L’autonomie s’organise

by Valerio Starita

A note on the text[1]: The piece that follows was originally given as a talk at the event ‘L’autonomie sorganise(autonomy gets organised) organised by Penser l’émancipation at the Bourse du travail in Saint- Denis, France, 2 March 2017. Other speakers were Morgane Merteuil, Toni Negri and Jean-Marc Rouillan. It addresses a context of creeping authoritarianism in French politics, as seen in two recent episodes. The first is the French governments response to the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. Following the attacks, the government declared a state of emergency giving extraordinary powers to search and detain people without judicial warrant. The state of emergency has been extended repeatedly since its declaration and at the time of writing is set to last until November 2017, making it the countrys longest continuous state of emergency since the Algerian War in the 1960s. Although the state of emergency has only had a limited effect on improving security, it has predictably led to widespread civil rights violations, notably in the suburban periphery, where Frances racially and economically marginalised population is concentrated.

The second episode is the introduction by the French Socialist government of a proposed revision of worker-friendly labour laws in February 2016, which provoked a massive protest movement that lasted most of the year. For months, French workers, students, and youth participated in a series of demonstrations, strikes, and occupations of public spaces to protest against the Socialist government. The government proposal, known as the El Khomri Law(named for the Socialist Labour Minister) or simple the Labour Law, was designed to relax Frances labour laws by making it easier for employers to reduce pay, negotiate holidays and leaves, and lay workers off. Public opposition to the law was such that the government was forced to resort to a rarely-invoked constitutional article allowing it to effectively bypass parliamentary debate. The law took effect in August 2016.

The French ‘antifa’ movement has been especially well-placed to resist this authoritarian turn. Though anti-fascism in France had historically been associated with the Popular Front and its nationally-tinged left-republican discourse, it has in recent decades become primarily associated with left-libertarian currents. The antifa movements resolute autonomy from established political parties and frameworks has allowed it to become a convincing voice of protest at a time when many have felt betrayed or disappointed by the traditional organs of the left. Moreover, the movement has also been one of the few on the French left to take anti-racism seriously, such that it has been better able than the republican discourse of the mainstream French left to speak to a political conjuncture saliently marked by racial domination.

 

 

When I speak this evening of autonomy getting organised, I am also drawing an assessment of the movement against the ‘Labour Law’, its precedents and its perspectives. Obviously, what I am offering here is a situated and inevitably partial reading of the movement. What I am going to try and present here is a point of view on this movement that comes from a particular space, namely that of autonomous anti-fascism in the Paris region.

In sum, we might say that the movement last year was a movement in revolt against precarity, a movement which was crystallised by the Labour Law, and which was quickly redoubled by a wide movement in revolt against police repression, owing to the particular context it had to face – namely, the state of emergency. This was the context in which we saw autonomous contingents forming on the protests, bringing together as many as several thousand people. What was this? As we remember, these contingents were precisely the space where all those who wanted to demonstrate ‘autonomously’ came together. They were autonomous not as an ideology or as an old revolutionary current, but rather in the sense of a stance toward the traditional organisations of the more or less radical Left who generally bracket the mobilisations by youth and the world of labour. They were autonomous also in relation to what we are accustomed to doing in the social movements. This was essential given the new context that we had to face. The struggle was unprecedented in both its longevity and its intensity. It represented a continuous series of breaks out of the existing frameworks, and of renewals of our forms of struggle, amidst a context of heavy repression. And one thing that surprised a lot of people – something which the media had a great difficulty of difficulty in masking – is that within the movement there was a mass refusal of the logics that try and dissociate the ‘good’ demonstrators from the ‘casseurs[2]. Given that the protagonists of the ‘cortège de tête[3] could hardly be reduced to the traditional figures of France’s radical Left, some sought references outside of that space. And a lot of them turned to the experience of the autonomous struggles of the nineteen seventies to nineteen eighties.[4]

What I want to emphasise this evening, from my own perspective, is the following: since this social explosion, the repression has sought to designate a series of groups and milieux supposedly responsible for the ‘excesses’. We find prominent among these what the media and the police designate as the ‘anti- fascists’. This is a great classic narrative. But I am not going to dwell on the absurdity of the categorisations and discourses of the media and the police, which claim to flush out the small ringleader groups behind mass actions which are in fact largely spontaneous, and whose forms and degrees of proneness to conflict are largely determined by police repression.

But while today the repression targets militants or groups identified with the antifa movement, this is because the so-called ‘cortège de tête’ is not, in fact, a social explosion that comes from nowhere. It also results from the encounter between different collective paths of resistance, some of which have been forged in the struggles of the Paris-region youth over recent years.

If today autonomous anti-fascism is on the stand of the accused, this is because in recent years we have seen ways of organising and living the city collectively develop in the Paris region, behind – or around – this label: a style, an aesthetic, slogans that we did indeed find within the cortège de tête, among other places. This antifa geneaology of the cortège de tête is obviously not the genealogy of the cortège de tête, but it does correspond to one of the collective journeys that have criss-crossed one another, borne some influence and been transcended within the so-called cortège de tête.

For the purposes of being a little clearer with regard to what I am talking about when I speak of the antifa militant journey that preceded the movement against the Labour Law, I am going to list some of the sequences that I consider important.

– One foundational sequence took place in the late 2000s and early 2010s. This was the war of the Parisian terraces at the Parc des Princes[5], which opposed a terrace of white and nationalist ultras to a terrace that defined itself as ‘cosmopolitan and proud’[6]. The radicalisation – around the question of racism – of part of the youth animating these terraces developed in parallel to a repressive policy implemented by the Paris Saint-Germain club’s management, which resulted in the dissolution of all the ultra groups and their being banned from the stadium. This was in the same context that we saw – in both central streets and on the margins of militant assembles – the increasing appearance not only of people linked to the Boulogne terrace – which has always had links with far-right militancy – but also people coming from the Virage Auteuil, on the anti-fascist side. This phenomenon significantly renewed the Paris anti-fascist movement by developing an aesthetic and ways of taking the streets that we would later also discover in the cortège de tête.

– Subsequently, another foundational moment was the death of Clément Méric, and the mobilisations that followed[7]. This personal and collective trauma, which I will not dwell on here, was combined with the need to embrace a national-level political identity, faced with an unprecedented wave of calumnies for which the antifa movement – which had been rather accustomed to countercultural forms of self-identification – was not prepared. Faced with this, we had to try and re-establish the truth, to state that Clément was killed because he was an anti-fascist, and to continue to animate and renew the struggles that were his struggles, in full autonomy, in the present and the future. It was in this context that the Italian slogan ‘siamo tutti antifascisti’ (‘we are all anti-fascist’) spread in France. It was widely adopted in the mobilisation against the Labour Law and police violence.

– In 2014 the new generation of autonomous anti-fascists enthusiastically participated in the demonstrations for Gaza.[8] These protests gave rise to an irruption of the banlieues into Paris, with massive contingents without either party or organisational flags. A large part of the traditional autonomous or gauchiste milieux looked on at this mobilisation warily and rather faint- heartedly. Yet for our generation these demonstrations constituted a foundational moment, a (rarely mentioned) anticipation of the characteristic traits of recent struggles: banned demonstrations, wildcat assemblies, self-defence faced with Zionist far-Right groups’ attacks and media-police repression.

– Lastly, over recent years this generation has asserted the need not to limit the anti-fascist struggle to the fight against the militant far Right, but to fight the institutional dynamics that feed it. That means the idea – widely shared among this new generation of anti-fascists – that the proliferation of imperialist wars, the securitarian crushing of the working-class [populaire] neighbourhoods, Islamophobia, and the hunt against migrants are just so many laboratories for the coming fascism, and that we must build an anti-fascism that is up to the challenges of the period we are living through, and which bases itself on the resistance that is developing in these domains. This autonomous approach to anti-fascism has led this generation of militants to get involved in struggles against the pursuit of migrants. To make a link with the movement last year, it is worth noting that the practice of blockades and autonomous lycée student demos was renewed in the Paris region precisely in the context of the lycée students’ mobilisations against the expulsion of undocumented students[9]. These struggles were decisive to the birth of the cortège de tête. Following various waves of terrorist attacks these last few years, this autonomous approach also inspired the Paris antifa movement in mobilising against Islamophobia and the state of emergency as we rejected the logics of ‘national unity’ against terrorism. The rallies against Islamophobia and the first wildcat demos and banquets against the state of emergency, preceding the movement against the Labour Law, can in hindsight be seen as signs that heralded the movement that would then take place in 2016.

 

 

This collective trajectory allows us to see last spring’s mobilisation in its proper perspective. From this point of view, the cortège de tête is not so much a thunderbolt in a cloudless sky as the fruit of a longer process. For a section of the participants, the schools of the terraces, of antifa demonstrations and the protests for Gaza, of the struggles against the pursuit of migrants, against police violence and against the logics of national unity against terrorism, forged militant trajectories that have, among others, allowed us to find the paths of a conflictual youth mobilisation in the time of the State of Emergency. This involvement in certain episodes of this collective militant journey, preceding the Labour Law and extending far beyond the anti-fascist groups, is precisely the involvement which those today labelled, persecuted, arrested and imprisoned as anti- fascists are today reproached for.

This was an important path to journey, because since the beginning of the movement the degree of repression left no space for a classic mobilisation of the youth against precarity: the lecture- theatre occupations were immediately cleared out, and the lycée students’ blockades and demonstrations were attacked by the police. The resistance that the lycée students of the working-class neighbourhoods of East Paris put up against the police violence against the blockades, especially around the Lycée Bergson, truly launched a dynamic of self-defence faced with the repression coming down on the cortège de tête. This was profoundly different from the 2010 movement in defence of pensions. In that period there were riots by lycée students from working-class suburbs in Nanterre and Lyon, which took place in the context of the social movement, on the lycée blockades and at rallies. But at that moment the more traditional militants of the social movement showed their complete indifference with regard to the repression that came down on young people, since these episodes were widely considered foreign to the movement.

Conversely, in the first weeks of the 2016 movement, the few representatives of the lycée students’ unions who sought to dissociate themselves from the clashes were immediately pushed aside by the great mass of participants, who took the side of practices of self-defence against police violence. Starting from there, there was a whole heterogeneous world, which came to demonstrate – conscious of their cause – in the autonomous contingents. This took place amidst a context in which the level of proneness to conflict had considerably increased. In the second half of the movement, the lycée students from the quartiers were as if drowned out in what then became a ‘cortège de tête’, but their presence was nonetheless fundamental, for the role it had played as a spark. What path had we trekked in these six years, from 2010 to 2016? How did we pass from the social movement’s almost unanimous attitude of dissociating itself from conflictual practices, to a relatively widespread support for these same practices?

In fact, what happened last year was nothing other than an adaptation of the social movement to a level of conflict, of clashes, which was nothing exceptional, or was even marginal to the time and the world we live in. After all, between 2005 and 2016, during a period in which the generation today descending into the streets grew up, how many ‘classic’ social movements in France around the world, how many oppositional movements, have been marked by clashes with the police? What the upholders of order call a ‘riot’ is now the most present practice of struggle at the global scale. It is a globalised form of action, perhaps even more so than the square occupation. From the streets of Cairo to the streets of Athens, Dakar, Port-au-Prince, Rio de Janeiro, Tottenham, and Villier-le-Bel, it is through the practices of autonomous self-defence against precarity and police repression that we find acts in common. It was when the first night-time wildcat protests were organised at Nuit debout that we were first able to compare it to the other square occupation movements.

The globalisation of the confrontation with the police is no chance outcome. And nor did the repression of the movement last spring fall from the sky. We have often said that in France police violence, house arrest, and mass persecution were all applied and experimented on Muslims and the residents of working-class neighbourhoods before they concerned demonstrators and striking workers. The fact that the resumption of conflict and mobilisations against police repression began over the last few weeks precisely in those territories which are day by day affected by this violence, like Persan-Beaumont or Aulnay or Bobigny[10], reminds us that police violence today constitutes an unavoidable focus of social resistance. Beyond France, these methods of managing populations take root in a globalised logic. And there are vitally important militant investigations into the way in which states and big companies – especially French ones – export their techniques and their technologies for managing subversive populations, in the context of a great world market of war and security – a market unaffected by the crisis.

In France, migrants, the descendants of immigrants and the inhabitants of working-class neighbourhoods remain the most affected by this global logic of counterinsurgency. We should struggle to imagine a consequential movement over these questions that did not first of all articulate itself around these populations. Recently, we saw the police firing live bullets in Aulnay, in the wake of the rape of Théo[11]. And we have also recorded the presence of snipers in confronting urban revolts. The movement against the Labour Law was not confronted by this degree of repression – all the better for this movement – but faced with the increase in police violence in the context of the demonstrations, we did see a ‘democratisation’ of conflictual practices, which appear less and less marginal. De-arrest practices are a response by groups of civilians on the marches. Reinforced placards and banners are a response to the generalisation of Flash-Balls and the shooting of tear gas and Sting Balls. As well as tear gas, the practices of identifying people seen on demos and placing them under house arrest have gradually imposed the dress code of hoods and masks on a whole series of protesters not accustomed or predisposed to such measures.

Another great novelty of last year’s movement was that the trade-union movement was itself hit full-on by this rising authoritarianism. There was a whole series of episodes, notably May Day, during which police kettling practices encouraged fraternisation between part of the union contingents and the cortège de tête. And we remember the media-police polemics over the ‘thug unionists’ and the ‘casseurs of the CGT’. Despite everything, despite the problems with the leaderships of the big union confederations and their stewards, it is still worth recognising the fact that after the initial impulse given by the lycée students from the working- class districts, the fact that the cortège de tête could exist in the longer term and gain strength also owed to the both internal and external support from the radicalised union grassroots. This was also true in the opposite direction: the most combative fringes of the unions, which themselves had to confront an ever stronger repression against strike movements, were driven to embrace increasingly combative practices and accept the possibility of external support in certain strategically important blockades, like the oil refinery blockades that were broken up by the CRS[12] in May[13]. In the last instance, we think that what gave the movement its strength and longevity can perhaps be summarised by this: an encounter between unionists newly confronted with brutal repression, lycée students from working-class neighbourhoods who are used to this repression, and an autonomous movement being totally recomposed.

Our generation of militants has gone through these years of mounting racism and authoritarianism, and has taken the city as its site of contestation. The question today is, on what basis can we recompose an antagonistic movement, beyond the response to repression? If there is any concept from the organised autonomy of the nineteen seventies to eighties that I think chimes with the new forms of mobilisation we have witnessed in the Paris region and beyond in recent years, it is the concept of the social factory, applied to the capitalist metropolis. It chimes with the identities of resistance that we increasingly see developing, which consist of positively defining ourselves simply in relation to a city, a neighbourhood, a territory of action, rather than in relation to an ideological current. But today in the Paris region – as the recent mobilisations for Adama and Théo have reminded us[14] – this perspective of struggle and self-defence on a territorial basis is unthinkable if we overlook the divide between centre and periphery, which is in large part a racial divide. If we want to consider the conflictual practices of autonomous blockades and contingents as something that aims to construct a social strike of the metropolis, if we think that the goal for militants in the Paris region, beyond resistance to repression, must be to allow striking workers and urban precarians to set the ordinary functioning of the capitalist metropolis in crisis, then that demands that we reflect on the class and racial composition of the social proletariat that must mobilise and make its presence felt in these days of action.

The protagonists of the social strike are often held to be young precarians. But the definitions of the ‘young precarian’ suggest a rather heterogeneous grouping, and indeed a rather disembodied one. Yet in urban areas we see that popular political capacities are above all concentrated in those neighbourhoods that are rendered peripheral, and in the exchanges that maintain the articulation between centre and periphery. Today, in the Parisian metropolis, the social strike must above all break apart the established relations between centre and periphery. Beyond the riot, it must work on the forms of action and resistance that deconstruct the racist and endocolonial zoning of the Paris metropolis: from strikes on the RER B[15] or among Uber drivers to the creation of local committees of struggle against police violence in segregated neighbourhoods, and the participation of these neighbourhoods’ residents in city- centre demonstrations.

To conclude, we can say that no, there has not yet been a ‘merger’ between the autonomous movements of the city centre and the autonomous resistances developing day-to-day in the racially- dominated neighbourhoods of the Paris region. Struggles against precarity and the repression of recent months nonetheless allow us to begin to set the bearings of a movement to come. This movement will be stronger than the metropolis, and will discover how to conjugate the big ‘appointments’ of city-centre demonstrations with the encirclement of the centre by counter-powers constructed in the everyday life of the territories that have been rendered peripheral. It is in the context of building these days of action and everyday territorial resistance, through practical experimentation rather than big theoretical debates, that the question of the forms of convergence between neighbourhood struggles and other paths of struggle must continue to be posed.

[1] Introductory note by Mathieu Desan, who edited the french text prior to translation. All footnotes are his. The piece was translated into English by David Broder.

[2]Casseurs’ is a pejorative term often used to discredit protestors who engage in property destruction and other forms of militant confrontation during demonstrations.

[3]Cortège de tête’ can roughly be translated as ‘lead contingent’. In French demonstrations, there is usually a spatial separation between radical youth willing to engage in militant confrontations with the police, and the main institutional organisers (i.e. unions and political parties), with the latter typically eager to impose order on the demonstration. The mobilisations sparked by the ‘Labor Law’ were novel in that the autonomous youth elements put themselves at the head of the demonstrations, forming its lead contingent.

[4] The cycle of struggles largely inspired by the Italian Autonomia Operaia seeking to build a workers’ movement that was autonomous from capitalism and the state, as well as from traditional workers’ parties and unions.

[5] The home stadium for the Paris Saint-Germain football club.

[6] Paris Saint-Germain’s fan culture is notoriously divided between right- and left-wing ultras who occupy opposite ends of the stadium.

[7] Méric was an anti-fascist activist who was killed by far-right skinheads on 5 June 2013.

[8] The protests against the 2014 Israeli ground invasion of Gaza were in some cases held in breach of a government ban prohibiting such demonstrations, leading to clashes with the police.

[9] Hundreds of French high schoolers have in recent years barricaded their schools to protest against the expulsion of undocumented classmates and their families, most notably in the case of Leonarda Dibrani, a Roma girl whose detention on a school field trip in October 2013 and subsequent deportation to Kosovo became a political scandal for the Socialist government.

[10] Parisian suburbs with a high concentration of economically and racially marginalised youth, and sites of recent unrest and police violence.

[11] Théo, a twenty-two-year-old black man, was beaten and raped by police on 2 February 2017 during an identity check in the Paris suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois.

[12] An arm of the French National Police specializing in riot control.

[13] In May 2016, riot police forcibly broke up picket lines set up by workers blocking access to oil refineries.

[14] Adama Traoré was a twenty-four-year-old black man whose suspicious death in police custody in July 2016 has led to well-founded accusations of a police cover-up.

[15] A commuter rail line linking Paris with some of its most marginalised suburbs.

This article was first published in Salvage #5: Contractions, in October 2017.

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