The Suburb as Frontier

Just back from a trip to France, where this quote in a book on the history of Libé struck me:

Le Tiers-Monde commence en banlieue!

The Third World begins in the suburbs, in other words. This was 1972 or thereabouts, and it was a slogan of the very far Left.

Curiously, the same notion is still with us, but with the opposite end of the political spectrum…or perhaps this metaphor is unhelpful. Spectrum implies variance around a central value, along a single axis. It’s now the far-Right outside France, and its pals in the traditional French Right, who see the third world at the gates of Paris. The French extreme-left doesn’t seem to care very much any more, and the French extreme Right’s position is even stranger.

Back in the day, the growing concrete world of HLMs and sweeping flyovers across the Ile de France was the new frontier for the Communist Party. As the workers moved from the stinking slums of Paris’s railway districts out to enjoy their acquis social, so the Party would go with them. (Hence the towns where you can stage a demo between the rue Stalingrad and the hall Youri-Gagarine.) Moving out to the suburbs was moving towards the future, and if it should be a multicultural one united by class consciousness, so much the better.

Later, of course, it turned out more than a little tougher. As in most other places, just being a good trade unionist didn’t stop you being a racist. There were the betrayals of 1956 and 1968 and the internal crises that followed. Eventually, the roaring full-employment years came to an end too. But before then, the New Left had already found a new frontier in the suburbs – addressing the new proletariat, and the new concerns, whilst also getting around the Stalinist old farts at PCF headquarters and the ugly sense that a lot of proletarians didn’t agree with you. If you were a Maoist, the idea of surrounding the city from the countryside had an obvious attraction, not to mention the advantages of going to the revolution on the RER rather than the next flight to the Congo.

Later yet, with 80s structural unemployment, hand-wringing liberals and social democrats found it the moment to write a ton of reports on how to save the suburbs. It will be noted that, so far, the people who lived there are invisible. Very true. It ‘s in the nature of the frontier that there is never anyone there but the pioneer and the bad guys (Stalinists, pieds-noirs, cops, etc).

The latest take on this was the rise-without-trace of Nicolas Sarkozy, who made the suburbs briefly the new frontier for the Right. Having noticed them, he offered to hose the lot down, and here encountered another feature of the frontier – if you turn up waving your guns around, you’ll usually find a fight. Gunfighters were a vanishingly tiny feature of the U.S. West, compared to farmers, ranchers, sheep herders, railroaders, cavalrymen, cops, and Indians, or to put it another way, “people who did something useful”. More recent scholarship has tended to show many of the most famous bloodbaths as unnecessary, plain evil, or most often, the result of mutual stupidity.

In the general scapegoat hunt post-Iraq, though, plenty of right-wing people all over the world were willing to buy in – just as plenty of young idiots were willing to join the posse and run that city slicker out of town. This suited Sarko. Like all Ministers of the Interior, his core product is control, and the best marketing strategy for that stuff is fear. Unfortunately, he tends to evoke that in a lot of people, and a lot of people tend to evoke it in him.

Hence, last week, the mighty Kärcher called off a visit to La Croix-Rousse, in the heart of Lyon, for fear of left-wing demonstrators summoned by an instant messaging and SMS network. Itself a manifestation of another wave of suburban pioneers, the post-2005 volley of .orgs broadly supporting the Left and their voter registration campaigns. He did, however, manage to speak near the Pont Alexandre III in Paris – hardly the towers of La Courneuve – under guard by over a hundred cops of various kinds. A similar force as John McCain took for a stroll in Baghdad.

Which brings me to my final point. The latest pioneers on the suburban frontier are the Front National, of all people. While Sarko was struggling to manoeuvre around his own security, Jean-Marie Le Pen staged a string of appearances around the northwestern expressways, including one on the access deck at Argenteuil, where once Sarko wielded his metaphorical hose. Le Pen, despite his history, his ravings about making a “pure-blooded Frenchman” president, and essentially everything he has ever stood for, coped with a couple of cops and a squadron of journalists.

This points up the absurdity of Sarko’s monster guard force. But it also points up the weird way Le Pen is trying to win votes on the suburban frontier. Said the Black Panthers, “We want access to the American Dream.” And strangely, this is the substance of his address to the ‘burbs. He speaks of the equality of all citizens in the Republic, state secularism, and the need to create jobs by kicking foreigners out of them. Ironically, it’s just the stuff that was churned out about laicité, Theo van Gogh, and the rest in such great quantity back in 2004 – but this time, it’s directed at angry young blacks as well as angry old whites.

It’s surely a strange election. The PCF is nonpresent, its leader not even using the word “communist”. The far-left is almost exclusively a bourgeois taste. The Gaullist right has vanished. The “droite classique” has swung across behind it, from its right to a position overlapping the Socialists. The Greens have split three ways along the lines Charlie Stross predicted, between Luddites and techno-ecologists, but that’s not all. The Viridian Greens are well catered for by Dominique Strauss-Kahn within the PS, the fundamentalists by José Bové, but there is still a rump for the ex-minister Dominique Voynet.

And there’s the world’s most useless candidate, one of three Trotskyists, Gérard Schivardi. Polling around 0.5%, he has refused to suggest who his voters should support in the second round, and improved on that by promising to spoil his own ballot. Fortunately for democracy, he’s been so ineffectual that even France Decides 2007 got his name wrong, with a week to go…