Unstable Elements

Jean, Julie, and someone else E. knows, a professor, are firm: ‘There were only students;’ there were only ‘ordinary working people;’ they did not see any of the ‘elements’ the police describe. I tell E. what I saw. What H. T. saw. My medical student neighbor is just as firm: After half past ten, the fighting was in the hands of the ‘gladiators.’ He describes exactly what I saw on the quais on Friday afternoon—the helmets, the gloves. Student who belongs to central committee of the students’ union, the U.N.E.F., says, ‘We were overrun by the boys from the suburbs. All we can try to do now is calmer la folie.’

—Mavis Gallant, diary entry, May 28, 1968


Not long after the protests against the CPE began, a couple of friends and I were walking up the Boulevard Saint Michel to the Champo, a revival house around the corner from the Sorbonne, when we passed a young man who was walking down the hill in tight zig-zags, crying and dabbing his eyes with a handkerchief. When we faced forward again, we noticed that the air up ahead was splotchy and green, thick with lingering tear gas.

We passed an idling crowd of about three hundred protesters, who were jawing at a small,unflinching formation of CRS (the anti-riot police force, who in their uniform and general mien bear an uncanny resemblance to Robocop). Whatever had happened, we seemed to have missed it; the crowd was petering out. Soon we joined a small group of mostly older cinephiles who, paying only cursory attention to the kids and the cops in the middle of the street, had gathered in front of the theater for a screening of Round Midnight. The film’s director, Bertrand Tavernier, was scheduled to give a talk.

Then something strange happened: The crowd that had just been halfheartedly baiting the CRS suddenly, and for no discernible reason, split into two opposing camps on either side of the Boulevard Saint Michel. A young man lit a flare and, weaving in and out of his group of forty troops, waved the red light through the hazy green air. In the café across the street, the wide-open faces of tourists were pressed against the window. A couple of them were taking pictures with their digital cameras; the waiter locked the door. That’s when the two camps started hurling rocks and bottles and unopened soda cans at each other.

At the edge of the crowd, we saw a girl in workman’s gloves—presumably one of the combatants—get felled by a bottle to the head. Two young men stepped out of the crowd, as one steps down from a raised stage, and crouched to tend to her. My friends and I were worried, but the girl was still conscious—her injury seemed to be minor. One of the young men looked up at a strangely patient plainclothes policemen standing next to us—I’m assuming, as they did, that he was a policeman because he had a walkie-talkie in his hand—and said “Elle est blessé.” She’s hurt. The young man’s eyes were squinched in confusion, and the last syllable was inflected up. It was almost as if he were asking a question.

“Who are these guys?” I asked another bystander, after we had taken a hurried ten steps back on rue Champollion. The man nodded coolly at a hopping mad kid in a green army jacket, half of whose face was hidden behind a red bandanna. “L’extreme droite,” he said. As I’d later find out, the white, right-wing casseurs tend to appear at the butt-end of a manif, often (though not always, as on the night we saw them) after the cops and most of the press have gone home. Wielding bats and bottles and sticks, their primary aim is to beat up the last, straggling remains of an anti-CPE march.

By this time, most of the other filmgoers had started to head inside, not—to judge by their weirdly impassive expressions—because they were concerned for their safety, but for the surreally simple reason that the film was about to begin. Even the director Tavernier, in his floppy brown Provencal troubadour hat, looked at most bemused by what was going on as he and his small entourage casually entered the theater.

I looked at one of my mystified American friends. “Should we head inside?” He was philosophical. “I don’t know.”

I turned to the other. “Should we?” “Uhhh … maybe.”

But none of us had moved. It still seemed as if something compelling was about to happen. The scuffle had lasted less than twenty minutes. A couple of people sustained minor injuries, but that’s all it was in the end—a scuffle. It came to an abrupt stop when the right-wingers, pushed back by the plexiglass shields of the CRS, turned about face on Rue des Ecoles and walked away in the other direction.

This happened in the last week of February, when mostly everyone was still playing—and judging—by the old rules. The noxious presence of casseurs is itself nothing new in France. In a country ruled by an entrenched elite—where dissent is registered not through one’s representative in the senate, but on the street—there is bound to be a fringe element that doesn’t respect the time-honored rituals and State-sanctioned rules of the carefully stage-managed protest. (Within constitutional law circles, a common way of referring to the Fifth Republic is the “monarchie republicaine“; regardless of its pretensions to democracy, this is still very much a top-down system.) The appearance of casseurs at a nominally peaceful demonstration has even come to be expected, and more or less successfully contained and manipulated by interested parties to various ends. The street-fight we saw was typical: ominous flares; plenty of chest-beating; robotic war cries; and breathless charges into the middle of the boulevard that always seemed to be abandoned just before the moment of impact—all of them gestures that never seemed to reach their full, dramatic completion. And maybe this is what the other moviegoers knew all along. Why should they stick around for the unsatisfying theater of a routine Paris street-fight, when a film justly famous for its elegant improvisations was awaiting them inside?


As the protests gained in number through the rainy weeks of March and early April—and the border between participation and spectatorship became increasingly blurry—the rules did change, slightly. The anti-CPE marchers (particularly students) were still the most vulnerable, popular targets of the casseurs. But by the third week of March, the public’s perception of their assailants would all but exclude the kinds of kids we’d seen only a month before.

Around the end of March, hoping to provoke a debate, I asked my first-year students at Sciences-Po, some of whom had been protesting against the CPE, “Who are the casseurs?” The question gave way to silence and a smattering of uncomfortable giggles. For the first time this semester, I found myself trying to pry answers out of students who, hyper educated and eager to impress, normally fall all over each other to speak. Ultimately, they were more than willing to talk about the casseurs‘ actions—they’ll beat you up, they’ll steal your phone—but they were oddly tentative or relativistic to the point of meaninglessness when I tried to steer the discussion to who will beat you up, who will steal your phone.

What had been a colorless discussion ended in fireworks when Najmeddine—a third-generation French of Algerian descent who takes the RER train into Saint-Germain from one of the rougher suburbs of Paris—took his classmates to task. “Listen,” he said, “I’m fed up with this ‘Oh, you can’t say for sure that casseurs are coming from banlieue.’ This ‘you can’t know by the way that they dress. ‘No, I’m fed up with this angelisme.” (By which he meant: self-congratulation for thinking the right thoughts.) “We all know who they are. We’re pretending we don’t but we do. It’s saying: if we don’t see them then it isn’t a problem. Fin, it’s exactly this not seeing that’s the problem! This not looking at who they are and where they come from.”

Given other circumstances, Najmeddine would probably concede that it isn’t exactly true that all the casseurs are coming from the banlieue. Nevertheless, what he said was dead-on, insofar as he had guessed what his classmates were thinking—and why, when they ventured to speak, they were inclined to pussyfoot. In doing so, he diagnosed a deep-seated problem that extends well beyond the walls of my classroom.


It is undeniable that a number of casseurs are white-skinned, live within the city ring-road, and are affiliated with factions of the extreme left or extreme right. Yet it’s typical of the dialogue surrounding the identity of the casseurs that the white kids—be they partisans, or simply out for kicks—are increasingly mentioned, if at all, in a tone of almost eager concession to the old, colorblind categories of aberrant delinquency and political extremism. The now common perception, stated or not, is that the majority of the casseurs are of Arab, Maghrebian, or otherwise African descent, and are coming into Paris from the housing projects in the outlying suburbs. Whether he’s reflecting, reinforcing, or actively promulgating this perception—a line of questioning that goes a long way toward describing the slippery role of Nicolas Sarkozy—it is no coincidence that the center-right Minister of the Interior and presidential hopeful has positioned a number of his police officers on the RER trains coming in from the suburbs to conduct strip searches. Or that lately, Sarkozy never hesitates to warn any reporter in earshot that these protests could provoke a new round of riots like the ones last fall in the banlieues.

One of the ironies to emerge from the days of 2006 is that Sarkozy, abhorred reflexively by the protesters, was acting—albeit only in part—to protect them. But the students decided they needed more protection than Sarkozy could provide—and it wasn’t the police they were worried about.

On March 23, during the protests at Invalides, cops arrested a few hundred people from within the manif, and images of flaming, overturned cars in central Paris made the nightly news. French papers began quoting unnamed intelligence sources to back up a new assertion: increasing numbers of casseurs were coming in from rough neighborhoods (or cités sensibles—a small number of which do lie within the city ring-road). More anti-CPE marchers were beaten up and robbed by casseurs at Invalides than in any of the previous protests, and this prompted a debate among organizers over whether or not to allow more undercover cops into the next processions. As they prepared for the grand manif of March 28 (which ended in a standoff at the Place de la Republique that was finally washed out by water cannons), student leaders called on the security forces of the CGT—the union that has traditionally had the closest links to the PCF, the French Communist Party—to protect their flanks against incursions from casseurs. Brian Rohan, a friend of mine who doggedly reported on the protests for an international press agency, told me what he saw there. According to Brian:

When the head of the manif arrived at Republique, the security force and students were met by maybe two hundred casseurs. Few whites were at the business end of the crowd—full of casseurs de banlieue—so for a moment the whole thing looked like an ethnic clash. CGT security are hardened old communists, tough as nails like old teamsters, but tired. Now what they do is they whip out these old-style billy clubs—you know, mattraques—I remember thinking that they looked like flesh-colored rubber dicks—and they charge the kids from the banlieue. But the casseurs beat them back, and you know what they started saying? This was great. They chanted, “CGT, collabo!”

When the grizzled old communists are accused of collaborating with the implicitly fascist CRS not by the student protesters, but by a group of kids who—as the name that’s been given them suggests—take common cause in breaking shit, it is time to admit that the dynamics of the French street protest have changed considerably since 1968.

On May 24, 1968, a group of protesters set fire to the Paris stock exchange, drawing the ire of the Minister of the Interior, Christian Fouchet. Kristin Ross, the author of May ’68 and its Afterlives, quotes Fouchet as condemning “that pègre that crawls up out of the lower depths of Paris and that is truly enraged, that hides behind the students and fights with murderous madness. … I ask that Paris ‘vomit up’ the pègre that dishonors it.” L’Humanité, the Communist Party newspaper, also deployed the term: “All night long in various districts in Paris one finds dubious riff-raff [racaille], that organized ‘pègre‘ whose presence contaminates those who accept them and, even more, those who solicit them.” Ross then points out how this term—commonly used to refer to organized crime elements, but whose meaning in this context is more inclusive, along the lines of the “dangerous classes”—was taken up by workers and intellectuals:

Censier chose to respond immediately with a tract embracing the epithet […]: “If those in power consider those who were on the barricades with the students to be ‘la pègre,’ then we workers, employees, factory workers, and unemployed, we are ‘la pègre.’” Around the same time, another Action Committee, one that included Marguerite Duras, Maurice Blanchot, and Dionys Mascolo, wrote a similar tract: “We who have participated in the actions attributed to a so-called ‘la pègre,’ we affirm that we are all rioters, we are all ‘la pègre.’”

It is not surprising that Fouchet should have tried to drive a wedge between the students and the pernicious, lower-class elements in the mass movement. And though it may seem counterintuitive, L’Humanité was also adhering to tradition when it joined Fouchet in condemning a group that had targeted such an unmistakable symbol of capitalism as the Paris stock exchange. In fact, the Communist Party paper was merely affirming an old distinction between the “laboring classes” and the “dangerous classes.” The leadership of unions like the CGT—the same union which, 38 years later, would provide the anti-CPE students with a dildo-waving security detail—couldn’t distance themselves fast enough from a marginalized rabble that was commonly perceived to come from the slums.

But it was finally not la pègre so much as the middle-class protesters who embraced them—particularly the students who la pègre “hides behind”—whose messages and methods the unions most needed to counteract. The Party faithful had no truck with the politically amorphous—albeit anti-Soviet-bourgeois students (les fils à papa,as they sneeringly dubbed them) whose posters, chants, and manifestoes portended a larger “social revolution” that sought to dismantle the very distinctions between, say, the “laboring classes” and the “dangerous classes,”by which not only the State but the Communist Party consolidate their power. How to convey the threat posed by a haut bourgeois who would willingly identify himself with la pègre? Put it this way: let’s say a bum walks up to a velvet rope and gets rejected because the bouncer says, “You’re a bum,” and the next person in line—um, Lindsay Lohan—refuses to enter the club on the basis that she, too, is a “bum”: wouldn’t that diminish the bouncer’s power significantly? It would, at the least, put him in a very precarious position.


These days, it is much harder to find such gestures of solidarity among the students. Isabelle Rampa, a spokeswoman for the National Coordination of Students, in an interview with the Paris Times, an upstart English-language monthly, attributes the actions of the casseurs to

the government’s violence first and foremost. It’s social violence that triggers what we’ve seen in the suburbs last fall. It’s not accurate to dissociate the students from the casseurs. People say rioters have no political motivation, but it’s not always true. This rage has a meaning politically. The students are weary and the rioters are violent, but we are all fed up with this society.

When asked what she thinks about the fact that the rioters have targeted the students, Rampa responds:

It’s regrettable, but it’s also understandable. They consider the students bourgeois. We students want to fight side by side with them, because in the end, we are fighting against the same thing. We just voted to use a banner in the next demonstration that reads: “We are all casseurs.”

Rampa may seem somewhat naïve (“So you’re saying you want to fight alongside the guy who beat you up and took your wallet?!”), but I can’t help but find her comments encouraging. At least she is willing to confront the source of the problem,however sketchily—to look at “who they are and where they come from,” rather than dismiss the kids coming in from the banlieues as so many barbarians, exemplars of a causeless violence that need only be met with tougher border control. I’ve heard of similarly inclusive gestures here and there—a group of university presidents, citing reasons similar to Rampa’s,recently petitioned the government to grant amnesty to the kids who were arrested in connection with the riots last fall—but they’re contradicted by almost everything else I’ve seen and read in the last two months.

Thinking that I might have missed something, I showed the interview to my friend Brian, who attended most of the protests, and asked him if he’d ever seen a banner, a placard, even a sticker bearing the slogan Stampa mentions. “Nope.” He shook his head and pushed the paper back to my end of the table.

What about a chant? “No, no. Definitely not.”


The banner that Rampa wanted to use is not entirely her creation; it substitutes casseurs for another epithet in a phrase that many of today’s anti-CPE marchers would readily recognize.

On March 22, 1968,a group of students at Nanterre—a drab, concrete campus in a drab suburb of Paris—laid siege to the university’s administrative building. This was not the first timea group of students at Nanterre had taken a building by force: some of the boys involved in the March 22 Movement had recently taken it upon themselves to make the girls’ living quarters coeducational. (The rector of Nanterre—in a preview of the same incendiary error that the rector of the Sorbonne would make six weeks later—promptly called in the police to forcefully remove the boys.) But the dorm-storming did not (or not only) result from boredom and horniness—it was one episode in a larger revolt that had been brewing at Nanterre for some time.

Not all the students shared the same grievances. A small but active number of them were driven by the new gauchisme: the anti-imperialist, “Third Worldist” left whose adherents absorbed the writings of Fanon and Mao, and glorified the images of peasant freedom-fighters coming out of Vietnam,China, and Cuba. Most of the students,however, were driven less (if at all) by ideology than a desire to radically reform their university. After four years in existence, Nanterre was severely overcrowded and under-resourced. Like the division of boys from girls in separate dormitories,these problems were often viewed in terms of a general French atmosphere of official repression. The great, if fleeting, success of the March 22 Movement was that it unified the two strains—the ideological and the social—in a splashy act that, in retrospect, provided a foretaste not only of the days of May, but also of the now long-running dispute about what those days really meant.

One of the more charismatic leaders to emerge from the March 22 Movement was a brash and articulate redheaded sociology student named Daniel Cohn-Bendit. A German Jewby birth, he was one of the more divisive figures to take part in the events of May. He was a fertile source of rumors, fear, and conjecture. Many xenophobes and antisemites, Vichyites and staunch Gaullists projected their paranoid suspicions of the real cause of the events of May ’68 onto “Danny the Red.”(One idea floating around had him on the payroll of the Israeli government—presumably, Israel was exacting its revenge for de Gaulle’s sympathy for the Palestinians in the Six-Day War.) For some French Jews who feared a reprisal, the faster Cohn-Bendit went away, the better. The government tagged him as an “undesirable alien,” and on May 22, Cohn-Bendit was finally arrested and deported to Germany. But the students didn’t wipe their hands clean of Cohn-Bendit. Rather, as the attacks on the student leader increased—and especially after his deportation—a chant was often heard on the lips of student marchers: “Nous sommes tous de juifs allemands.” We are all German Jews.


Cohn-Bendit has long since disavowed the anarchism of his youth, and today he’s the co-president of the Greens in the European parliament. Yet even now, 38 years later, whenever French students take to the streets, his opinion still makes for a nice sidebar. In a recent interview with Le Monde 2 (the newspaper’s magazine supplement), he says

It is impossible to compare the two periods. The social movement of May was offensive and ideologically explosive. Today’s movement is exempt from ideology—which isn’t a bad thing—and it is, above all else, defensive. . . . We were struggling against institutions with the idea of deconstructing Gaullism and communism. Another society was possible, we thought. Forty years later, those landmarks have disappeared. Today, the youth is scared, contrary to our generation.

To judge solely on the basis of their tactical ingenuity, it isn’t wholly just of Cohn-Bendit to characterize today’s youth as “scared.” In the third week of February, students at lycées and universities throughout France started blockading their schools in protest of de Villepin’s new labor contract. On February 21,students at the Censier campus of the Sorbonne Nouvelle (where I teach in addition to Sciences Po) held a general assembly in the first-floor auditorium,where they voted—pretty much unanimously—in favor of blockage. They subsequently took possession of the building, barricading nearly all the entrances with chairs and desks and posting groups of guitar-strumming,cookie-eating sentinels at each barricade. It happened fast. One day I was playing “Call My Bluff” with my second-years, the next I was being stopped at a checkpoint by a narrow-eyed 19-year-old girl with dreadlocks and fumbling in my pockets for my teacher ID. (The teachers were permitted to pass through the checkpoints even before they voted, 61-3, to support the students.) For someone who attended college in the States in the late ’90s—when activism on campus was pretty much confined to the twenty people in the Free Mumia coalition—the swiftness and fearlessness with which the French students mobilized was, on first sight, nothing less than bracing. It wasn’t until I began to attend the somnolent general assemblies that were held each weekday afternoon in the auditorium—where an endless succession of speakers used their allotted three minutes to preach to the converted, and at the end of which the students voted(again, pretty much unanimously) to continue the blockage—that I realized the degree to which their swift actions and tenuous solidarity were founded on a collective fear.


There was only one general assembly at the Sorbonne in May ’68—it spanned the whole month, and was referred to as “the permanent discussion.” The atmosphere encouraged creative solutions and dissenting views, and the ideas, however half-baked, flew. Yet except for the odd debate over whether or not to allow a television news crew to record the proceedings, most of the assemblies of ’06 were pep-less rallies. When, on March 22, a group of anti-CPE students at Cohn-Bendit’s old school, Nanterre, debated whether they should celebrate the anniversary of the event which, according to folklore, triggered the events of May, one student registered his objection:

Our movement is the exact opposite of the one in 1968. Back then, the students were convinced that the future belonged to them and that they had the power to construct a new society and the life of their dreams. Today, our only power lies in our absence of hope! In 1968, their fight was ideological, whereas our fight is social.

It shouldn’t come as a shock that a former radical, now tempered by age, might look back on his revolutionary days and say, “We were bolder then.” But why would today’s students not only accept this, but intensify the terms? “Our only power lies in our absence of hope.” Wouldn’t that comment sound more appropriate on the lips of the Sudanese refugees who, rendered stateless, recently installed themselves in a park in Cairo and refused to budge? The comparison may be extreme, but no more extreme than this French student’s call to arms in the name of utter hopelessness.

Granted, not all the students talk this way. Though they are often portrayed in the press, both here and abroad, as conservative reactionaries motivated by fear—fear of précarité, fear of globalization, fear that the generous benefits which are their birthright as French citizens are at risk—many of them are well aware, more so than they are given credit for, that the system direly needs reform. Over the last two months, I’ve listened to several students whose suggestions for reforming the present employment structure are far more cogent and persuasive than the piecemeal CPE. Yet regardless of how many good ideas may have coursed through their movement, the forum that was created for the purpose of airing those ideas—the general assembly—was, in practice, manifestly inhospitable to them. The fact is, the students didn’t unify behind a shared sense of possibility—they took to the streets saying No. Above all else, their movement was defensive.

According to some of the student leaders, the anti-CPE movement was not (or not only) about the proposed bill, because the bill was not in fact what it proposed to be. “The CPE is not a solution for fighting against youth unemployment,” Bruno Juillard,the 25-year-old president of the national student union, has frequently remarked, “but an attempt to destroy our social rights.” The bill is bad because of its “social” implications. At bottom, isn’t this an argument for maintaining the status quo? But considering the collective inability of the students, the unions, and Sarkozy’s police force to wall themselves in against the rising tide of violence in the surrounding suburbs, the status quo is no longer an option.

There are many reasons why the students didn’t make an effort to incorporate the casseurs into their movement. For one thing, the casseurs don’t have a Juillard. Rampa maybe right, perhaps their rage does have a meaning politically, but until such time as the casseurs seek it out and take to the streets in its name, it will remain a meaning without any political value. It was up to the students to give them some incentive—to create a genuinely inclusive “social” movement; instead they turned their backs on the problems in the banlieues for the sake of a selective unity. Ultimately, the students tended to bemoan the disproportionate number of column inches that the press accorded to the “relatively small” group of casseurs. Although both the left- and right-leaning French press tended to depict the behavior of the casseurs as aberrant—something external to the movement—many of the students felt that excessive coverage of these “éléments” threatened to undermine the actions of the peaceful millions who were taking to the streets. A number of the students who were making this argument came from the same housing projects as the casseurs. (The demographics of the student body have changed considerably in the last forty years, and the unions cannot so easily dismiss them all as “fils de papa.”) A student like Najmeddine has enough problems being thought of as a possible casseur by the ladies who lunch in the area where he goes to school without actively enforcing their perception. But the problem is a shared one. The unemployment rate for all French university graduates is 8%, as compared to 26% for graduates of North African origin. This was good a reason as any to chant “nous sommes tous des racailles de banlieue.”


The students of today seem to have learned a lesson from the soixante-huitards: the social revolution doesn’t amount to much. When asked to compare himself to the former student leader (a request he’s been fielding a lot these past few months), Juillard dismisses Cohn-Bendit as a “romantic.” The students of today would never urge, “Be realistic, ask for the impossible.” By the time that some of them began to suspect that the union leadership might not have their best interests at heart, it was way too late. (When a cameraman arrived at a general assembly on March 28 to do a story on a UNEF member who was handling security at Censier, one student objected to his presence and said, “It isn’t right that we should always hear from the same unions. We’re tired of seeing Juillard.”)Regardless of their misgivings, ultimately they weren’t prepared to alienate the union leadership by embracing the “racailles” as the students did in ’68 when, at the end of May, the CGT (not to mention the tanks surrounding Paris) convinced its members to ditch the nascent social revolution and strike a deal with de Gaulle. This time they wanted a seat at the table.

On May 30, three days after the Grenelle accords were signed, a motley crowd of 300,000, drawn from disparate factions of the middle class, marched up the Champs Elysee, chanting “Cohn-Bendit à Dachau,” “Les ouvriers au boulot,” and “La France aux français.” Ross sums up the message of the march as “Let students study, workers work, teachers teach, and France be French.” Mavis Gallant,who’d attended the march, would write in her diary later that night:

All those young faces. I suppose for the young it had to do with that perfect lucidity I remember at seventeen, seeing (as you never do later) exactly what people are like and deciding to have no part of it. But all it came to finally was strikes, wages, and now elections—the favorite French game. ‘He [de Gaulle] knew what he was doing,’ said G’s tall friend. Hopeless, impossible to describe what took place. Will be classed as ‘collective folly,’ ‘contagious hysteria.’ Can already imagine all the books and articles I shall most certainly not read. What they wanted at the beginning, at the Sorbonne, was pure delirium, and all sorts of cynical people are already delighted it could not have happened.

Perhaps the student leaders of the anti-CPE movement have learned their lesson from the generation of ’68 only too well. If Gallant is right, if all it’s ever going to amount to are strikes, wages, and elections, they might as well be realistic, right? Why ask for the impossible? Skip the delirium and secure a comfy seat at the bargaining table. Ultimately, the movement was an unqualified success: The CPE was withdrawn. It also effectively quelled the ambitions of Prime Minister de Villepin who, a mere three months ago, had a good shot of becoming the next president. Many of the students who could afford it opted to go away for the spring vacation; when they returned from their holiday, they voted to end the blockages. Now it’s time to pony up; class is back in session and Sarkozy is still out there, looking tough. Do the students have any chips to play?