The delinquent figure in the early songs of Renaud

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titreThe delinquent figure in the early songs of Renaud
date de publication13.05.2017
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Chapter 3
1975-1980: “Le Zonard déchaîné”

By the mid-1970s, the problems associated with the housing estates of suburban Paris had reached a critical level. The consequences of global recession – in particular, the de-industrialisation of the Paris region – coincided with the decline of working-class culture and the emergence of a new quart monde (lumpenproletariat) in the increasingly dilapidated grands ensembles. This quart monde included a large contingent of recently-arrived immigrants from diverse destinations, with little in common save their poverty and disorientation.
As early as 1973, one government document had recommended limiting the construction of large residential blocks.100 In 1976, Giscard d’Estaing affirmed that “the era of concrete at any cost is over.”101 However, although Giscard implemented a series of cultural projects aimed at rehabilitating the Parisian suburbs, his reluctance to build more grands ensembles seems to have gone hand in hand with a general neglect of the Paris region. According to Bernard Marchand:
Michel Poniatowski, minister of the Interior and close friend of the President, recommended fewer community facilities in the Paris region to stop people moving to the city. The unavowed aim was to let the capital fall into ruin and thereby put a halt to migration from the countryside, perhaps even push away the Parisians themselves.102
Government policy on suburban Paris seemed at best ambiguous; the “right to the city” was theoretical rather than real for its expanding underclass.
Jacques Brun and Marcel Roncayolo observe that “the housing estate ‘crisis’ of the 1970s was primarily defined in terms of youth problems.”103 The proliferation of youth gangs and the rising incidence of petty crime in the grands ensembles fed a pervasive sense of insecurity among suburban dwellers. The old, slang term zonard was revived to refer to delinquent youths from the contemporary zone. In the early twentieth century, a zonard (in contrast to zonier, or inhabitant of the zone) was an army private stationed at the fortifications of the historic zone (zone itself was short for zone militaire fortifiée or zone non aedificandi). By the 1950s, zonard could also mean clochard (derelict); from about 1974-1975, it increasingly replaced blouson noir as a synonym for “jeune voyou de banlieue” (“young suburban delinquent”) or “individu vivant en marge de la société” (“fringe-dweller”).104
May 1968 had encouraged Renaud’s political militancy and aptitude for self-expression; this, combined with his subsequent immersion in the marginal culture of his delinquent friends from Le Bréa, put him in the rare position of being able to speak on behalf, as well as from the perspective, of a zonard. In the three studio albums which he recorded in the second half of the 1970s, he dramatised the existence of contemporary zonards by reinventing the realist genre of popular song, acquiring in the process the nickname of “le Bruant des banlieues.”105
Some of Renaud’s songs from this period have been aptly described by Jacques Erwan as “sung reports” from the zone.106 With a journalist’s eye for detail, Renaud used real life as a basis for highlighting the spatial and racial divisions as well as the generation gaps in French society. Les Charognards (1975) describes the aftermath of a failed hold-up during which a young North African delinquent and his friend have been gunned down by the police. The song begins by establishing a contrast between the locations which frame the narrator’s life and death:
Il y a beaucoup de monde dans la rue Pierre-Charron.

Il est deux heures du mat’, le braquage a foiré,

j’ai une balle dans le ventre, une autre dans le poumon.

J’ai vécu à Sarcelles, j’crève aux Champs-Elysées.

There are lots of people in Pierre-Charron Street.

It’s two in the morning, the hold-up was a balls-up,

I’ve got a bullet in the stomach, another one in my lung.

I lived at Sarcelles, I’m dying on the Champs-Elysées.
Sarcelles was the first grand ensemble built in Paris (1954) and spawned the term sarcellite to evoke the malaise experienced by the inhabitants of this new urban environment. In contrast, the Champs-Elysées run through the geographical centre of Paris and represent a bastion of State power, social privilege and commercial opulence. Ironically, the Champs-Elysées of ancient Greek and Roman mythology were an idyllic resting place for the souls of the heroic or virtuous; here they appear instead as the setting of a bitter social conflict in which a delinquent outsider is condemned, rejected and “put to death.” The narrator’s fate is the inevitable consequence of his attempt to cross the line which separates central Paris, determined to defend its privileges at all costs, from the city’s outer suburbs. This would have resonated with former soixante-huitards for whom the Champs-Elysées had been a symbolically important site. David Caute describes the “Long March” by students on 7 May 1968:
At the corner of the boulevard Montparnasse there was a moment of hesitation: eastward toward the working-class districts or westward toward the Champs-Elysées? The temptation to invade bourgeois Paris prevailed . . . By ten, they had reached the Etoile, red and black flags aloft, the massed demonstrators roaring the “Internationale” around the Arc de Triomphe.107
In turn, “bourgeois Paris” took to the Champs Elysées at the end of the month, in a massive pro-Gaullist demonstration which sounded the death knell of the May movement.
In the second verse of Les Charognards, the specific circumstances of the narrator’s death take on the dimension of a parable:
Je vois la France entière du fond de mes ténèbres.

Les charognards sont là, la mort ne vient pas seule,

J’ai la conn’rie humaine comme oraison funèbre,

le regard des curieux comme unique linceul.

I can see the whole of France from the darkness of death.

The vultures have arrived, death doesn’t come alone,

Human stupidity is my funeral oration,

the gaze of onlookers my only shroud.
The narrator’s zoomorphic description of onlookers as “charognards” (“vultures”) suggests a milieu devoid of humanity and ruled instead by the law of the jungle. Their contemptuous, pitiless attitude is evoked by the chant-like chorus and the familiar register of their vocabulary:
C’est bien fait pour ta gueule, tu n’es qu’un p’tit salaud,

on port’ra pas le deuil, c’est bien fait pour ta peau.

You had it coming, you little bastard,

you won’t be missed, serves you bloody right.
A baker’s claim that he is not racist is ironically undercut by his use of the term “bicots,” or “wogs,” and by his generalising assertion that “les bicots” are involved in every crime. The jungle-like aspects of the city are emphasised by a former paratrooper’s comparison of North African immigrants with the “Viêt-minh” he fought against in Indo-China and by his motto: “Shoot first and ask questions later.” The aggressive xenophobia of the “charognards” points to the anxiety which intensified in France during this period in relation to its growing immigrant population.
The punitive response of the “charognards” contrasts with the empathetic reaction of younger witnesses to the narrator’s fate. In particular, a group of “zonards” denounce the police shooting on moral grounds and as a gesture of solidarity with a fellow pariah:
Les zonards qui sont là vont s’faire lyncher sûr’ment,

s’ils continuent à dire que les flics assassinent,

qu’on est un être humain même si on est truand,

et que ma mise à mort n’a rien de légitime.

The street kids hanging around are gonna get lynched,

if they keep saying the cops are murderers,

that even crims are human beings,

and that my execution is unlawful.
The mob frenzy is underlined by the verb “lyncher” (“to lynch”) while the contrasting solemnity of the expression “mise à mort” (“execution,” literally “putting to death”) has the triple effect of incriminating the police, politicising the incident and providing the narrator with the basic dignity of which he has been deprived. By using these “zonards” as a mouthpiece for the message of the song, Renaud reiterates the soixante-huitards’ belief that the revolutionary values of liberty, equality and fraternity existed in their purest form among the most marginalised social groups.
The narrator’s fatalistic, unsentimental closure of the debate ironically augments the song’s pathos. His dry observation that he is “almost lucky” in comparison with his friend is followed by a stark reminder that the guillotine was still in operation when the song was written:
Je suis pas un héros, j’ai eu c’que j’méritais,

je ne suis pas à plaindre, j’ai presque de la chance,

quand je pense à mon pote qui, lui, n’est que blessé

Et va finir ses jours à l’ombre d’une potence!

I’m no hero, I got what I deserved,

don’t pity me, I’m almost lucky,

when I think of my mate, who’s only wounded

And who’s gonna die in the shadow of a gallows!
The final verse returns briefly to the brutal realism of the opening lines of the song before concluding with a metaphor in which the night sky becomes the narrator’s tomb and the stars replace the material fortune he had dreamt of acquiring. The natural world here seems benevolent, in contrast to the jungle-like environment of the city. The actual moment of death is suggested by the reverberation effect added to Renaud’s vocals in the last line:
Il y a beaucoup de monde dans la rue Pierre-Charron.

Il est deux heures du mat’, mon sang coule au ruisseau,

c’est le sang d’un voyou qui rêvait de millions.

J’ai des millions d’étoiles au fond de mon caveau,

j’ai des millions d’étoiles au fond de mon caveau.

There are lots of people in Pierre-Charron Street.

It’s two in the morning, my blood’s running down the gutter,

It’s the blood of a delinquent who dreamt of millions.

I’ve got millions of stars at the end of my tomb,

I’ve got millions of stars at the end of my tomb.
Les Charognards has much in common with traditional realist song: the gritty language, the specific place names, the narrator’s social milieu, his explicitly unheroic stature and the apparent inevitability of his fate. However, the impact of his collision with bourgeois society, the martyr-like role which he assumes despite himself and the way in which his crime polarises public opinion give the song a didactic, political dimension not usually associated with the realist genre. Les Charognards shows that Renaud was more than just “le Bruant des banlieues.” This is particularly evident in the way he combines street slang with formal terms more in keeping with traditional revolutionary rhetoric. The group of outcasts which he represented were also part of a growing underclass, whereas Bruant’s protagonists inhabited a world whose disappearance was imminent and which could be contained by, even transmuted into the material of, realist folklore.
From a musical point of view, Les Charognards is difficult to categorise. Like many of Renaud’s songs from the second half of the 1970s, it incorporates the accordion of realist song into a melodious blend of styles in which folk, country and blues influences are prominent. When asked to comment on his musical affiliations, Renaud replied:
Musically, I don’t feel close to anyone, although closer to a “folk” than to a “rock” tradition, and also closer to la chanson française, an undefined tradition which steals bits from all kinds of music: it’s neither folk nor rock, it’s not “variety” music in the pejorative sense, it’s la chanson française, . . . [a style] favouring melodies and arrangements which aren’t too aggressive or intrusive.108

The simple musical arrangement of Les Charognards certainly throws the lyrics into relief, but also adds to the emotional depth of the song. Steel-string and bass guitars provide a gentle rhythm while sorrowful accordion and cello riffs relay each other during the verses. The short accordion solo which introduces and concludes the narrative evokes the protagonist’s isolation and the circularity of his short life.
The narrator of Les Charognards refers only briefly to his home ground. Another song, La Chanson du loubard (1977), takes the listener into the world of the zone itself.109 The lyrics are by Muriel Huster, but seem deliberately modelled on Renaud’s style. In the first two verses, the narrator offers a bleak image of his habitat:
Le jour se lève sur ma banlieue

J’ai froid c’est pourtant pas l’hiver

Qu’est-ce que j’pourrais foutre nom de Dieu

J’ai pas un rond et j’ai pas l’air

Sérieux, sérieux
J’suis un loubard parmi tant d’autres

Je crèche pas loin de la Défense

J’ai l’air crado, c’est pas ma faute

Mon HLM, c’est pas Byzance

Mon pote, mon pote

The day dawns on my suburb

I’m cold, but it’s not winter

There’s fuck-all to do

I’m skint and don’t look

Serious, serious
I’m just one of many delinquents

I live near “la Défense”

I look dirty, but it’s not my fault

My block of flats ain’t no palace

Mate, mate
The opening lines present the “banlieue” as an environment which is artificial and out of step with the natural world. Paradoxically, this environment seems to take on organic qualities in the second verse, permeating the narrator as if by osmosis so that his unkempt appearance mirrors his “HLM.” The unusual, contemporary slang term “Byzance” (literally, “Byzantium”), which recurs frequently in Renaud’s songs, simply means “fantastic” or “great”; the allusion to the exoticism and opulence of the ancient eastern city nonetheless throws into relief the narrator’s poverty and the drabness of his surroundings. Boredom and a pervasive sense of anonymity are also part of his lot. He discloses neither his name nor his address; we are only told that he is “one of many delinquents” who lives “near la Défense.” The verb crécher, which is synonymous in slang with habiter, can also mean “to crash” (in the sense of “to sleep”) or simply “to hang out” and thus highlights the lack of any meaningful attachment between the narrator and his home.110 The etymological link with crèche also evokes the absence of family and echoes the term cité-dortoir (dormitory town), often used to refer to housing estates deprived of basic community facilities. The narrator’s physical environment thus dominates his existence and provokes profound feelings of alienation and despair.
His alienation is compounded by his inability to identify with the work and values of his father’s generation:
A quatorze ans, mon paternel

M’a fait embaucher à l’usine

Deux jours plus tard, j’ai fait la belle

Paraît que j’suis un fils indigne, bordel

When I turned fourteen, my old man

Got me a job at the factory

Two days later, I did a runner

Seems I’m an unworthy son, for fuck’s sake
On one level, the narrator’s rebelliousness could be seen as typical of any adolescent struggling against paternal authority. One can also imagine him experiencing the repetitive, dehumanising nature of factory work as a mere extension of his habitat. On another level, these lines point to the disappearance in the 1970s of a strong working-class culture capable of providing younger generations with a sense of structure and belonging.

The narrator is nonetheless acutely aware of social inequalities, for which he seeks compensation through petty crime:
Un soir dans une rue déserte

J’ai fauché une Honda 500

A un fils de bourgeois honnête

Avec elle je fonce à 200

Ouais c’est chouette, c’est chouette

One night in a deserted street

I nicked a Honda 500

From an upright bourgeois kid

I do 200 on it

It’s brilliant, brilliant
In many of Renaud’s songs of the late 1970s, the motorcycle offers an escape not only from the stultifying world of the grands ensembles but also, more generally, from the constraints imposed by bourgeois society. The aspirations of both zonards and former soixante-huitards overlap in this recurrent symbol of freedom. However, in La Chanson du loubard, the promise of liberation is cut short by a sad memory:
Mon copain Pierrot s’est planté

Sur l’autoroute, un jour de pluie

Parfois je l’entends rigoler

C’est sûr qu’il est au paradis

C’t’enflé, c’t’enflé

My friend Pierrot crashed

On the freeway, one rainy day

Sometimes I can hear him laughing

He’s definitely in heaven

Dumb bastard, dumb bastard
The link between the zone and May 1968 is reiterated in the following verse by the narrator’s evocation of Gavroche, whose immortal youthfulness contrasts with the decrepitude of the high-rise flats:
Et moi j’continue mon cinoche

Au pied de ces buildings miteux

J’voudrais crever avant d’être moche

J’voudrais finir comme toi mon vieux Gavroche

I’m still alive, in my make-believe world

At the foot of these seedy buildings

Hope I die before I get ugly

Hope I end my days like you, Gavroche, old friend
Like the narrator, Gavroche haunted the fringes of Paris, situated in the early decades of the nineteenth century at the city’s barrières (the tollgates which marked the official limits of Paris). However, as Louis Chevalier has suggested, the barrières were invested by Victor Hugo with intense revolutionary symbolism.111 The whole of Paris belongs to Gavroche; the relationship between the city and the street urchin is a natural, symbiotic one:
Paris has a child and the forest a bird; the bird is called a sparrow; the child is called a kid. Combine these two ideas, one of which contains a blazing furnace, the other a new dawn, make the two sparks of Paris and childhood collide with each other; out flies a little person. Homuncio, as Plato would say . . . If one were to ask of the enormous city: What’s that? It would reply: That’s my baby.112
Both Gavroche and the narrator of La Chanson du loubard are inclined to states of reverie or “cinoche,” but Gavroche also interacts dynamically with his surroundings. His ability to appropriate urban space is the prerequisite for his involvement in the vanguard of revolutionary insurrection. In contrast, Renaud’s narrator is ultimately defeated by his surroundings:
J’suis un loubard périphérique

J’en ai plein les bottes de ce bled

La France est une banlieue merdique

Comme dit mon copain Mohamed

Aux flics, aux flics
Le jour se lève sur ma banlieue

J’ai froid c’est pourtant pas l’hiver

C’est drôle le bitume est tout bleu

Y’a ma bécane qui crame par terre

Bon Dieu, bon Dieu

Oh, bon Dieu, bon Dieu...

I’m a ring-road delinquent

I’ve walked for miles in this dump

France is one big, shitty suburb

Like my friend Mohamed

Tells the cops, the cops
The day dawns on my suburb

I’m cold, but it’s not winter

It’s funny, the asphalt’s all blue

My bike’s burning on the ground

For Christ’s sake, for Christ’s sake

Oh, for Christ’s sake, for Christ’s sake...
The narrator’s marginalisation is highlighted by his description of himself as “périphérique,” an adjective which means “peripheral” in a general sense, but which is also short for boulevard périphérique (the ring-road which separates the world of the grands ensembles from central Paris). Once more, it is as if the narrator has physically merged with his environment. The phrase “j’en ai plein les bottes de ce bled” describes a state of mind diametrically opposed to the joyous, adventurous spirit of an enfant errant (a “stray,” or homeless child) like Gavroche. The rhyme between “bled” and “Mohamed” ironically emphasises the idea of dislocation: in Arabic, the term bled refers to the home countries of North Africa, whereas in French slang it signifies an isolated region.
La Chanson du loubard powerfully conveys the relentless presence of the grands ensembles, which seem to consume both the narrator and his one chance of escape, a stolen motorcycle. However, the significance of the lyrics was eclipsed to some degree by a public controversy which the song provoked about Renaud’s social origins. His detractors scornfully dismissed him as a “faux loubard” (“fake delinquent”) who had no right to speak on behalf of a milieu to which he belonged by adoption rather than by birth.113 The authors of Cent ans de chanson française claim that “for real delinquents, Renaud is a usurper: at Bobino (1980), he solicits the applause of a middle-class audience who leaves the concert feeling reassured.”114 Renaud thus found himself in a similar position to his predecessor Bruant, who was accused both during and after his lifetime of exploiting the poor to win fame and fortune.

Renaud inadvertently created some degree of confusion by adopting the stage persona of a loubard, but he never claimed to share the same background as the protagonists of his songs. He explained to Jacques Erwan in 1982:
I wasn’t born in a biker jacket, I decided one day to wear one. Because I feel comfortable with “delinquents”: they make me laugh, they fascinate me because of what they have and I don’t, they’re crazy! And all that violence! I’m not violent, because I don’t have the build for it. To be violent, you either have to be crazy or strong: I’ve never been that crazy, and I’ve never been strong at all . . . But mentally, I’m like them: I have the same rebelliousness, but perhaps I like life better than they do . . . I tend to be more gentle and to respect others, I even have a romantic side. So there has to be an opposite impulse, I have to find an outlet for my violence somewhere and a way of expressing my revolt, and that happens primarily in my songs.115
More recently, he speculated that a particularly censorious attitude exists in France towards singers who seek to represent a social milieu other than their own, “as if you have to live in poverty to denounce it!”116 Renaud’s detractors seem oblivious to the fact that popular culture often emanates from social intermediaries who possess the ability to move back and forth between different classes. Moreover, there is little hard evidence about how “real” loubards perceived Renaud. Perhaps, though, the main point which his critics have missed is that he belongs to a generation whose ecumenical, fraternal impulses naturally led it to identify with, and assume the role of advocate for, dispossessed social groups. By singing “je suis un loubard,” Renaud invoked the spirit of May 1968, when students chanted “we’re all German Jews!” in protest against Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s expulsion from France, or “we’re part of the underworld!”
In another song, Dans mon HLM (1980), the zone is magnified even further, as the narrator describes floor by floor the occupants of his habitation à loyer modéré. The themes of social conflict and racism as well as the jungle-like qualities of the city recall Les Charognards; the difference here is that instead of articulating an oppositional relationship between the urban centre and its periphery, they relate to a single building in the suburbs. In the first verse, the narrator’s vitriolic portrayal of the gardien d’immeuble (caretaker) announces the quality of social relations in his HLM:
Au rez-de-chaussée, dans mon HLM,

y’a une espèce de barbouze

qui surveille les entrées,

qui tire sur tout ce qui bouge,

surtout si c’est bronzé,

passe ses nuits dans les caves

avec son Beretta,

traque les mômes qui chouravent

le pinard aux bourgeois.

Y s’recrée l’Indochine

dans sa p’tite vie d’peigne-cul.

Sa femme sort pas d’la cuisine,

sinon y cogne dessus.

Il est tell’ment givré

que même dans la Légion

z’ont fini par le j’ter,

c’est vous dire s’il est con!

On the ground floor in my block of flats

there’s a Gestapo type

who guards the entrance,

who shoots at anything that moves,

especially if it’s got dark skin,

spends his nights in the cellars

with his Beretta,

chasing kids who flog

grog from the bourgeois tenants.

He thinks he’s still in Indo-China

bloody yobbo.

His wife never leaves the kitchen,

if she does, he beats her up

He’s so crazy

that even the Foreign Legion

ended up chucking him out,

which shows how stupid he really is!
The gardien d’immeuble was a relatively new and controversial figure in the French suburban landscape, who has been described as the “disputed representative of the body corporate’s impersonal power, a repressive and moralistic authority figure, both powerless and disliked at the same time.”117 Renaud’s description of the caretaker as a “barbouze” (“secret police agent”), reinforces the sense of fear and mistrust which dominates relationships in the grands ensembles.118
The other floors are occupied by a striking range of social types, including young business executives, former soixante-huitards, a returned soldier, a delinquent and a policeman. Few of the tenants seem to like each other. Ironically, the social fragmentation evoked by Renaud was partly the result of a naive, if well-intentioned urban policy applied during the 1950s and 1960s which aimed to create a classless society by housing a heterogeneous population in the same space. Jacques Brun and Marcel Roncayolo explain how this utopian experiment backfired: “Even in the selective, second-generation housing estates, social nuances which had been more or less masked in the urban tradition and mixed up by the multiplicity of signs, took on a kind of caricatured sharpness.”119 While social inequalities were accentuated, class identity and solidarity were weakened. The absence of traditional meeting places such as the neighbourhood street and bistrot contributed to a widespread anomie. During the 1970s, many of the better-off inhabitants of the grands ensembles moved elsewhere; their place was taken by immigrants with a similar socio-economic status if not the same ethnic background. However, the “caricatured” social differences analysed by Brun and Roncayolo and illustrated by Renaud continued to exist in many areas.
In Dans mon HLM, there are small pockets of resistance to the constrictive, antisocial atmosphere which pervades the building. The narrator describes approvingly the communal household on the second floor, which includes the former soixante-huitards:
Y vivent comme ça, relax,

y’a des mat’las par terre,

les voisins sont furax,

ils font un boucan d’enfer.

Ils payent jamais leur loyer,

quand les huissiers déboulent,

ils écrivent à Libé,

c’est vous dire s’y sont cools!

They’re easy-going and relaxed,

there are mattresses on the floor,

they make a hell of a racket,

which sends the neighbours wild.

They never pay their rent,

when the bailiffs rock up,

they write to Libé,120

which shows how cool they are!
Their noisiness is echoed in the pounding bass and drums and in the wailing electric guitar of the song itself. The musical arrangement of Dans mon HLM can be seen as an attempt to burst through the stifling ambience evoked in the lyrics; Renaud’s public performances of the song often had a carnivalesque quality.121 The narrator also seems to be on friendly terms with the Trotskyist who lives on the fourth floor and whose political activism appears incongruous in such a setting:
Depuis sa pétition,

y’a trois ans, pour l’Chili,

tout l’immeuble le soupçonne

à chaque nouveau graffiti,

n’empêche que “Mort aux cons”

dans la cage d’escalier,

c’est moi qui l’ai marqué,

c’est vous dire si j’ai raison!

Since his petition,

three years ago, for Chile,

the whole building suspects him

of every new graffiti

But “Death to jerks”

in the stairwell,

I’m the one who wrote it,

which shows how right I am!
However, the narrator’s HLM seems finally to engulf and crush any serious attempt to resist its alienating force. Unable to change his environment, he can only subvert its signifier with the drug-inspired pun of the chorus:
Putain, c’qu’il est blême, mon HLM!

Et la môme du huitième, le hasch, elle aime!122

Fuck it’s dull, my block of flats

And the kid on the eighth floor loves hash!
With the “kid on the eighth floor,” he withdraws, like the narrator of La Chanson du loubard, into dreams about children:
Quand j’en ai marre d’ces braves gens

j’fais un saut au huitième

pour construire un moment

avec ma copine Germaine,

un monde rempli d’enfants.

Et quand le jour se lève

on s’quitte en y croyant,

c’est vous dire si on rêve!

When I’m sick of all these people

I pop up to the eighth floor

to spend a moment building

with my girlfriend Germaine,

a world full of children.

And when day breaks

we leave each other believing it’s true,

which shows what dreamers we are!
This fantasy contrasts with the apocalyptic image of the caretaker lying in wait, gun in hand, for the children who steal wine from their neighbours’ cellars. A “dynamic young manager” from the first floor also dislikes children, an attitude which the song links to his political and class affiliations. He spends his money on material possessions and on litter for his cats,
parc’que naturellement

c’bon contribuable centriste,

il aime pas les enfants,

c’est vous dire s’il est triste!

because, of course

this good, centre-voting taxpayer

doesn’t like children,

which shows how pathetic he is!
His sentiments are shared by an advertising executive, whose participation in the feminist movement seems motivated primarily by her narcissistic tendencies:
Aux manifs de gonzesses,

elle est au premier rang,

mais elle veut pas d’enfants

parc’que ça fait vieillir,

ça ramollit les fesses

et pi ça fout des rides,

elle l’a lu dans l’Express,

c’est vous dire si elle lit!

At rallies for chicks123,

she’s in the front line,

but she doesn’t want children

because it makes you age,

it makes your bum drop

and gives you wrinkles,

she read it in L’Express,

which shows how well-read she is!
Unlike the old working-class faubourgs, where large families were the norm and children had the run of the streets, the environment described by Renaud is hostile to the very notion of childhood. This rejection of children appears as both a symptom of social fragmentation and a metaphor for moribund community values.
After its release as a single, Dans mon HLM became one of Renaud’s most popular songs. The informative and evocative tableau it offered of life in a suburban housing estate led Socialist politician and writer Jacques Attali to proclaim: “I’d swap thousands of pages of urban sociology for Renaud’s Dans mon HLM.”124 Renaud’s “HLM” was also a metaphor for French society, one which pointed to the increasing difficulty of preserving the communitarian and egalitarian values of May 1968 in the face of the ruthless individualism which emerged at the end of the 1970s.
At a 1988 colloquium entitled La Banlieue en fête: de la marginalité urbaine à l’identité culturelle, popular songs and crime novels of the 1970s and 1980s were criticised for portraying the suburbs as an undifferentiated, barren environment, unable to sustain any significant sense of movement, action, community, creativity or redemption. For Danielle Tartakowsky, this bleak vision reflects the fantasies of “outsiders” who have only a tenuous relationship to the suburbs, and contrasts with the more constructive imagery offered by suburban inhabitants themselves. She describes this indigenous imagery in the following terms:
It is through theatre that they combat the images of disintegration, but also the loneliness, racism and physical dilapidation of their environment. Theatre reveals the potential of a world which was considered hopeless, while the theatrical act in itself fosters new values: solidarity, complementarity and environmental renewal. The aim is to fight against suburban problems while at the same time challenging the negative images of the suburbs created by outsiders, and which suburban inhabitants adopt all the more readily because such images correspond to real difficulties which have nothing to do with fantasy.125
Tartakowsky nonetheless accepts that “outsider” and “insider” representations of the banlieue occasionally converge. She makes the opposite assertion to the authors of Cent ans de chanson française, arguing that “suburban youth recognises itself in the songs of Renaud and a few others.”126
If this assertion is true, how are we to understand Renaud’s success in representing artistically young zonards to the point that they themselves felt understood in his songs? One possibility is that, while some of Renaud’s songs emphasise the problems of life in the zone, many others celebrate instead the rituals, humour and language with which their protagonists attempt to transcend such problems. The narrator of Je suis une bande de jeunes (1977) is determined not to let his environment the better of him:
Mes copains sont tous en cabane,

ou à l’armée, ou à l’usine.

Y se sont rangés des bécanes,

y’a plus d’jeunesse, tiens! ça me déprime.

Alors, pour mettre un peu d’ambiance

dans mon quartier de vieux débris,

j’ai groupé toutes mes connaissances

intellectuelles, et c’est depuis
que j’suis une bande de jeunes

à moi tout seul.

Je suis une bande de jeunes,

j’me fends la gueule.

My friends are all in the nick,

in the army, or working in factories.

They’ve settled down,

all the young people have gone, hey! it really gets me down.

So to liven things up

in my neighbourhood of old dodderers,

I’ve got together my entire intellectual

acquaintanceship, and since then
I’m a gang of youths

all on my own.

I’m a gang of youths,

what a crack-up!
The following verses reveal that he has acquired his ingenuously described “intellectual acquaintanceship” from gangster novels, road movies and comic books. These staples of popular culture provide the key references for a make-believe game which transforms his entire neighbourhood into a playground. His quest for entertainment is complemented musically by the bright picking of acoustic guitars and a quirky percussive arrangement. His adoption of multiple personalities provides the basis for a series of whimsical jokes:
Quand dans ma bande y’ a du rififi,

j’me téléphone, j’me fais une bouffe,

j’fais un colloque, j’me réunis,

c’est moi qui parle, c’est moi qu’écoute.

Parfois je m’engueule pour une soute

qu’est amoureuse de toute ma bande,

alors la sexualité de groupe

y’a rien de tel pour qu’on s’entende.

When there’s trouble in my gang,

I get in touch with myself,

I organise conferences and meetings,

I do all the speaking, and all the listening.

When I fight with myself over a trollop

who’s in love with the whole gang

there’s nothing like group sex

to foster good relations.
The game ends with a parody in franglais of Lucky Luke, the “poor lonesome cowboy” created by Goscinny and Morris in a comic-book series which itself parodied the mythology of Hollywood westerns. The Far West, like the underworld, was a particularly important reference for youth gangs of the zone. Both the blousons noirs of the 1960s and the zonards of the 1970s created a look which combined the leather jacket, jeans and tattoos popular among bikers with the Mexican boots or santiagos and the bandana worn by cowboys. Some of Renaud’s music from the second half of the 1970s was inspired by the dramatic orchestral soundtracks of Hollywood westerns and the bluegrass sounds of the Appalachian mountains. This transposition of Far West mythology to the zone often has a humorous intention in Renaud’s songs, although the connection is quite natural when one considers the city’s margins as a kind of frontier. Gustave Aimard’s adaptations of the novels of James Fenimoore Cooper inspired a similar correlation in nineteenth-century Paris, while the apaches and other peaux-rouges who frequented the historic zone and who emerged not long after Buffalo Bill brought his travelling circus to Paris proudly identified with the American Indian tribes to whom they were compared.
The humour of Je suis une bande de jeunes stems in particular from the convergence of the narrator’s youthful innocence with the gritty realism of the street. The line “y se sont rangés des bécanes” offers a comically diminutive variation of the expression se ranger des voitures, meaning “to go straight” or “to settle down.” In the final verse, the narrator unconvincingly compares his moped excursions with the exploits of the biker gang portrayed in The Wild One:
Quand j’me balade en mobylette,

on dirait l’équipée sauvage,

quinze décibels c’est la tempête

dans tout le voisinage.

When I go for a spin on my moped,

I look like the wild one,

at fifteen decibels, it’s like a storm

all over the neighbourhood.
At the same time, these lines recall the scene in Les Misérables where Gavroche hurtles through the dawn streets of Paris with a cart he has stolen for the barricades:
Two lampposts broken one after the other and this song which Gavroche was singing at the top of his voice; it was a bit much for such cowardly streets who want to sleep while the sun rises . . . Clearly, the Hydra of Anarchy was out of its box and wreaking havoc in the neighbourhood.127
The way Renaud’s narrator appropriates space through imagination and a child-like sense of play makes one think of many other passages from Les Misérables, for example when Gavroche turns Bonaparte’s unfinished, vermin-infested model elephant – an entire zone unto itself – into a kind of exotic cubby-house, or when Hugo describes the presence of a typical Parisian street urchin in the upper circle of the theatre: “He only has to be there, with his radiant happiness and vibrant enthusiasm, clapping his hands like a bird flaps its wings, for this narrow, fetid, dark, sordid, unhealthy, hideous and abominable hold to be called the Gods.”128
The narrator of Je suis une bande de jeunes can hardly be described as a revolutionary. However, his antics do recall something of the noisy, carnivalesque demonstrations of May 1968. Furthermore, the opening verse could be seen as an allusion to the harnessing of the May movement’s youthful energy by the institutions of bourgeois society and also to Renaud’s feeling of isolation at a time when many former soixante-huitards had renounced all hope of realising their ideals. Similarly, the parody of Lucky Luke at the end of the song is not without a hint of melancholy:
I’m a poor lonesome young band,

I feel alone.

I’m a poor lonesome young band,

I break my gueule.129
The cartoon-like attributes of Renaud’s narrator and his resemblance to Gavroche must also have provided a welcome counterpoint to the stereotyped images of youth gangs relayed by the media. These images, which often amplified violent incidents in a paranoid and sensationalist manner, justified repressive attitudes on the part of exponents of law and order and contrasted with a number of more reflective sociological studies which concluded that crime and violence, although they were a feature of youth gangs, rarely constituted their reason for existence.130 Renaud may have been fascinated by the violence of his delinquent friends, but he was also compelled to demystify their rituals. Many, if not all, of his songs about the zone emphasise their protagonists’ vulnerability as well as their capacity for humour and play. Others poke fun at the fantasies of omnipotence which underlie their heroes’ abortive attempts to emulate real-life gangsters.
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The delinquent figure in the early songs of Renaud iconGreek-english lexicon of the New Testament and other early christian...
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