While much of the banlieues went up in flames, many sections of so-called ‘civil society’ suddenly ‘discovered’ the deplorable condition in which the sexism present in the banlieue forced the women there to live. Women subjected to every form of brutality and frustration by male banlieuesards in prey to a perpetual testosterone excess, who looked at them the same way they looked at their cars. What emerged again and again was a totally subordinate role held by the women of the banlieue. This rhetoric seemed to convince most people, making it useless even to attempt any empirical approach to the question. An everyday ‘police incident’ witnessed by the present writer seemed at least to crack open a conceptual framework generally regarded as unassailable. Blanc Mesnilin, late November 2005, 4pm. Suddenly a metallic grey BMW of the latest model comes at top speed around what’s not an easy corner. The bend is demanding and the speed of the car doesn’t help, and the driver seems to lose control. The back of the car starts to go into the most classic kind of spin. An accident appears inevitable. Then, with considerable skill and calm, the driver regains control of the car and takes it into a side street. While the noise of the brakes is still in the air, the passenger quickly leaps out and points at the street a large-calibre pistol that looks like a Browning bifilar 9mm parabellum, holding it in both hands. Immediately afterwards the driver gets out and the pair disappear down one of the adjacent streets. A few seconds later three police cars appear, and at the sight of BMW they slam the brakes on. The fastest of the cops jump out while the cars are still moving, pull out their guns and surround the BMW. But it’s no use, there’s no longer anyone inside. Cursing, they run into the surrounding streets in search of the fugitives. But they soon return; the hunt was not successful. All this might seem of little interest, an ordinary storia sbagliata, as [Italian anarchist songwriter Fabrizio] De Andre would have said, but for the quite surprising fact that the fugitives were two veiled women. Two girls who appeared very young, dressed in army boots, sweatshirts and bomber jackets, but with the veil. The veiled fugitives did not seem objectively to have much ‘fundamentalism’ or even much religion about them, and it would be difficult to imagine them as subordinate or submissive to anyone. It is quite evident that, just like other aspects, the ‘female question’ in the banlieue is difficult to approach through the lenses of white power/knowledge; another ‘tool-box’ is needed.
In reality, women played a role in the events of the ‘French autumn’ which was anything but secondary. In any case, anyone with the least knowledge of social and economic life in the banlieue is aware that women’s influence in the concrete organisation of everyday life is strategic. Certainly it is a role that has little or nothing to do with the debates that enthral legitimate society and women’s studies departments. ‘Female representation quotas and equal opportunities’ do not mean much to the women of the banlieues, and their ‘elective affinities’ share very little with the theoretical reflections of Judith Revel; rather, they have many things in common with the practices of Assata Shakur, and it is for this reason that an investigation ‘on the road’ [in English in the original] is of interest here. The observations and reflections of the women of the banlieues give a view of the ‘black areas’ in France which is far from that which the media, the political establishment and much of the intelligensia have accustomed us to. Not only has the entire movement of the banlieuesards shown itself to be much less non-political than legitimate society portrays it as being, but the women, or a substantial number of them, seem far from embodying and accepting the role of grim subordination to male power. Rather, in certain ways, it seems to be they who have grasped lucidly the heart of the contradiction, identifying the central elements of the problem in the transformations of the capitalist organisation of labour and the return of a colonial-style power relation. But the women, or at least some of them, seem also to have had an important role in the ‘military aspect’, a fact which in terms of the widely-accepted rhetoric regarding women in the banlieue seems incredible to say the least. An exhaustive account of all this is given by Z., a young black French woman living in the Argenteuil banlieue, who has worked in depth in this area. It is in this context that the ‘female question’ imposes itself. As a woman, Z. often had to confront leaders and bosses who opposed her precisely because of her sex. This fact should not be underestimated, and should certainly not be relegated to a secondary level as a minor problem. In reality the relation to the ‘female question’ is decisive for any movement that seeks to abolish the present state of things, because all the essential problems of the conception of power revolve around it. Failure to acknowledge the authority of a revolutionary leader because she is a woman amounts to internalisation of the same fascist mentality of the cop who comes into the banlieue expecting to be in charge because he is white and French, as if this made him ‘naturally’ destined to dominate. This logic is no different at all from that in which the male ‘naturally’ dominates the female.
It is of some significance that in this particular case Z. imposed her authority not so much by emphasising being a woman, but through her ‘overall political and military leadership’, thereby not only imposing formal gender equality (although this should not be underestimated), but posing the ‘female question’ as wholly internal to that of the emancipation of the subaltern social classes. She did not claim the abstract right of a woman, but the concrete right of a woman ‘military leader’ to exercise the most serious and delicate functions of political direction. Thus, as Z. describes in detail, she was able undermine in front of their own groups some of the little leaders and bosses who opposed her, so that they had to accept the situation or remain at the margins of events. This aspect shows how the ‘question of power’ can never be regarded as resolved once and for all: it requires continuous attention, as no-one is immune from the logic of domination. Remaining faithful to the role she took on and is likely to go on holding, Z. confronted the problems she had to deal with, starting from the political-military framework in which she operated, taking care never to lose sight of the complexity of the situation in which she found herself acting.
[…] At the same time things need explaining a bit, otherwise you end up with a very falsified idea of this reality. We had to organise the guerrilla action on two fronts, one external, the other internal. I think this is something that always happens. In some ways the internal front was almost more important than the other. The cops have to get information of a certain precision in order to hit us, but that’s not all. In quite a few cases they also needed the way cleared for them. For example, having access to people who would spread disinformation could be fundamental for them, because it makes you move in exactly the direction they want. At the same time, receiving information on where you intend to strike, or how you intend to reach a target, attack it and set it off, this is essential information for them. Another important thing is getting information on our levels of internal organisation. Finally, having to move across practically endless territory like ours, it becomes decisive to discover and identify our refuges and logistical structures. This work can only be done through a good network of spies and informers within our territory. Then, although this came later, we had to deal with some attempts by the fascists to build their own guerrilla groups for counter-insurgency within the banlieue. As far as we were able to discern, this was an unofficial initiative. [translator’s note: un’iniziativa più ufficiosa che ufficiale: without formal sanction, but with tacit institutional support] It started spontaneously among some extreme right elements within the police, which the official powers pretended to be unaware of. If it worked, good; otherwise it had nothing to do with the institutions. Either the classic dirty operations were successful, or no-one knew anything about them. But as I said, this happened at a second stage, and perhaps was also the lesser problem. The real problem was how to neutralise the network of spies and informers which, as is perhaps easy to guess, was absolutely not, shall we say, a technical matter […]. Yes, I think the way you put the question was right: to deal with this kind of a network it was necessary to set up a structure capable of making a series of moves. But perhaps it’s better to give some examples than to approach the question so abstractly.
The first thing to do was to make available to everyone the endless series of fragments of information we had received. This was the first stage, and was not simply a technical process. In order to arrive at this point we had to break with the sectarian logic that the gangs and some groups had brought with them. Among many people there was the tendency continually to assert their own identity, separate from the others, with whom at most alliances could be formed, but not at the cost of one’s own identity. This was obviously bullshit, because that way you do no more than play the game of the enemy, who has every interest in keeping you divided. Of course uniting isn’t something you can do simply by putting together the various realities as if there was nothing to it: we needed to establish a collective model in which the various experiences could recognise one another. Alongside this problem of a general container was another one, no less important. In reality the resistance to uniting ourselves and combining our forces depended not just on presumed differences but on the resistance of little leaders and bosses who in some way saw their micropower diminishing, and then in many cases there was also the openly stated aversion to submitting to the leadership of women. This aspect hit me particularly hard, and I’ll need to say a few words about it […].
Being a woman in the banlieue is not always easy. And being a militant woman involved in the struggle is even less so, although perhaps this is always the case to some extent. It may be that in the banlieue everything is accentuated, because the difficulty first of determining and then of putting into practice a way of acting that’s able to overturn exploitation and oppression favours the reproduction of fascist and authoritarian mechanisms. So until the struggle breaks through the crust of oppression and people are unified by fighting, this situation generally tends to reproduce within itself the mechanisms typical of power. Men against women, young against old, whites against blacks, French against immigrants and so on. But this here is what we are, and only through the struggle can we overturn this condition. Only by demonstrating that resisting and winning is possible can we think of subverting our habitual conditions of life at their root. In the struggle, in the war against domination, while we destroy all that oppresses us we also have to construct in a positive sense new social, political and cultural models able to prefigure a new way of being and existing. Revolution is a continuous process of destruction and construction, and this is even more true in a situation where the struggle promises to be long, difficult and painful. […] It doesn’t make much sense, it doesn’t take you anywhere, to enter into a battle for equality in an abstract sense, even though the principle must be reiterated continuously: it has to be not only propaganda but something imposed in practice. There are those who hold their noses, who don’t want to be led by a woman, or, in our situation, by several women. In these cases you can’t wait to discuss things, you have to throw the puppet facing you down from the pedestal, with no half measures. You can only do this by demonstrating in front of everyone that you’re capable of doing things that many people’s fate depends on, while all your opponent can do is talk. Political leadership is only imposed through the real authority, the effectiveness and efficiency that someone can demonstrate. I, we, smashed all stupid sexism as soon as it appeared by imposing ourselves as political and military leaders. So that many of those who saw it as not only senseless but even dishonourable to be led by a group of women eventually became the most disciplined.
[…] All this should not be seen as a particular aspect, separated from the rest of the context we found ourselves acting in. The process of building a revolutionary structure, if that’s what it’s going to be, cannot avoid calling into question what goes on within it, revealing how the logics of domination and power have taken hold even among those who are ready to fight against the dominators. Therefore, starting from an apparently technical problem, we had to deal with much more complex issues, which forced many people to confront their contradictions and to make choices. This process was useful because it allowed us to attain clarity within the movement, forcing these people to make a leap forward. To return to our problem though, a lot of the spies, who in reality can’t be called that because everyone knows they are on the side of the cops, are the racists in the banlieue. But these are the lesser problem. We burned their cars, and we went into some of their homes, and others we caught in the street, and these ones couldn’t do much.
The real problem were the ones who were unknown and above suspicion. These ones were in our midst, and they certainly weren’t sporting the French cockade. As you’ll know, part of the economy of the banlieue is based on small-scale trafficking, and it’s around this that the BAC recruit most of those they infiltrate among us. Because it’s these people who are most vulnerable to blackmail. This meant we had to carry out a series of investigations among ourselves, which were never easy, among other reasons because in situations like this there were some people who tried to discredit someone by calling them a spy in order to settle personal matters, old quarrels or even stupider things. This work was never easy, and in some cases it led us to make mistakes, accusing people who then turned out to have been completely straightforward. But this gives you an idea of how, at the moment when you enter into the real battle, into praxis, when you no longer stick to chatter like the Paris left loves in its salons, the situations you have to deal with are anything but simple: you can only learn how to fight a war by fighting it. […] Finally, we had to deal with the attempt to attack the movement from within through paramilitary groups. This operation wasn’t very successful, because the attempts that were made were crushed before they could get started. However it must be said that within the banlieue there is heavy racist propaganda, mostly anti-Arab; as everyone knows, arabophobia is a very widespread phenomenon in France, promoted by right-wing groups linked to Le Pen, which have a certain strength in the banlieue and can rely on support and a considerable amount of protection from the BAC. The link between the BAC and the nazi groups is very close, and in some ways they’re the same thing. The only difference is that one is legalised and the other is not.
These paramilitary groups were used in two ways. The first was the legal one which everyone saw thanks to the television and the newspapers. These were the so-called citizens whom everyone rushed to interview and film thanks to very precise agreements between the police and the media. There, Le Pen supporters were presented as upstanding citizens, implying that they represented the majority of the population of the banlieue who demanded the restoration of legality, order and the repression of the revolt. As we learned by interrogating one of the organisers of this mise-en-scene at length, the tones used in the clips and the interviews were deliberately oriented towards moderation, towards what is commonly regarded as the common sense of the average citizen. All the speeches were against violence, and they tended to emphasise the population distancing itself from the incendiaries, with the clear intention of making the guerrilla warfare seem like the work of tiny minority groups with no legitimacy whatsoever within the areas. Once this version was widely disseminated, it became very easy to proceed with heavy repression. An idea of the substantial unity reached by the various powers in opposing us is given by the fact that the media waged a real propaganda war against us. Newspapers and television did nothing but run interviews with banlieue inhabitants who said they were sick of what was going on. They intended that this should be the start of a more far-reaching operation, which, at a second stage, would have seen paramilitary groups disguised as citizens mobilised to restore order.
First the propaganda which should have prepared the ground for consent was spread, then these groups would have come into action. This project didn’t work for at least two reasons. The first was the timely intervention of militant forces which destroyed through a series of targeted actions all, or at least many, of the bases which the paramilitaries were preparing within the banlieues, which among other things yielded a considerable bounty. Many things, many instruments which were to have been used for the counter-revolution passed into the logistics of the guerrilla insurgency. The BAC were probably well pissed off! The second aspect, clearly more important in every way, was the absolutely unequivocal aversion of most of the inhabitants towards these initiatives. If the guerrilla groups and cells hit their logistical and military structures hard, it can be said without any triumphalism that the masses crippled them politically, because when they tried to set up any sort of public initiative it turned out that they were so few, under the threatening eyes of so many, that they had to give it up. What’s more, and this quite important, some of those who got themselves interviewed and denounced the revolt in interviews were spontaneously punished by groups from the people who had organised themselves precisely so as to stop these so-called responsible citizens spouting their vomit over the struggle. (Z.)