A Second Letter from Paris

If we summarize an epoch by its paradoxes, ours is that what we call “our way of life” also coincides with a dynamic of assured self-destruction. By accepting the rules of life today, one withers away, accompanied by a quite unprecedented feeling of solitude. Nevertheless, the current global sequence
attests to the multiplication of attempts at shattering this paradox.

Liaisons, “In the Name of the People”
Dear Liaisons,

On December 8th, 2018, Paris was saved from the flames! It only took about ten tanks, 9,000 cops, 1,000 arrests, and a maximum use of the police arsenal—hundreds were wounded—as well as a few allusions to the possibility of death in the newspapers. A simple comparison demonstrates the scale of these efforts: in 2016, during the last great social movement—which took place over a period of four months—there were around 1,800 arrests and 228 people registered as wounded.

At the national scale, between 80,000 and 90,000 police were mobilized each Saturday in December. But this was still completely insufficient. Cities like Toulouse, Marseille, Nantes, Bordeaux, Saint-Etienne, or even Dijon were totally laid to waste, sometimes twice in a row. With Paris safe and sound, however, what happened to France? For the leaders, if Paris triumphs, the rest will follow. Power thinks of its law enforcement in the same way that Clausewitz thought of war: it consists of a duel in which one side triumphs, annihilating the other’s force. They think that if they maneuver, shoot, disarm, arrest and imprison, that if they wound and sometimes kill—all done so well that the whole affair is finally over—then the Gilets Jaunes (“Yellow Vests”) won’t want to come back to Paris anymore. They won’t even want to ransack the provincial towns that have been abandoned in order to save Paris. Hooray!—what a horrible optical effect.

While testimonies of an unprecedented repression flourished on the internet, the government let out a sigh. The revolution is not for today. I must confess, friends—this sigh is my greatest sadness. I remember the eve of Act IV, which took place the 8th of December. While news of the probability of death was repeated on a loop throughout shops and retail stores, on blogs and in newspapers, my stomach was in knots and a lump was stuck in my throat. It was one of those days when predictions seem impossible. I know that this feeling was lodged in every heart, even those of the police. It also haunted the ministers of the government, who, prepared for the worst, were so scared that they released videos calling on young people not to protest. Since the 5th of December, high schoolers started forming blockades, and then were subject to a fierce repression. In less than two days, more than five of them had lost an eye from the shots of rubber bullets, and more than ten were severely injured. A video that went viral on the evening of December 6th offers an example of these brutal acts. It shows a hundred high schoolers from the town of Mantes-la-Jolie. They had been arrested and made to line up outside in rows, on their knees, with their faces turned toward a wall. In the video, a voice says, “now this is a class that knows how to keep quiet.” The next day, in an apparent state of complete senility, the government released a video in which the Minister of Education made an appeal for “calm and dialogue,” invoking everyone’s respect and urging high schoolers and other students not to protest on December 8th. Since then, the image of these high schoolers—humiliated, on their knees—has become a symbol for all the Gilets Jaunes. In every town, one finds groups imitating their actions in confrontations with the police.

At the same time, as in every asymmetric duel, the police won the battle of the 8th of December. Since this victory, the chic neighborhoods of the beaux quartiers of Paris have been nursed back to health, while more and more Gilets Jaunes languish in prison. Despite all this, I’m not fooled by the mirage. I know the story isn’t finished. And it’s not ready to end amidst the meager crumbs that Macron has so chaotically dispersed. Since Act V, the 15th of December, the movement’s focal point has been displaced from Paris. The journalists have discovered that there isn’t a commune in France without its own Gilet Jaunes. In the days following Act V, more than ten toll booths burned and the occupied roundabouts didn’t give in to the policed night. Some re-occupy the roundabouts the day after an eviction, other towns burn in the hands of their occupants, and everyone passes along the following message: they can pierce the flesh of an enemy who has been provoked in a duel, but they can’t win against a climat (atmosphere). What I mean is that when a revolt reaches a certain point of diffuse generalization, it becomes much more like an element. It becomes like water, like fire, or like a hurricane.

Everywhere, the Gilets Jaunes gather to figure out how to continue without Paris. Maybe it’s the beginning of a victory. A time to stop worrying about good old Paris and to accept and assume the diffuse, geographical character of the movement. I realize that by writing “geographical,” I commit an abuse of language, but I have no better way to put it. Any revolt obviously situates itself. With the Gilets Jaunes, however, the spatial character of the struggle is central. The roundabout—a French specialty—demonstrates this well: it is a pure space of distributed flows, far from the sites of classical politics. There are no mayors, no assemblies, no unions or parties, not even parks or squares. The roundabouts where makeshift shacks and fire pits spring up are primarily empty, smooth spaces of connection and distribution. The etymology of rond (round) offers a few clues. Rond comes from roont, “of a circular form.” It evokes the whole, the simple, and the indivisible, but also the action of “faire la ronde” (an expression which can mean to patrol or remain vigilant, as in “making the rounds,” but also to dance). It is related to the Old French word roon, derived from roion, which means “region.” In effect, the prerogative of the Gilets Jaunes is to organize themselves where they live, at the regional level, and not in terms of a precise political identity. It is thus no coincidence that, in a given region, the roundabout is precisely the minimal unit of connection. If the roundabouts and squares of large cities are unoccupied, it’s because they are charged with a different history, of which Nuit Debout1 was the last emanation. On the contrary, the roundabouts on the periphery of (and sometimes within) smaller towns and villages seem devoid of any political history.

1. Nuit Debout (Up all Night) was born in March of 2016 in opposition to the El Khomri law, which was devised as a form of austerity to alter France’s labor laws. Much like other protests in the global movement of the squares, it partially involved a series of nightly assemblies, whose tireless attempts at convening a new political subject and even drafting a new constitution finally ended in exhaustion.

In classical theater, the Fifth Act always entails a tragic or comic conclusion. When it comes to the theatricality of Parisian insurrection, it would be in good form to say that Act V followed the tangent of a drama whose end resulted in the elimination of its protagonists. In truth, the only ending was Macron’s comic “Address to the Nation,” made in the wake of Act V, in which the truth of the fraud he represents was obvious to everyone. He promised to raise the minimum wage by 100 euros, before retracting this offer, and then announcing it again. Meanwhile, it was revealed that these 100 euros would actually only be a raise of 40 euros, while the rest would come from funds already set aside to “compensate” the state of extreme precarity in which the neoliberal reforms have thrown everyone.
Friends —it is a good thing that I hadn’t yet sent this letter. As the Gilets Jaunes prepared for Act VI, I had left things in a state of suspense because, confiding in the force of the climat, I hoped to conclude here with the story of a victory. Our intuitions have not failed us. What happened on the 22nd of December, the day of Act VI? While power celebrated an alleged phantom-like decline in mobilization, the storm struck again. A protest planned at Versailles was taken very seriously by the police, who barricaded this ancient symbol of the French monarchy, vigilantly ready and waiting. What a farce! Everyone knew instinctually that Versailles was a set-up. The real meeting point, on the morning of the same day, was in Montmartres. We discovered that there were more than five hundred of us heading toward the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. The police were understaffed, as power had mobilized half as many as the week before. Of this half, most were at Versailles. And so, we rushed into the still-mourning beaux quartiers. At times, the head of the march would inflate, and our stream would become a flood. We maneuvered and improvised so well that, for six hours, we continually short-circuited the police’s efforts to catch us. What a joy it was, I must tell you, when—in the middle of the Avenue de l’Opéra—I realized that there were more than ten thousand of us, moving in such an intelligent and strategic way. Like a needle through a thread, and thanks to a mistake of the police, which managed to cut the march in half—turning it into two unpredictable trajectories—thousands of Gilet Jaunes flooded the Champs-Élysées under the weary eyes of tourists. The police had no other choice—they had to withdraw and abandon France’s most beautiful avenue in the face of such great numbers, then, as the second march managed to join the first on the avenue, return with force. At this point, the onlookers witnessed an improbable scene. On the Champs-Élysées, two days before Christmas, two water cannons began to hose down the street as the noise of rubber bullets and grenades and a cloud of gas filled the air. The scene lasted several hours. It seemed impossible to empty the street without indistinctly hitting tourists, onlookers, Gilets Jaunes, and circumstantial sympathizers. Later, BFMTV, the most widespread and hated media outlet, announced without shame that there were only a few hundred of us on the Champs-Élysées. Castaner, the Minister of the Interior, followed up by publishing a video in which he affirmed that there were only 2,000 Gilets Jaunes in Paris and 40,000 in all of France. Once again, in a complete divorce from reality, they triumphantly announced that the movement is running out of breath. The reality is that we’ve never seen 2,000 people able to hold the police in check. Moreover, the account from Paris seems to be shared across France: similar events took place in Toulouse, Marseille, Nancy, Bordeaux, Dijon, Lyon, Nîmes, Carcassonne, Perpignan, Nevers, Rouen, Saint-Etienne, without counting the blockades of highways, warehouses, refineries, tollbooths, and roundabouts. All accounts point to a mobilization on the rise.

Power now hangs by the thread of its police. For their part, the police know this perfectly well, and, in the past, have even taken advantage of it for their own gain. As today the surpassing of classical institutions already presents itself as a general phenomenon, the institution of the police is affected as well. Already in 2016, the “angry cops” movement had launched several wild “autonomist” police protests, whose results appeared to be fruitful. In less than two weeks, agreements were reached and the movement was pacified. On the 19th of December, a hundred police on the Champs-Élysées and a few blockades of police stations would have been enough to win a raise of 150 euros. In what was called “Act I of the Blue Siren Lights,” the ease with which the police obtained these advances is barely stomached by most of the Gilets Jaunes, who in the thousands are arrested, wounded, and sometimes killed. Let’s remember: since the beginning of the movement there have officially been ten deaths, two of which happened in direct association with the non-lethal use of arms.

The year 2019 seems unpredictable. There are more than 38 actions planned for the months to come. A year ago, one can read in the first issue of Liaisons:

In a certain way, the task consists of recognizing the failure of politics as we have always known it, even the politics we have loved. But an admission of failure is not an admission of impotentiality. Power designates that which has not yet come to light, and is up to us to bring into being.

What is presently brought into being, the power that it frees, makes the whole world tremble. For the first time in a long time, a revolt grows in power without corresponding to any of the political attributes that so comfort us. From rupture to rupture, the future becomes more and more unpredictable. It seems just as unlikely that the movement will lose as it is that Macron will resign. It is not the insurrection that many love to dream about, it is not an act of sedition, it is not the seizure of a territory. It is something else. Some new thing whose word hasn’t been invented yet. In vain I search for a word, an idea, a phrase, or a rhyme that in language could restore the present situation’s strange power and lack of horizon. More than a century ago, in the wake of the Paris Commune, Victor Hugo applauded the French people for their fabulous horizon:

What people! What vision! A combustion so sinister
Of all darkness past—priest, altar, king, minister
In a blaze of belief, of life and of reason
An immense glow takes form upon the horizon

What, from all that glows in this movement, could free itself from our time? We have the habit of saying that when the sun sets on our world, it arises over another. But what could be said of such an age as our own, a time so marked by twilight? Ernst Jünger had the habit of saying that the pains of birth and agony are the same, and that “the vanquished earth gives us stars.”

Could new stars be delivered out of this chaos? I wouldn’t dare know how to respond.