of equality), cultural, ethnic, or religious difference, once it is constructed and perceived as a stigma, frustrates social trajectories and, as a result of discrimination, but also other less informal but equally formidable mechanisms (such as school orientation), blocks or narrows existing opportunities. It is not “being black” but the fact of being perceived as “a black” that is problematic, as it engenders mechanisms of repulsion, rejection, and ostracism which are manifested notably in racial discrimination, thus leading the victim, who may not have perceived himself as “a black” before that, to become conscious of his cultural difference insofar as this may constitute a handicap. At this point, either he interiorises this and of his own accord drops by the wayside, telling himself that he’s worthless because that is the message society sends him, or he radicalises his identity and puts it in the foreground, trying to make something positive out of that identity9 or turning it into a destructive weapon aimed at society. (Here, to simplify, we can observe the two tendencies of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and ’70s, with on one side the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam (promoters of a radicalised identity in opposition to American society, even to the point of severance from the social body, of secession) and, on the other, the upholders of the non-violent, integrationist approach of the NAACP.

The collective after the urban riots of 2005

For all the above reasons, the violent protest movements that broke out in the French banlieues were highly predictable, and the only ones not to know this were the politicians and public authorities, who had been guilty of decades of blindness and inactivity. The accumulated mistrust, especially among the young inhabitants of these disadvantaged neighbourhoods,10 who were massively impacted by unemployment,11 precariousness, and exclusion, notably at school, was bound to be expressed, as it already had in the past, by an explosion of violence directed against the state, against, that is, those politicians and political actors—or the buildings symbolising them—whom they saw as being part of or responsible for their predicament. All it took was a spark—the death of two young people chased by the police in Clichy-sous-Bois—for a cycle of violence nearly two months in duration to be sparked in many of the French banlieues. While this violence may not have been translated into political terms at the time, it did express the general frustration of that part of the population. As founding members of the collective Qui Fait la France?, we were of course aware of the underlying causes of these protests and this violence. Having experienced them ourselves, we understood their workings and motivations, even if the form of expression did not strike us as the most pertinent or likely to achieve anything. At the same time, in the absence of a political movement capable of carrying these very old claims, which had always been ignored, we thought it inevitable that they would one day take a radical turn. That is why, after the riots of 2005, we preferred to speak of “revolt” since, from our point of view, this term better expresses the legitimacy of a radical reaction to a situation of inequality, injustice, and exclusion that for 25 years had steadily worsened. In short, as artists, authors, and creative workers we could not just sit by and do nothing in the face of a crisis on such a scale. The distance separating the young people in the banlieues from the rest of the population had grown as wide as an ocean and we saw a need to act and to work on our own level in order to make public opinion aware of the magnitude of the social problems and discrimination affecting some five million people in France.12

The collective’s goals

The collective Qui Fait La France?—its name means both “Who Makes France?” and “Who Loves France?”13—wanted to endow our shared indignation and taste for a social and militant literature of reality with a collective meaning. Whether established or novice authors, we also shared a militant sensibility that clamoured for real recognition of the suffering territories and their inhabitants and, more generally, of all those who are without a voice in our country. The coming into existence of our collective was formalised by the publication of a joint text14 and a manifesto15 explaining what we were doing. The objectives that we set ourselves when setting up this collective were to create the intellectual conditions for a total participatory struggle with a view to ending all the above-mentioned scourges: to declare a state of total war against the current elite, be it in politics, the media, or intellectual circles, their consanguinity being a basic postulate here; to use all available means of symbolic violence to fight against the impunity of the media; to work for the systematic narratisation of suffering so that it might serve as a constant spur to our desire for change; and, finally, to give up our struggle only when France becomes the new country that exists within us all. Concomitantly, and in the vein of the cinema movement Dogma 95,16 launched in 1995 by Danish filmmakers, we undertook to inscribe our literature within a performative, denunciatory form of writing, aimed at inflaming and changing the real, in opposition to an egotistical, autofictional style of literature. This, among other reasons that we shall return to later, is why we decided to preface our volume of short stories, illustrating our collective approach, with a manifesto. Wearied and nauseated by the Parisieniste literature that blooms endlessly among the literary cliques in a hothouse of eulogistic articles penned on the principle of I’ll-scratch-your-back-you’ll-scratch-mine, we felt it was urgent to revive another literary tradition that was more realist, that is to say, more grounded in the real, in the territories, evoking the everyday lives and concerns of ordinary people, including, of course, those of the banlieues and, more generally, all the afflicted territories, both rural and urban, which suffer from the same problems of confinement, isolation, and abandon. This was not some concoction of our puerile, uncultivated minds; this was a very French tradition of “realism” that had been the glory of French literature in the 19th Century, with Émile Zola at its head. While this tradition had faded somewhat in the 20th Century, notably after the advent of the nouveau roman, it continued to survive in the work of a good number of French-language authors—that is to say, ones on the margins, like ourselves. It seemed cleared to us—and to others as well—that current French literature owed its vitality in large part to all those foreigners with French culture, the Francophones abroad who were nourishing it with their fiction.17 At our own level, we too were part of that tendency: we were authors from France, French men and women, but we approached literature, writing, and fiction from an outside position, , and therefore with a different point of view. That is what our manifesto meant, and that is what was misunderstood—perhaps because we weren’t clear enough.

How to act?

To do this, we developed a mode of action, in which we would intervene in the media circus in order to reveal its obscenity and sclerosis, its contempt for the people, its deep racism, ignorance, and mendacity. All public spaces were potential fields of expression and revolt. The aim, in concrete terms, was to produce a way of thinking that would go against the grain of dominant discourse (articles, participation in symposia, and radio and television programmes) and to carry out flash actions such as taking over television sets, seizing hold of public speech at all levels, and physically investing the common space with messages and slogans. In order to encourage our fellow citizens to act along these lines, we put together and promoted a booklet of resistance,18 laying out the possibilities for practical engagement. And, to set an example, we put these possibilities into practice. We invaded the set of a popular TV programme,19 we carried out raids applying our “H de la honte” sticker,20 and we delivered ripostes to a number of media, the most emblematic of these being the one addressed to the Nouvel Observateur.21

Supporting peripheral creation

Extending our modes of action and literary ambitions, we formed an association to support and finance projects on behalf of the places and people that are the subjects we feel most strongly and urgently about. The idea was to identify, support, and finance—not least with the royalties generated by the sales of our collective book—projects by people in abandoned, forgotten, and neglected zones, either rural or urban, so as to enable them to pursue their own dreams. The role of the association is not to stand in for the state by meeting the elementary needs of individuals and thus ensuring their dignity. It acts on the margins, by attempting to meet the needs for recognition, expression, and presence in public space, which, to varying degrees, are essential to each person’s sense of fulfilment. This need to speak out successfully and productively is very intense in the neighbourhoods we aimed at, yet it rarely receives attention, support, or consideration. We also wanted to have a general influence on public policies—urban and cultural policy, the state and local authorities—so that they would help finance the association’s projects and also, more generally, help prioritise the flow of public funds to suffering neighbourhoods.

Finally, the aim was to conceive and set up spaces for debate and consciousness-raising (websites, accessible afternoon debates, symposia, workshops in schools and cultural structures, and so on).

On the difficulty of mobilising our fellow citizens

After six years of existence, the results of our actions are mixed. Our hopes, which were certainly ambitious, have met up with realities that we did not foresee, motivated as we were by our initial, sincere desire to give an existence in public space to this lowly part of the population, once feared and now despised by a ferocious, neurotic, and voracious caste of heirs.

While many people supported us and found our manifesto and calls for action meaningful, very few actually took part in the concrete actions which we tried to mobilise. We thought, in our initial enthusiasm, that since the struggle was legitimate and its concerns widely shared, it would be enough for us to create the pretext and the organization in order to make it a reality, and that it would then be able to continue independently without us. But there’s no avoiding the fact that this by itself is not enough, that it is important to act—once the reasons for the struggle have been set out and argued—on a necessary strategy of mobilisation. And putting in process such a strategy implies resources (both material and human) that we did not have, since we were ourselves involved with everyday realities that limited our time, such as family and professional commitments. 

Thus, the actions that we were able to carry out were due exclusively to the founding members of the collective and one or two supporters. The most emblematic of these actions was when we burst onto the set of a popular television show and read out a message of resistance and hope in a verbal intervention lasting six minutes. This action stirred a lot of reactions, mainly supportive ones in the form of hundreds of e-mails sent to our website.

With this action we wanted to give a concrete, committed example of the possibilities of resistance that we had set out in a booklet published on our website. Unfortunately, that example did not lead to similar, independent actions by others, nor did it allow people to implement in a practical manner the possibilities for struggle that we formalised. We also tried to produce, on a regular basis, articles on topical issues that would be meaningful in relation to our struggle, to act alongside adults and young people, notably in schools and in symposia in France and abroad, and on radio and television shows. Finally, we organised a short story competition and organised public debates in conjunction with a suburban association and the rapper Disiz La Peste. While all these initiatives do give us the feeling that we have contributed to the overall discussion, and helped draw attention to the problems about which we feel so strongly, they have not, to our knowledge, given rise to any movements of struggle independent of ourselves.

The basic limitations inherent in our approach

The first limitation is cruel: by trying to produce another kind of literature out of the ghetto where it was confined (and, with it, the subjects and settings that form the backdrops to our stories), have we simply created another ghetto, have we locked ourselves in again, cutting ourselves off from the world? Our desire to assist the emergence of a popular literature from the margins, dealing with authentic social subjects (isolation, violence, unemployment, racism, and drugs, for example, as well as love and friendship) was, in effect, immediately paralleled by an approach that sought to group us together, notably within the Collective, in the hope that we would have more clout and would, together, be able to promote a form of engaged literature that would be attentive to the sufferings of the excluded and capable of making the voice of the “voiceless” and invisible heard well beyond Parisian literary circles. But this approach, organised around the group and the affirmation of a social, cultural, and artistic identity, mechanically introduced the risk that we would be seen as representatives of the banlieue, proponents of a literature of the banlieue, of the housing projects, of the urban world, dependant on that world—meaning, basically, that we would be seen as the proponents of a literature that, because it described and affirmed itself as being “from the margins,” was ontologically on the margins: a marginal literature, therefore, to be relegated to the outskirts of French literature. In other words, a subculture.

Given the weight of the negative representations that are attached to people of immigrant background in France and the ferocious elitism that obtains, especially in the literary circles of the capital, it was fairly obvious that we were going to suffer from a biased perception of what we were doing, of our objectives and motivations. To many observers, our approach was equivalent to political commitment rather than to an artistic, let alone a literary engagement, and our whole conception of a literature of the real, of talking about people’s lives, about the ghetto, of using their language, was akin to the manifestation of an urban “subculture,” a product of the banlieue, and therefore an object to be set alongside other products of urban culture such as rap, hip-hop, slam, street art, etc. For the apparatchiks of the Parisian journalistic and literary milieu, our texts, especially when coupled with an assertive and rather radical manifesto, constituted, in a sense, a kind of literary form that was seen as a perversion of “classical” stylistic canons and forms of expression. The rhythms of our sentences, the themes of our stories, the use of spoken language, the language of the street and verlan22 in the dialogues was, for them, an unbearable assault on a certain idea of literature.

It is not a peremptory generalisation to write that, for historical and political reasons, everything that comes out of the banlieue23 these days is seen as dangerous, threatening, and potentially destabilising for national unity and collective identity, especially when it comes from young people or, to use the standard euphemism, “youth from the quartiers.” The anathema hanging over this marginal territory is compounded by generational mistrust. All artistic forms rooted in these sulphurous territories induce a twofold response: on the one hand they are seen as potentially destabilizing; on the other, they never quite correspond to the established standard and tradition—or to what is given that name. In other words, “banlieue art,” “urban” art, “street art”—whatever you want to call it—is expected to be less good, a little bit inferior, or, in that falsely kind and paternalist tone that our elites so often take, not bad, on the right track, lacking just that little something that would make it acceptable, help it to cross the border separating the rank depths of subculture from the bright airy spaces of Culture.

Another important limitation which may explain why we were misunderstood24 by some has to do with the political, or rather engaged quality that we tried to give to our approach by means of our prefatory manifesto, which, in its tone and rhythm, appeared vindictive, injunctive, and rather radical. Some people criticised us for introducing such a dimension into a collection of short stories: for them, “that” was totally out of place. Never mind that France could claim to have invented engaged literature and engaged writers. Never mind that the form of the manifesto could even be regarded as a sub-genre, or rather, a literary “inter-genre.” Never mind that in other times, in the era of the Oulipo or well before, the manifesto still possessed a certain legitimacy on the literary continent. For us, artists from the disadvantaged territories, with our mixed cultures, it seemed essential to say out loud, in a separate text, why we had decided to work together and create a collective: to do what, and on what basis? But also because, as citizens, artists, and writers, we considered that in a country like France, which for over a century now has accorded such a position to the grand idea of the “intellectual”—of the person who, to quote Sartre’s definition, “meddles in what is not his business”—it was our duty and our responsibility to take position on subjects that we felt were important: deepening inequality, the development of fractures and divisions in our country, the potency of discrimination, racism, and violence… As writers, we tell stories, we imagine personae, we invent characters, but everything we create is created out of raw material: reality, the very reality that we find unbearable and that we want, in our stories, to convey in all its cruelty. And that is also what our manifesto says: our inability to remain indifferent and our resolute intention, using the weapons we have, which are those of writing and literature, to contribute to change, to have an impact, even a very modest one, on the course of events.

What prospects?

After these six years of existence, we have decided to match our ambitions to our resources. From now on, or at least for as long as we have the right means, we have decided to focus on two aspects: the literature of the real and the organisation of debates.

We have defined our priority as developing our literature further, literature in the Stendhalian tradition, the tradition of the real, the literature that speaks of individual suffering, that gives visibility to the oppressed and does justice, at least symbolically, to thwarted and burdened lives.

We are thus putting the finishing touches to our second collective work, which can be read for free on our website. A third work, the final phase in our process of collective writing, is currently in progress. Taking the form of a novel, it will open out onto the world and introduce characters who are dealing with contexts and situations of oppression. As in the Arab Spring, it will evoke revolt, like a breath of freedom and final rampart against alienation.

We are also planning to organise debates bringing together different disciplines (philosophers, historians, engaged singers, ethnologists, etc.) that may help understand the real, and give meaning to the struggle that is required.

 

1. Although the standard translation of the French word banlieue is “suburb,” it is widely agreed that this English word fails to convey the more ghetto-like, housing-project connotations of the French term, especially in this context. I have therefore retained the term banlieue. –TRANS.

2. The event that triggered these riots was the deaths of Zied Benna (age 17) and Bouna Traoré (15) in Clichy-sous-Bois on October 17, 2005 while the pair were fleeing a police patrol.

3. The idea of the “quartier sensible” refers to the term “zones urbaines sensibles” used in urban policy after 1996 to designate struggling infra-urban areas to which special resources would be allocated.

4. Notably in the early 1980s, starting in the Minguettes housing project at Vénissieux in the suburbs of Lyon, and then in the early 1990s at Vaulx-en-Velin, again in the Lyon area, provoked by police blunders.

5. This is a translation of “issu(e) de l’immigration,” the term used in France to designate people living in France who may or may not have French nationality and whose foreign origins go back one or several generations.

6. In June 2005, Nicolas Sarkozy, then Minister of the Interior, promised to “clean the banlieues with a Kärcher” (an industrial water-hose cleaner).

7. There are many reasons for this: an ancestral fear of Islam, the Iranian revolution of 1979, 9/11, the Algerian civil war, etc.

8. Like the affair of the niqab, the complete veil worn by no more than roughly 1,500 women in France, which became the subject of a true politico-media feeding frenzy drawing on fears of rampant Islamism and led to a ban on wearing it.

9. As in the popular American slogan from the 1960s, “Black is Beautiful.”

10. Where the proportion is as high as 40% or even 50%. In 2005, Clichy-Monfermeil, where the riots started in 2005, youngsters aged under 20 made up 41% of the population.

11. Also in Clichy-Monfermeil, unemployment among 15-24 year-old was 37%. In the La Madeleine neighbourhood of Evreux (Normandy), the number of employed rose by 42.2% between 1990 and 1999.

12. The population of the “sensitive urban neighbourhoods” is calculated at 4.4 million. To their number must be added those individuals of immigrant background who don’t live in the ZUS but who are subject to racial and religious discrimination.

13. “Kiffer” (pronounced the same as “Qui Fait”) is a slang verb derived from the Arabic “kif” and meaning “to really like.”

14. Chroniques d’une société annoncée, 2007, Editions Stock.

15.  http://www.quifaitlafrance.com/content/view/45/59/.

16. Dogma95 was launched in 1995 by Danish filmmakers led by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. Its aim, among other things, was to return to a more expressive and more original formal sobriety better able to express contemporary issues. Free of aesthetic ambition and in direct contact with reality, the style of the films produced by this movement was lively, nervy, brutal, and realistic.

17. See in this respect the “Manifeste pour une littérature-monde en français” written and published in 2007, or, around the same time, Donald Morrison’s analysis in Time of “The Death of French Culture.”

18. “Democratic Panthers, possibilités d’un engagement concret, démocratique, efficace et joyeux.” http://www.quifaitlafrance.com/content/view/116/65/

19. Call made on the programme “T’empêche tout le monde de dormir,” le 15/04/2008. http://www.quifaitlafrance.com/content/view/91/61/

20. “H de la honte” (= S for Shame) sticker, used as a riposte to media obscenity: http://www.quifaitlafrance.com/content/view/96/65/

21. Reply to the Nouvel Observateur http://www.quifaitlafrance.com/content/view/43/55/

22. Verlan is a form of French slang, which originated in the banlieues, based on the inversion of syllables in a word, the word verlan itself being l’envers–other way round–in reverse–TRANS.

23. Etymologically, the word means “lieu du ban,” the place of the ban, marking the point beyond which the feudal lord could no longer recruit serfs to wage war: in other words, an ancient psychological and geographical frontier marking the limit between the centre and its periphery, the margins.

24. The publication of our collection Chroniques d’une société annoncée was greeted by a number of articles that took a contemptuous, even sarcastic tone, as if the fact of attaching a manifesto stating our conception of a more realist form of engaged literature to a set of works of fiction automatically reduced the weight of our narratives.