We conclude this issue by “going back” to Paris, in the neighborhoods where the last defense of the Commune against the Versailles army was led. In the last 150 years, many proletarian and/or immigration movements continued to add to the political ‘geological strata’ of these neighborhoods. On January 22, 2021, Léopold invited Funambulist friends Mogniss H. Abdallah and Hajer Ben Boubaker to take a stroll to excavate some of these strata.
Léopold Lambert: We have a small itinerary that will take us to the working-class neighborhoods of Paris’ 20th arrondissement where the Commune was particularly present, and where the last battles against the Versailles army took place. We will try to do a reading of the historical and political layers of these neighborhoods from the Commune to the present day. It may seem a little bit disjointed, as we’re going to jump from one era to another all the time. However, I think that it will only appear disjointed to people who are used to thinking about history through a very chronological reading. For those who are used to thinking about history through other approaches — in particular from a spatial point of view — they might be able to follow this excavation of the various political geological layers of the spaces that we will cross. A good starting point for this interview can be a conversation that I had with you, Hajer one or two years ago. I heard from you, as well as from a few other anti-racist activists that, despite your families not living yet in France at the time, you consider the Commune as the first moment of French history that you are making yours. Could we start with this?
Hajer Ben Boubaker: It’s true, that’s what I said, and that’s what I still think today. Indeed, my family was not at all in France at that time. In 1871, they were probably in Tunisia — and still, I’m not even sure. I think that the Commune’s ideal goes beyond the notions of nation-states and national belonging, so it really resonates for people who, like me, do not necessarily find themselves in the pre-established categories of the current French nation-state. The left-wing ideal carried by the Commune echoes for me, not only because it almost worked, but because it really proposed a revolutionary vision and a real overhaul of the systems that prevailed and still prevail today. And so, inevitably, I recognized something when I discovered the Commune, rather belatedly. Belatedly indeed, since it’s not really part of the school programs. So it was later, during adolescence, when I became interested in left-wing movements and started my activist journey, that I discovered the Commune. It’s also because I come from a neighborhood — the 18th arrondissement — where certain events had their importance in the Commune. It’s true that this memory can be a little more present among young people who claim to be left-wing. Because the Sacré-Cœur Basilica is there. Because when one understands the meaning of Sacré-Coeur, the meaning of its construction by the French state after the Commune, one wonders about history. And it may sound a little bit like Parisian pride, but this attachment to the Commune also comes from this local belonging. The Commune has given full value to local belonging, to local autonomy, according to the specificities of the territories where it was deployed. And so it still makes sense to me today as an ideal that goes beyond the differences imposed by the state.
LL: What about you Mogniss? What’s your relationship to the Paris Commune?
Mogniss H. Abdallah: I began to hear about it in the period after the 1971 centennial. The concomitance between the revolts of May 1968 and the Commune centennial meant that the Commune was surrounded by revolutionary myths and exclusively bringing attention to self-organizing, communist initiatives. The Commune was really discussed a lot during the 1960s and 1970s, but again, only through its revolutionary mythification. It was much later that I understood that it wasn’t as one-sided as that. In the Commune, there was indeed a self-managing, revolutionary dimension, which we liked. But there was also a defense side of the French Republic with an anti-Prussian dimension that would later transform into an anti-German persistent sentiment. There were even some quite serious problems of racism. In the 1970s, we were bathing in triumphant leftism, the wars of liberation, etc.. There were the revolutionary myths, which were also fed by the idea that the Commune and the Communards were, for a good part, the militants of the International. And, obviously, when we learned that it was a Communard, Eugène Pottier, who wrote the words of L’Internationale, we felt great about it. We understood later on that the foreigners who are often talked about in the Commune are members of the International, that is agents of the International Association of Workers. Many Italians, Germans, Polish people, of course, workers or intellectuals, but not so much people from the colonies.
LL: Today’s conversation is hyper situated: we talk about what we see around us. For the moment, we are on the Place des Grès in the 20th arrondissement, a few hundred meters from the “Mur des Fédérés” in the Père Lachaise cemetery, where most Commune commemorations happen. This square is quite simply the location of the first Rock Against Police concert in 1980. Mogniss, you’re one of the co-founders of this organization, could you please tell us about it, as well as this first concert that occurred exactly where we’re standing at the moment?
MHA: Yeah, and it’s true that there are some ties to the Commune. Even though I was personally more active in the banlieues like in Nanterre and Vitry, there were still some working-class neighborhoods (quartiers populaires) and important immigrant neighborhoods in Paris. The Commune itself was an exaltation of the working-class neighborhood and the Gavroches and lascars, who were the rebellious young people who lived there and enlivened these neighborhoods. At the end of the 1970s, there were already some concerts, a little improvised, in a certain number of abandoned houses, squats in Barbès, Belleville, and Ménilmontant. These squats were a bit politicized, but music more than anything was front and center for them. They were in neighborhoods where the residents were mixed between immigrants and white French (franchouillards). These guys would call themselves punk and destroy, which would cause some problems for the immigrant youth who had different tastes. They’d listen a lot to James Brown for instance and would dress as well as they could.
LL: That makes me think of the theater play and film Weekend à Nanterre, where we see Moustapha Arab and Belkacem Lahbaïri dancing on Sex Machine in a vacant lot!
MHA: Yes, exactly, it’s well depicted in the film. So moving on to the first concert of Rock Against Police. We had set up a squat, what we called “a political squat” not far from here, Rue des Pyrénées. This squat was meant to be a place of convergence of people who lived in Vitry, Nanterre, some banlieues in Seine-Saint-Denis, and also in Paris. At the time, there was no public transportation, no possibility to move from one banlieue to another. Some youths would even hijack a bus to go, for example, from Vitry to Nanterre. Otherwise, it was impossible, you had to go through the center of the city. And so, this is how we set up this squat, “La Parmentière,” which became a meeting place for the groups that ultimately formed Rock Against Police. We started it after the death of Kader, a 15-year-old boy, who was killed on February 16, 1980, by a janitor in the Montagnards estate in Vitry sur Seine. We met at “La Parmentière” and started organizing a concert. We spotted Place des Grès: these were still old buildings, most of them were going to be demolished. There was a whole wasteland behind. The entrance was over there. Some of the houses were squatted by punks. The other day I was looking at a photo of the concerned and I noticed some white squatters in the background; they are at the window, not in the crowd and I noticed a blue-white-red flag. At the time I didn’t even notice but clearly that was intended by these guys as a “This is our home!” message towards the audience.
So that’s it, the concert happened on April 19, 1980, and we played a number of different bands from different banlieues, starting with the people from Vitry. There was Lounès Lounis, who composed a song called “Kader Blues,” which he composed in two parts, one on the spot and the second part after the trial of Kader’s murderer. I think that about 3,000 people showed up, it was quite diverse. We were quite surprised as we did not expect that many people. Many others, in particular from the left, could have come but, as it happened, it was the day of Jean-Paul Sartre’s funerals on the other side of the city! The last thing I have not said is that Rock Against Police is a sort of reaction to Rock Against Racism in the U.K. at the same time. We considered that the notion of “racism” was not precise enough. There was a form of moral anti-racism that was only about being outraged at racist statements or behavior, here or elsewhere — South Africa for example. And there was political anti-racism. Nowadays, that’s understood a little bit more widely, but back then, it was the great divide. And for us, the armed branch of this political racism was the police, hence our choice for this name: Rock Against Police.
LL: Let’s start walking and, while we do, I think that there is another thing that allows to create some links between Maghreb, the Commune and the anti-racist struggle of the 1980s: the term lascar (rascal). Could you tell us how these three space-time co-exist in this term?
MHA: Sure. This term, lascar, was spontaneously used by the Rock Against Police friends: a sort of self-designation, a bit like that the term Beur (slang for Arab) before it became co-opted. It was some self-valuing slang in a quite confusing time for the youth identity. Their generation was named “the second generation” for lack of a better term, and so young people reclaimed this word from French working-class slang. And we also discovered that the Communards would also use it. Of course, the Commune also consisted in a valorization of the working-class cultural production and language. So naturally it spoke to us too. In Belleville, for instance, there was the Lascars brass band, which would do a yearly pilgrimage to the Père Lachaise cemetery to pay tribute to the Communards who died during the Bloody Week. So this was our common cultural environment and we contributed to it. Furthermore, the elders would ask us “Don’t you all think that lascar has something to do with العسكر (el askar), the soldiers?” And so, after researching this, we realize that lascar could also designate off-duty soldiers. Of course, in contrast, there was also a conservative use of lascar to mean thug or members of the mob or foreigner… so there you have it! You take one term and you can see all the contradictions contained within it.
LL: We are still in the working-class neighborhoods (quartiers populaires) of the 20th arrondissement, where the last fights of the Commune took place. We are more specifically in the center of Les Amandiers, which we can describe as a small neighborhood with several social housing buildings. In fact, we are at the place where Lamine Dieng, a 25-year-old Black man, who was killed by the police in 2007 used to live. The three of us were already here on June 20, 2020 during a march organized by the Vie volées (Stolen Lives) collective, which did something similar to what we were doing today, that is to say, a march that goes back to the different geographies of this murder, notably the 20th arrondissement police station that we passed by earlier. Hajer, could you tell our readers more about it?
HBB: We are in the Amandiers neighborhood, which is itself contained within a larger working-class neighborhood called Ménilmontant. Sadly it’s quite gentrified now, but it still contains pockets of resistance. Lamine was from here. On June 17, 2007, he was killed by the police. He died suffocated, killed by nine policemen who literally threw themselves and kept the pressure of their bodies, on his body. The police use prone position restraint or chokehold when they make an arrest, or when one of the many many ID checks on Black and Arab men to subdue them, which often prove to be lethal techniques. Personally, I heard about this police murder only one or two years after it happened, mostly though the Vie volées collective assembled after his death, and in particular through its spokesperson, Lamine’s sister, Ramata Dieng. She and other members of the collective, as well as other activists have fought these two techniques for being deadly, thus taking place in the history of the immigration struggle, which has formulated these demands in its fight against police violence. We can think of what the Mouvement Immigration Banlieue (MIB) has been doing for instance.
Lamine Dieng’s family won a form of justice but, alas, it did not come from French justice, but, rather, from the European Court of Human Rights, which forced France to compensate them. This also says a lot about the denial and complicity of French justice with regard to the death of citizens — or for that matter, not necessarily French citizens, but people in France — by racial profiling. It took 13 or 14 years to obtain recognition and compensation, which was quite symbolic compared to the loss of a brother, a son, a friend… But once again, the fact that this was done at the European Court of Human Rights and not in a French jurisdiction says a lot and, unfortunately, gives a bit of an overview for families who are confronted with this judicial system that denies, in the same way as the police, the right to life and the recognition of the loss of this right.
LL: Hajer, you just talked about the MIB. Mogniss, could you talk about it as you know its history very well?
MHA: The MIB is a movement that emerged in 1995 as a heteroclite movement of convergence of struggle on the question of the banlieues. The question of relations with the police and the judicial institution was a central issue, so they participated in and organized a number of major campaigns, one of the best known being that for Aissa and Youssef in Mantes la Jolie, killed in 1991. The trials did not lead to any condemnation of the police but the campaign made it possible to put on the agenda the presence of a lawyer from the very first hour of police custody, which ended as some kind of a victory in the early 2000s. And these struggles also forced both the State and civil society, anti-racist and human rights associations to mobilize. This helped to create the Halde, the High Authority against Discrimination and for Equality, and today, the Defender of Rights, surprisingly efficient in its understanding of police violence.
HBB: I want to come back to the spatial dimension, since it’s the specialty of The Funambulist in its approach of racism. So now we’re in the middle of Paris. It hasn’t always been Paris proper as the 20th arrondissement is one of the last territories attached to the City of Paris — it was annexed a little before the Commune, as it happens. Not only we’re in Paris, but now we’re even in something called the Grand Paris (Greater Paris) and this extension of the city is causing a lot of damage to the neighboring municipalities and to the people who live in these banlieues with construction works and real estate speculation that exclude them from their own territory. I’m thinking of places where they have been established for a very long time, and notably populations from immigrant backgrounds, towns in the inner suburbs that are receiving infrastructures or the extension of the metro, which increases the price of rents, etc.
Ménilmontant, like other Parisian neighborhoods, has undergone this gentrification process as well. What’s quite surprising even today is to see how few people go through a neighborhood like Les Amandiers. It’s true that you might only come around here if you know someone. Yet, we see very, very, very regularly police officers circulating in a way that intimidates the young people of the neighborhood who are hanging out. In contrast, we don’t see the same police officers in the Rue de Ménilmontant, which is only a few dozens of meters away. The street has been gentrified, the rent prices are much higher, and people in the street, for some of them, are from the white middle class. I speak about the continuity of racism. I see it in the systematic erasing of these populations that have been established for a long time. I am talking as much about the immigrant population as the white proletarian population that has been implanted for a very long time in Paris and the persistence of the colonial treatment of these populations from the moment the police intervene in their neighborhoods, just a few meters away from some people who, in turn, never undergo any police ID check. Paris is changing to the detriment of its poorest populations. It has become an extremely bourgeois city. At the time when my father arrived, in the 1970s, it was not the case — or not in this uniform way — on its territory.
MHA: Just to extend what Hajer just said in terms of population change, and to draw a parallel between the Commune and the current gentrification. It’s important to recall that the inhabitants of the working-class neighborhoods who took a fundamental part in the Commune, are those who had been displaced from the neighborhoods demolished by Haussmann. The inhabitants of the working class neighborhoods that then became the bourgeois neighborhoods came to settle, especially here in Ménilmontant and Belleville. This originally created a kind of class divide and class consciousness, especially in terms of habitat and work. This residential displacement can be compared to some degree to the “regeneration” of the working-class neighborhoods of Paris since the late 1970s, with a tendency to move slightly outwards towards the banlieues. For example, Les 4000 estate in La Courneuve used to belong to the City of Paris and it was not devolved to the city of La Courneuve until 1983. So what does that mean? It means that the City of Paris had one of the largest housing developments in the banlieues to displace populations. And that explains why today it is impossible to find decent housing in Paris at decent prices.
LL: We are still in Ménilmontant, but now in front of the church of Notre-Dame de la Croix, which is one of the very first to have been occupied by the revolutionary clubs of the Commune. There have been many others afterwards, but in addition to being one of the first, this church can help us link this era to other stories of the struggles, is that right Mogniss?
MHA: Yes, at the time of the Commune, there was a very strong anti-Catholic hierarchy feeling, which ultimately led to the law on the separation of Church and State of 1905. But in the 1970s, in churches like this one, there was a tradition of hospitality, especially towards immigrants, whether it was in Ménilmontant or at the Goutte d’Or. Some parish priests let immigrant activists settle in their adjacent premises, often at the church, to organize hunger strikes against deportation, for residency status, etc. Here, in 1973, the church was occupied by 55 undocumented and militants of the MTA — the Arab Workers’ Movement. This strike followed other strikes in other churches, including the one byanti-racist activist Said Bouziri in 1972 against his expulsion to the St. Bruno Hall, a room adjoining the church of St. Bernard in the Goutte d’Or.
LL: And here, we’re only a few meters away from Rue des Maronites, where the headquarters of the activist press agency you co-founded, IM’média used to be…
MHA: Rue des Maronites, Rue du Liban, Rue de Palestine not too far… surprising isn’t it? [laughs]
LL: Last step of our walk: we are in Rue Ramponeau where the Communard historian Prosper Lissagaray situated the very last barricade of the Commune. There’s a whole mythology behind that depicts a single guy who fights for three hours against the Versaillais. The red flag falls, he picks it up three times, and continues to fight until it’s no longer possible and he finally manages to flee.
Now we’re in Belleville. We can talk about a certain number of things, in particular the many diasporas it has hosted through time. Here, we’re right next to a synagogue, we’re not far from another one, we’re also next to a public school which features a plaque explaining that the French police were fully part of the whole infrastructure of the Shoah and kidnapped Jewish children in this school as in so many others. This also raises the question of selective memorization, because there has been an incredible effort done by Holocaust survivors and historians to show the responsibility of the French state in the Holocaust. When it comes to colonialism however, the efforts of other historians and activists are not paying off… Hajer, I know that Belleville is a neighborhood close to your heart, can you tell us about it?
HBB: Indeed, I have a very strong emotional bond with Belleville, because it is one of the first neighborhoods where my parents settled, when they arrived in France, in the early 1970s for my father. They arrived here as this is the historic neighborhood of the Tunisian community in Paris. That was really what my father and the elders explained to me, as being a “landing site” for those who came either directly from the country or from factories in the region, especially the Peugeot factory in the east of France, unlike Renault, which was mostly in the Paris region. But Tunisians were very present in Peugeot factories, including my father, in Sochaux, Belfort, Mulhouse…. And many of them ended up leaving because of the very, very difficult situation of isolation, work rhythms, and they went up to Paris and settled in Belleville through solidarity networks of Tunisian immigration. Some Tunisians were already here in the 1950s and 1960s but most arrived in the 1970s. I lived there as a child in the 1990s, at a very young age, and I really remember Belleville before gentrification. The neighborhood is important for the history of the Jewish communities in Paris. Early on, there was a strong Ashkenazi community and later, when the first Tunisian Jews settled in France, after Tunisia’s independence or after the Six Day War, they settled in Belleville and were soon joined by Tunisian Muslims.
The neighborhood is really linked to the history of Arab immigration in France. There are many Algerians for sure, but Tunisians were the majority. Mogniss was talking about hunger strikes earlier; some of them happened in worker housings in Belleville or in Saint-Maur nearby. This history is not that visible anymore today and not really known in the same way that the role played by the neighborhood during the Algerian war of liberation.
LL: Well that gives me a good segue to ask Mogniss about another building on the street that I also wanted to talk about: the former police station. They recently took out the sign, but it was right here.
MHA: Before talking about the police station, I’d like to point out that just down the street, we come across the Couronnes subway station. This is where exactly ten years ago, gatherings in support of the Tunisian revolution happened. So even today, this symbolic dimension of a place where Tunisians converge remains. As for the police station in front of us, it has a bad reputation in the neighborhood for sure. One reason for it might have to do with a rather unknown event happening during May-June ‘68: clashes between Jews and Arabs in Belleville. A certain number of brawlers are said to have been picked up in this police station before being dispatched elsewhere. During the Algeria War, there were also problems like that…
HBB: That’s why I was talking about the lack of knowledge of the Belleville neighborhood about its role in political struggles. It was in this neighborhood, for example, that someone like Mohamed Boudia, a former FLN militant and one of the former leaders of the 7th Wilaya [France during the Algerian Revolution], co-founded a journal against Houari Boumediène and his 1965 coup d’état. In general, this is where started, after the independence, the first contradictions, contestation of the power of the military regime that was establishing itself in Algeria. This is a quite unknown history.
LL: One word to the last Communard on his barricade?
MHA: Did you have any kids? We could have a drink with them! [all laughs] ■