[URBANTH-L] News: The Pyres of Autumn by Jean Baudrillard (on French immigration)

Angela Jancius acjancius at ysu.edu
Mon Apr 24 16:55:08 EDT 2006

The Pyres of Autumn

Jean Baudrillard

New Left Review 37
January-February 2006

Fifteen hundred cars had to burn in a single night and
then, on a descending scale, nine hundred, five
hundred, two hundred, for the daily 'norm' to be
reached again, and people to realize that ninety cars
on average are torched every night in this gentle
France of ours. A sort of eternal flame, like that
under the Arc de Triomphe, burning in honour of the
Unknown Immigrant. Known now, after a lacerating
process of revision--but still in trompe l'oeil.

The French exception is no more, the 'French model'
collapsing before our eyes. But the French can reassure
themselves that it is not just theirs but the whole
Western model which is disintegrating; and not just
under external assault--acts of terrorism, Africans
storming the barbed wire at Melilla--but also from
within. The first conclusion to be drawn from the
autumn riots annuls all pious official homilies. A
society which is itself disintegrating has no chance of
integrating its immigrants, who are at once the
products and savage analysts of its decay. The harsh
reality is that the rest of us, too, are faced with a
crisis of identity and disinheritance; the fissures of
the banlieues are merely symptoms of the dissociation
of a society at odds with itself. As Hele Beji [1] has
remarked, the social question of immigration is only a
starker illustration of the European's exile within his
own society. Europe's citizens are no longer integrated
into 'European'--or 'French'--values, and can only try
to palm them off on others.

'Integration' is the official line. But integration
into what? The sorry spectacle of 'successful'
integration--into a banalized, technized, upholstered
way of life, carefully shielded from self-questioning--
is that of we French ourselves. To talk of 'integration' 
in the name of some indefinable notion of France is 
merely to signal its lack.

It is French--more broadly, European--society which, 
by its very process of socialization, day by day secretes
the relentless discrimination of which immigrants are
the designated victims, though not the only ones. This
is the change on the unequal bargain of 'democracy'.
This society faces a far harder test than any external
threat: that of its own absence, its loss of reality.
Soon it will be defined solely by the foreign bodies
that haunt its periphery: those it has expelled, but
who are now ejecting it from itself. It is their
violent interpellation that reveals what has been
coming apart, and so offers the possibility for
awareness. If French--if European--society were to
succeed in 'integrating' them, it would in its own eyes
cease to exist.

Yet French or European discrimination is only the
micro-model of a worldwide divide which, under the
ironical sign of globalization, is bringing two
irreconcilable universes face to face. The same
analysis can be reprised at global level. International
terrorism is but a symptom of the split personality of
a world power at odds with itself. As to finding a
solution, the same delusion applies at every level,
from the banlieues to the House of Islam: the fantasy
that raising the rest of the world to Western living
standards will settle matters. The fracture is far
deeper than that. Even if the assembled Western powers
really wanted to close it--which there is every reason
to doubt--they could not. The very mechanisms of their
own survival and superiority would prevent them;
mechanisms which, through all the pious talk of
universal values, serve only to reinforce Western power
and so to foment the threat of a coalition of forces
that dream of destroying it.

But France, or Europe, no longer has the initiative. It
no longer controls events, as it did for centuries, but
is at the mercy of a succession of unforeseeable blow-
backs. Those who deplore the ideological bankruptcy of
the West should recall that 'God smiles at those he
sees denouncing evils of which they are the cause'. If
the explosion of the banlieues is thus directly linked
to the world situation, it is also--a fact which is
strangely never discussed--connected to another recent
episode, solicitously occluded and misrepresented in
just the same way: the No in the eu Constitutional
referendum. Those who voted No without really knowing
why--perhaps simply because they did not wish to play
the game into which they had so often been trapped;
because they too refused to be integrated into the
wondrous Yes of a 'ready for occupancy' Europe--their
No was the voice of those jettisoned by the system of
representation: exiles too, like the immigrants
themselves, from the process of socialization. There
was the same recklessness, the same irresponsibility in
the act of scuppering the eu as in the young
immigrants' burning of their own neighbourhoods, their
own schools; like the blacks in Watts and Detroit in
the 1960s. Many now live, culturally and politically,
as immigrants in a country which can no longer offer
them a definition of national belonging. They are
disaffiliated, as Robert Castel [2] has put it.

But it is a short step from disaffiliation to desafi­o--
defiance. All the excluded, the disaffiliated, whether
from the banlieues, immigrants or 'native-born', at one
point or another turn their disaffiliation into
defiance and go onto the offensive. It is their only
way to stop being humiliated, discarded or taken in
hand. In the wake of the November fires, mainstream
political sociology spoke of integration, employment,
security. I am not so sure that the rioters want to be
reintegrated on these lines. Perhaps they consider the
French way of life with the same condescension or
indifference with which it views theirs. Perhaps they
prefer to see cars burning than to dream of one day
driving them. Perhaps their reaction to an over-
calculated solicitude would instinctively be the same
as to exclusion and repression.

The superiority of Western culture is sustained only by
the desire of the rest of the world to join it. When
there is the least sign of refusal, the slightest
ebbing of that desire, the West loses its seductive
appeal in its own eyes. Today it is precisely the
â?~best' it has to offer--cars, schools, shopping
centres--that are torched and ransacked. Even nursery
schools: the very tools through which the car-burners
were to be integrated and mothered. 'Screw your mother'
might be their organizing slogan. And the more there
are attempts to 'mother' them, the more they will. Of
course, nothing will prevent our enlightened
politicians and intellectuals from considering the
autumn riots as minor incidents on the road to a
democratic reconciliation of all cultures. Everything
indicates that on the contrary, they are successive
phases of a revolt whose end is not in sight.

[1] [Tunisian writer, author of L'Imposture culturelle

[2] [Sociologist, author of L'Insecurite sociale

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