'It’s not just a social movement': An Interview with Alain Bertho

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This article was originally published on Mediapart. It has been translated from French by David Fernbach.

Joseph Confavreux: How do you read what happened in Paris on Saturday, 1st December?

Alain Bertho: My reading of it is rather classic, in the light of what I have been observing for more than ten years now. Violence against property, even people, emerges when there are things that people want to say and can no longer say, not because they don’t have the words, but because they don’t have people to talk to.

JC: The forms of action demonstrate this absence. In Paris, it is obvious that there were demonstrators who had previous experience of violence, whether on the far right or what is sometimes referred to as the ‘black bloc’.

AB: These people were present, but that does not explain everything, because they were not rejected by the rest of the demonstrators. The first court appearances in the immediate aftermath show that many ordinary people were caught with a paving stone or a weapon that they intended to use. Those who engaged in confrontation with the police as a strategy opened a breach that many people plunged into, crossing the line.

JC: I have always been struck, when observing situations of confrontation, by what happens in minds and bodies when people decide that a step like this is necessary in order to deliver a message. I have seen many people forget the possible consequences of their actions. There is a lot of talk about violence against the police, but we should not neglect the violence involved in endangering oneself.

AB: What happened last Saturday was therefore not peripheral and not simply the work of more or less professional vandals. This is all the more significant in a situation where the authorities have pushed their disdain for intermediate bodies to the limit and blocked the channels of communication and interlocution.

JC: Are we entering a new phase of the ‘time of riots’, to use the title of your 2009 book?

AB: The time is continuing, but this is a new phase. What previously characterized recent riots, whether in France in 2005, Greece in 2008, London in 2011 or Baltimore in 2014, with the exception of the Arab spring, was that the participants did not expect to obtain satisfaction, they even believed they were certain to lose. A few years ago, in Thiaroye, Senegal, I saw young people take extreme risks against special forces against whom they had no chance.

JC: This is not the case today. The clashes we have seen are the result of a mobilization that believes it can obtain satisfaction and sees the government faltering. They are part of a strategy. So this seems completely new to me.

AB: There was a misdiagnosis at the beginning. This is not just a ‘social movement’, an expression that is part of a certain vision inherited from the last century, where a convergence of demands makes possible a steady widening in scope, then a programme with the possibility of winning elections.

JC: Here, the demonstrators are not bothered about an electoral platform, and would see elections as a way of delaying the response. It is therefore not a social movement, but a directly political movement.

AB: People have spent hours together blocking traffic, talking with each other. They have built a common narrative that combines two things: the question of inequalities and the responsibility of the state for these; and a lack of trust in any form of delegation or representation. Neither on the part of the government nor on the part of the demonstrators themselves.

JC: We are witnessing in France the implementation of an idea that emerged in Tahrir Square and Syntagma Square, in Puerta del Sol and Occupy Wall Street, which consists in building a common narrative without delegation or spokespersons. We have here a new type of political movement that is rooted in the crisis of representation and parliamentarianism.

AB: What similarities and differences can we observe with the 2005 riots?

JC: There was a debate at that time as to whether these riots were a political, proto-political, or apolitical movement. The answer I received from those who had burned cars at the time stuck in my mind: ‘No, it’s not political, but we wanted to say something to the state.’ How can it be put more clearly that, in their view, party and parliamentary politics are useless for saying something to the state?

AB: The 2018 movement also proclaims its independence from parties, but it does say something about how to govern the state, which was not present in 2005. It is not just about being heard, but about what politics should be.

JC: Should we distinguish between riots with looting and riots without looting?

AB: It is certainly necessary to pay attention to rioting as a particular form of action. Until the early 2010s, I did not see any looting. In Saint-Denis in 2005, I personally observed a scene where the windows of the shopping centre were all broken one by one, with the exception of the cinema, but nothing was stolen.

JC: Outbreaks of looting date from to the British riots of 2011 and have spread only since then. The growing problem of inequalities, putting even survival in question, cannot be unrelated to this. In this respect, the riots in the West are in line with what we already familiar with, in Latin America in particular.

AB: Are there any national specificities of the riots?

JC: France is fitting into a pattern that is already familiar elsewhere, in a particularly visible way because concentrated in the fashionable districts of Paris. During the London riots of 2011, the Guardian published a very interesting map showing that the clashes had taken place in the border areas between rich and poor districts. Here, they have taken place at the heart of the most favoured districts.

AB: Riots are linked to global phenomena, but are expressed locally in a specific national history, woven by forms of repression, the action of law enforcement agencies, the weight of corruption or democratic traditions. In Africa or Latin America, we see riots directly against corruption, which is not an issue in France. The subjectivity of rioters varies according to the history of nation-states.

JC: How do you understand that a relatively unprecedented level of violence has not aroused greater outrage, and support for the gilets jaunes does not seem to be flagging?

AB: The expressions of violence suggest that we are at a moment of rapid transformation in people’s minds. Trying to delegitimize a movement by depicting violence is a double-edged sword. If the anger is too strong, this can be counterproductive, as the anger spreads and is shared.

JC: We are at a tipping point. If even the ‘war scenes’ have not reduced support for the gilets jaunes in French public opinion, that means something. For me, the situation is worrying, as it seems hard to find forms of intercession between the people and the authorities that are different from a devalued parliamentarianism.

AB: Is what happened in Le Puy-en-Velay[1]the result of the same logic as what happened in Paris?

JC: It’s part of the same movement. Just as there are national riot cultures, so there are local ones. And since there are fewer big banks and luxury stores here than in the western districts of Paris, the target becomes the representation of the state, i.e. the prefecture, which is rather more accessible than the Elysée...

AB: How do periods of rioting end?

JC: Most riots, when they have no strategy behind them, end unexpectedly. This was true in 2005. The riots ended on 17 November, even though the declaration of a state of emergency had not changed anything. After three weeks of riots in Greece in December 2008, these also ended suddenly.

AB: When there is nothing to negotiate, there comes a time when the course of life resumes, even if there is still anger, contention and resentment, which may reappear later, perhaps in unexpected political and electoral forms.

JC: It seems to me that connections can be made between the election of Bolsonaro in Brazil, and the sometimes violent demonstrations that had taken place around the World Cup, the Olympics, and the allocation of public funds. And in France, the fact that the rioters of 2005 obtained no response may have led some of them to embark on jihad.

AB: The gilets jaunes have not obtained any real concessions with the moratorium on taxes. But if these taxes are abandoned for 2019, the gilets jaunes will have had confirmation that the government is afraid of them.

JC: This lesson has been heard by others, particularly in the secondary-school movement which is always ready to follow in the wake of broader mobilizations, as in 2006 or 2010. It is a movement that can quickly flare up, given that it is tougher now than in 2006, and young people are confronting their future as well as the state.

[1] [On Saturday, 1 December, the gilets jaunes set fire to the prefecture at Le Puy-en-Velay, the department of Haute-Loire.]

Alain Bertho is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Paris 8, and director of the Maison des Sciences de l’homme at Paris Nord. He has devoted a large part of his work to urban riots, in France and abroad, seeking to understand the globalization of this vocabulary of protest and identify its national or local forms. His books on these subjects include The Age of Violence:The Crisis of Political Action and the End of Utopia (Verso, 2018) and Le Temps des émeutes (Bayard, 2009). Here he surveys the latest forms taken by the gilets jaunes movement.