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Similarly, Renaud often sends up his own tough guy pretensions. In the monologue Peau aime (1978), he jokes about his slight build and bandy legs. After explaining to the audience the significance of the tattoos on his arms, he claims:
Dans l’dos j’voulais m’faire tatouer
un aigle aux ailes déployées.
On m’a dit: y’a pas la place,
non, t’es pas assez carré,
alors t’auras un moineau.
Eh! y’a des moineaux rapaces
ça t’fait marrer, mes conneries?
I wanted a tattoo on my back
of an eagle with spread wings.
I was told: there’s not enough room,
nope, you’re not broad enough,
we’ll do you a sparrow.
Hey! some sparrows are birds of prey
my bullshit stories make you laugh?
Let’s drop it,
I’m putting things straight!
By presenting both himself and his zonard protagonists as comically inept or harmless, Renaud may well have reassured the bourgeois members of his audience, as the authors of Cent ans de chanson française suggest. He may also have wanted to pre-empt questions about his authenticity. Perhaps, though, the most important aspect of such demystification was its potential to humanise the zonards and, by enabling them to laugh at themselves as well as at the more privileged members of society, to forestall the kind of pathological and ultimately self-defeating hatred promoted by the exponents of “gangsta rap” a decade later.
In Renaud’s songs, physical frailty also goes hand in hand with revolutionary ardour. Conversely, he mercilessly derides sporting types. This connection between physical attributes and social values had numerous precedents in French literature and song. Gavroche and his friends admired each other’s physical defects.131 The hero of Emile Goudeau’s 1885 novel La Vache enragée, a humpback named Tignassou, had a political vision based on what Jerrold Seigel has described as “a biological theory of the conditions of revolutionary purity”:
Until his own time, he believes, every revolution was spoiled by the subsequent corruption of its leaders; success turned the party heads into satisfied conservatives. Revolutionary aspirations could be fulfilled only if new leaders emerged. There was but one group that could be depended on to remain social outcasts, physical misfits, and they must therefore become the Revolution’s leaders. Hearing Tignassou’s discourses, one of his friends conceives a name for the paper he wants to start: The Crooked Line: Organ of the Humpbacks, the Bandy-Legged, the Rickety, the One-armed, and the Deaf.132
The image of the street kid as a small bird goes back at least as far as Les Misérables and was frequently associated in the 1920s and 1930s with the female protagonists of realist song.133 In his 1952 song La Mauvaise réputation, Georges Brassens expressed his gratitude to all manner of misfits, albeit with an added twist:
Au village, sans prétention,
J’ai mauvaise réputation;
Qu’je m’démène ou qu’je reste coi,
Je pass’ pour un je-ne-sais-quoi.
Je ne fais pourtant de tort à personne,
En suivant mon ch’min de petit bonhomme;
Mais les brav’s gens n’aiment pas que
L’on suive une autre route qu’eux...
Non, les brav’s gens n’aiment pas que
L’on suive une autre route qu’eux...
Tout le monde médit de moi,
Sauf les muets, ça va de soi.
In my village, without any pretensions,
I’ve got a bad reputation;
Whether I struggle furiously or remain silent,
I’m taken for a God knows what.
And yet, I cause no-one any harm,
As I go on my merry way;
But good folk don’t like
You to follow a different road from them...
No, good folk don’t like
You to follow a different road from them...
Everyone speaks ill of me,
Except for the mute, that goes without saying.
While Renaud enriched this tradition of celebrating the diminutive, the disabled and the eccentric, in some songs such as Adieu minette (1976), he accentuated instead the robust sexuality, violence and political incorrectness of youth gangs. The lyrics of Adieu Minette are set to a moderately-paced waltz of the type one may have expected to hear in a suburban dance-hall of the 1960s. This is something of a last waltz, since the narrator has decided to leave his bourgeois girlfriend on the grounds of social incompatibility. His recollection of their meeting reveals him to be considerably less innocent than the narrator of Je suis une bande de jeunes and more like the riffraff of traditional realist songs, whose supposed sexual prowess usually proved irresistible to frustrated bourgeois women:
Sous tes cheveux beaucoup trop blonds,
décolorés, ça va de soi,
t’avais une cervelle de pigeon,
mais j’aimais ça, mais j’aimais ça.
Au fond de tes grands yeux si bleus,
trop maquillés, ça va de soi,
t’avais que’qu’chose de prétentieux
que j’aimais pas, que j’aimais pas.
J’avais la tignasse en bataille
et les yeux délavés.
Je t’ai culbutée dans la paille,
t’as pris ton pied.
Adieu fillette, nous n’étions pas du même camp
Adieu minette, bonjour à tes parents.
Beneath your hair which was far too blond,
and bleached, that goes without saying,
you had a brain the size of pea,
but I liked that, yeah I liked that.
In your big blue eyes,
thick with makeup, that goes without saying,
there was something pretentious
which I didn’t like, no I didn’t like.
I had a shock of hair
and glazed eyes.
I screwed you in the straw
And you came.
So long kid, we weren’t on the same side
So long kid, say hi to your parents
The narrator then recalls being introduced to his girlfriend’s entourage at her holiday house in the fashionable resort town of Deauville:
Tu m’as présenté tes copains,
presque aussi cons qu’des militaires.
C’étaient des vrais républicains,
buveurs de bière, buveurs de bière.
Le grand type qui s’croyait malin
en m’traitant d’anarchiste,
j’regrette pas d’y avoir mis un pain
avant qu’on s’quitte.
You introduced me to your friends,
they were almost as stupid as soldiers.
They were real republicans,
Beer drinkers, yeah beer drinkers.
The big one who thought he was being smart
by calling me an anarchist,
I don’t regret having biffed him
before we split up.
Another party at his girlfriend’s home in the exclusive Parisian district of Neuilly has similarly catastrophic consequences:
J’suis venu un soir à ta surboum,
avec vingt-trois d’mes potes.
On a piétiné tes loukoums
avec nos bottes.
I came one night to your party,
with twenty-three of my mates.
We stomped on your Turkish Delight
with our boots.
The narrator’s attempt to explain such behaviour combines serious sociological reflection with an expression of false remorse:
Faut pas en vouloir aux marioles,
y z’ont pas eu d’éducation.
A La Courneuve, y’a pas d’écoles,
y’a qu’des prisons et du béton.
D’ailleurs y z’ont pas tout cassé,
y z’ont chouravé qu’l’argenterie,
Ton pote qui f’sait du karaté,
qu’est-ce qu’on y a mis, qu’est-ce qu’on y a mis!
Ton père, j’l’ai traité d’enfoiré
excuse-moi auprès d’lui:
si j’avais su que c’était vrai,
j’y aurais redit.
Don’t blame those jokers,
they’ve had no education.
At La Courneuve, there are no schools,
just prisons and concrete.
Anyway, they didn’t break everything,
they only nicked the silver,
Your mate who did karate
we really laid into him, yeah we really laid into him!
I called your father a poofter
Apologise to him for me:
if I’d known it was true,
I would’ve said it again.
The contrast between the narrator’s ironic if macho sense of humour and his girlfriend’s vacuousness, between his virility and her father’s effeminacy, and between the spontaneous violence of the narrator and his underprivileged friends on the one hand, and the contemptuous bluster of his girlfriend’s privileged male entourage on the other hand, thus forms the basis for a highly irreverent attack on the bourgeoisie as a class. The evocation of class differences in sexual terms and the assimilation of sexual conquest with the conquest of urban space is brutish and crudely vengeful, but also reflects the difficulty for youths from a grand ensemble like La Courneuve to change their circumstances through more gradual, political means. At the same time, the relationship between the narrator’s uninhibited sexuality and his antimilitarism can perhaps be linked to the soixante-huitards’ belief that sexual liberation was a prerequisite for successful social revolution. The juxtaposition of brazen sexual imagery and anarchistic references in Adieu minette is no doubt a far cry from the gentle hippy exhortation to “make love, not war”; it is striking nonetheless that the song concludes with an antimilitaristic quip:
ça fait trois semaines que j’suis bidasse,
l’armée c’t’une grande famille.
La tienne était moins dégueulasse,
viv’ment la quille!
I’ve been a soldier for three weeks
the army’s one big family.
Yours was less revolting,
I can’t wait for demob!
The seduction of a bourgeois girl or the trashing of her parents’ house in Adieu minette and the carnivalesque invasion of city streets in Je suis une bande de jeunes do not constitute revolutionary acts in any political sense, but they exemplify the kind of primal, expressive energy which has haunted French bourgeois society since the time of the Commune, and can be tied in with the appropriation of space as well as the quest for spontaneous pleasure which characterised May 1968.
The connection between the Commune, May 1968 and Renaud’s songs about the zone can be extended in a metaphorical sense to his celebration of zonard language, in the same way that Michel de Certeau has compared the “prise de parole” (“speech-making” or, literally, “taking of the word”) by soixante-huitards with the storming of the Bastille.134 The most striking example of this linguistic Commune is Laisse béton (1975), the opening track on Renaud’s second album and his first major hit. Based on a real incident involving one of his friends, Laisse béton describes in picturesque slang a series of violent confrontations between the narrator, who is minding his own business in a typical Parisian bar, and an anonymous stranger who covets the various items of clothing which mark the narrator out as a zonard: his “Santiag’ ” (Mexican cowboy boots), his “blouson” (“jacket”) and his “Lévi-Strauss” jeans.
The memory of what must have been a terrifying experience in real life is exorcised by a series of humorous embellishments: the bluegrass musical arrangement transforms the bar into a Far West saloon; the consecutive punch-ups take on a slapstick quality and leave the narrator stark naked; his fate inspires the song’s absurd moral, “faut pas traîner dans les bars, / à moins d’être fringué en costard” (“you shouldn’t hang around in bars, / unless you’re wearing a suit”). However, the appeal of Laisse béton stems primarily from Renaud’s skilful celebration of zonard slang:135
J’étais tranquille, j’étais peinard,
accoudé au flipper,
le type est entré dans le bar,
a commandé un jambon-beurre,
puis il s’est approché de moi,
pi y m’a regardé comme ça:
T’as des bottes, mon pote, elles me bottent!
j’parie qu’c’est des Santiag’;
viens faire un tour dans l’terrain vague,
j’vais t’apprendre un jeu rigolo
à grands coups de chaîne de vélo,
j’te fais tes bottes à la baston! Moi j’y’ai dit:
Y m’a filé une beigne, j’y’ai filé une torgnole,
m’a filé une châtaigne, j’lui ai filé mes grolles.
I was hanging loose, taking it easy,
leaning on the pinball machine,
the guy came into the bar,
ordered a ham roll,
came towards me,
and gave me this look:
Dig your boots, mate, they’re great!
I bet they’re Mexican;
come over to the vacant lot,
I’ll teach you this cool game
with bike chains,
I’ll fight you for your boots! I replied:
He threw a punch, I threw a bunch of fives,
he threw a knuckle sandwich, I threw him my boots.
“Laisse béton” signifies “laisse tomber” in verlan, an archaic form of backwards slang revived by zonards in the 1970s. When Renaud wrote Laisse béton, verlan was not widely spoken: this is attested by the translation of the expression into standard French on the album cover. The fact that tomber became in verlan a homonym for the building material which dominated the world of the zone must have given the expression additional resonance for the zonards among the song’s audience. According to Dominique Sanchez, “the fringe-dwellers of France, proud to have been put on stage and into words in a song, hummed along ecstatically. The broad masses were dumbfounded by the discovery that concrete could be something other than an agglomerate of stones, gravel and sand.”136 The subsequent popularity of the expression laisse béton is illustrated by its use as a title both for Serge Le Peron’s 1984 feature film about the youth of the banlieue and for a French language manual published in Denmark.137
Laisse béton contains other exotic terms such as chouraver, a verb frequently used by Renaud and based on the Romany tchorav, meaning “to steal.” He cleverly makes “Lévi-Strauss” rhyme with “craignoss” [sic], an adjective referring to anything considered “ugly, dubious-looking or even worrying.”138 The humorous accumulation of synonyms to designate the punches thrown by the song’s duelling protagonists is a typical feature of slang and exemplifies what Alphonse Boudard has described as
the supremacy of the imagination which argot proclaims because, beyond its secretive intent, its innumerable sources, its need to fill in the gaps neglected or considered unimportant by academic vocabulary, it feeds on the magnificent and sensuous pleasure of storytelling.139
Renaud no doubt picked up much of this slang from the delinquent friends he made at Le Bréa, some of whom came from the housing estates of Argenteuil, a north-western suburb of Paris. The linguist Claude Duneton also emphasises the influence of Renaud’s earlier acquaintances at
the Porte d’Orléans... The Porte d’O, the linguistic equivalent of the Belleville of yesteryear, spilling over Highway 20, the Vache-Noire! All those seedy areas, partial to bad boy patter. A small witness rocks up and winds the clock forward, instantly bringing things up to date. Renaud is a territorial singer. He doesn’t invent the substance of his language, he steals it... That’s how he astonishes his listeners, with this ancient method of appropriation, a lot more difficult to achieve than the deceptive evidence suggests. That’s where you have to be really clever! In addition to being talented, I mean. So that it strikes just the right chord. More than anything, you need the gift of the gab... Innovation comes later, like artistic and personal style, tenderness and hatred as well...140
One could write a whole thesis on the extent to which Renaud’s language constitutes a genuine form of argot.141 However, this type of linguistic analysis, while not without anecdotal or technical interest, would risk missing the point. When informed by Albert Paraz about the creation of the Académie d’Argot in February 1948, Céline responded in his typically obscene but incisive fashion: “They really give people the shits with their argot. You take the language you know, you wiggle it around, either it comes or it doesn’t. Voltaire makes me come, so does Bruant. It’s the bedroom that counts, not the dictionary.”142 Céline’s metaphor can be extended to Renaud’s emphasis on the sensual aspects of zonard language, which represent, as suggested earlier, a Commune of words, a linguistic assertion of “the right to the city” and its corollary, “the right to be different.”
The intensive mediatisation of a song like Laisse béton was a double-edged sword. It both diffused and dissipated what was distinctive and identity-forming in the language used by zonards. Since the huge success of Laisse béton in the early months of 1978 and of Claude Zidi’s 1984 feature film Les Ripoux (verlan for les pourris), verlan has been appropriated by French teenagers from all social backgrounds as well as by the show business and advertising sectors. In her 1988 study of verlan, Vivienne Mela writes:
Unfortunately for the tireurs, those descendants of the “pickpockets,” France has begun to study its housing estates. Singers like Lavilliers, Higelin and Renaud, and illustrators like Margerin, among others, have popularised and poetised the zone, its mores and language. Verlan has evolved from a form of criminal slang into a teenage language, and has been appropriated by advertisers as a fashion statement, and even by people from the world of show business and politics143
Mela emphasises nonetheless that the original speakers of verlan renew its esoteric qualities, for example by limiting its usage to carefully chosen words, many of which are slang to begin with, or by “reverlanising” certain words of which the original translation into verlan involved more than a straightforward syllabic inversion.144 Mela concludes her study by asserting that “the use of a word in verlan, however innocuous it might be, always marks the speaker as ‘marginal’ (in the very broad sense of the term) in relation to mainstream values.”145 Pierre Merle laments in a more general sense the supplantation of old-fashioned slang by the “langage branché” (“trendy language”) of the 1980s, which he describes in post-modernist terms as a kind of amoeba-like parasite feeding off a variety of sources and demanding easy and instant gratification. Although he acknowledges Renaud’s talent and relishes some of the expressions popularised by his songs, he argues that “the language used by the 1980s trendy . . . is somewhere between the intonations of Renaud and the early dialogues of Michel Blanc.”146 Unlike Merle, Duneton does not believe that the widespread diffusion of argot has resulted in a watering-down of its distinctive qualities; on the contrary, he considers this to be a novel and subversive development:
The novelty is that “Renaud’s language” rapidly becomes everybody’s language
. . . these days, among young people, for example, everyone speaks, or at least understands, in more or less the same way . . . In this sense, it can be said that Renaud is the first authentic “popular singer” of the entire nation. This is the reason – and I don’t think I’m too far off the mark – for the adoration in which he is held by his audience, who feel overcome with emotion, with joyful gratitude towards the singer poet. Conversely, it is also the reason for the extremely serious hatred he provokes, for the contempt and sarcasm . . . It is hardly surprising that Renaud is an “irritating singer.” He disseminates throughout France the language of its suburbs! Yet another troublemaker. Just like before 1914!...147
Indeed, Renaud’s use of zonard slang has much in common with the fin-de-siècle anarchist culture described by Richard Sonn:
Not bombs and deputies, not even pimps and thieves, but ultimately social relationships were mediated by argot; the vocations symbolizing critical relationships were therefore deemed important. If the figures chosen to represent these relationships appear less than praiseworthy, that is because argot tended to be demystifying and derogatory, thus operating on a kind of negative logic whereby that which was last came first, that which was most marginal and disreputable was accorded pride of place.
Anarchist theory and practice corresponded to the “negative logic” of argot in a number of ways. The central anarchist values of revolutionary spontaneity and direct action were paralleled linguistically in argot by the dominance of the concrete over the abstract, of the particular and local over the general and distant. The culture of argot had little use for delayed gratification, as exemplified either by the bourgeois work ethic or by the socialist faith in historical determinism. Neither could it become inspired by the prospect of parliamentary democracy; what politics it did profess was direct and participatory rather than representative.148
Sonn’s observations provide a useful starting point for analysing Renaud’s Où c’est qu’j’ai mis mon flingue? (1980), a highly accomplished song comparable in its scope and belligerence to Hexagone. Applying the “negative logic” evoked by Sonn, Renaud adopts the persona of a dissolute zonard, who addresses his listeners from the bar of “un bistrot des plus cradingues” (“the filthiest of pubs”). The status of this persona and the environment he frequents belie the skilful way in which Renaud weaves together a range of themes, moving seamlessly between a denunciation of the show business industry, an attack on the French Communist Party, an exposition of anarchist principles and an evocation of the social malaise which dominated the end of Giscard’s presidency. In the other songs discussed in this chapter, Renaud either defends or celebrates the zonard figure; here, he uses this figure as a mouthpiece for his own libertarian beliefs.
The first verses constitute an artistic manifesto in which Renaud excoriates his critics in the music press and are packed with the kind of concrete imagery described by Sonn:
J’veux qu’mes chansons soient des caresses,
ou bien des poings dans la gueule.
A qui qu’ce soit que je m’agresse,
j’veux vous remuer dans vos fauteuils.
Alors, écoutez-moi un peu,
les pousse-mégots et les nez-d’boeux,
les ringards, les folkeux, les journaleux.
D’puis qu’y’a mon nom dans vos journaux,
qu’on voit ma tronche à la télé,
où j’vends ma soupe empoisonnée,
vous m’avez un peu trop gonflé.
J’suis pas chanteur pour mes copains149,
et j’peux être teigneux comme un chien.
J’déclare pas, avec Aragon,
qu’le poète a toujours raison.
La femme est l’avenir des cons,
et l’homme n’est l’avenir de rien.
Moi, mon av’nir est sur le zinc
d’un bistrot des plus cradingues,
mais bordel! où c’est qu’j’ai mis mon flingue?
J’vais pas m’laisser emboucaner
par les fachos, par les gauchos,
tous ces pauv’mecs endoctrinés
qui foutent ma révolte au tombeau.
Tous ceux qui m’traitent de démago
dans leurs torchons qu’j’lirai jamais:
“Renaud c’est mort, il est récupéré”;
Tous ces p’tits-bourgeois incurables
qui parlent pas, qu’écrivent pas, qui bavent,
qui vivront vieux leur vie d’minables,
ont tous dans la bouche un cadavre.
I want my songs to be caresses,
or smacks in the mouth.
Whoever I attack,
I want to see you squirm.
So listen up,
All you tools, drop kicks,
dorks, folk-singers and journos.
Since my name’s been in your papers,
and my mug on the telly,
where I sell my poisoned wares,
you’ve pissed me off just a bit too much.
I’m not a singer for my friends,
and I can be as nasty as they come.
I don’t proclaim, along with Aragon,
that poets are always right.
Women are the future of idiots,
and men are the future of nothing.
My future’s at the bar
of the filthiest of pubs,
Fuck! Where’ve I put my gun?
I’m not gonna take any shit
from fascists or lefties,
all those indoctrinated losers
who think they can bury my revolt.
Those who call me a demagogue
in their rags I’ll never read:
“Renaud’s finished, he’s sold out”;
Those incurable petit bourgeois
who can’t speak or write, who can only dribble,
who’ll live long and pathetic lives,
have all got a corpse in their mouth.
On one level, these verses can be understood as a defence against the accusation of “selling out.” This was a sensitive issue for former soixante-huitards throughout the 1970s, and particularly at the end of the decade, when bastions of the radical press such as Actuel and Libération abandoned their revolutionary heritage. Renaud, on the contrary, reaffirms his loyalty to the ideals of May 1968 with passionate intensity. His claim that his critics have “a corpse in their mouth” alludes to a Situationist maxim popularised during that period: “Those who talk about revolution and class struggle without explicit reference to daily life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive about the rejection of constraints, have got a corpse in their mouth.”150
On another level, Renaud’s aggressiveness may have helped him to ward off his real anxiety that both his zonard persona and the subversive content of his songs had indeed been compromised or emasculated by his involvement in show business and the star-system. This anxiety was heightened by the spectacular success of his concerts at the Bobino music-hall in March 1980. The unanimously positive reviews which these concerts attracted in the music press concerned Renaud almost as much as the carping of earlier critics. According to Jacques Erwan:
Young people from Paris and the suburbs as well as entire families queued up each night to applaud their “idol.” Eager to observe what people were already calling the “Renaud phenomenon,” Parisian “society” made its way to Bobino
. . . The press was unanimous in its praise . . . all the newspapers paid tribute to Renaud’s original talent. But this led Renaud to ask himself: “Am I so innocuous that my lyrics don’t scare anyone? Or is the praise of people who are supposed not to like me their way of getting me to sell out?” This is indeed a valid question.151
As if to emphasise his resistance to such flattery, Renaud opened his 1982 series of concerts at L’Olympia with Où c’est qu’j’ai mis mon flingue? Extracts from the song also appeared on the album cover of the live recording of the concert released by Polydor. During this period, he explained to Erwan:
If I write songs, it’s because I want people to hear them. In the beginning, my audience was five people in a student pad; now, there are hundreds of thousands of listeners. So that people get to know my songs, I have to use the means with which performers are provided these days to promote their “work.” Even if I get sucked in... People who enjoy my songs and who criticise me for being with Polydor and for going on TV wouldn’t know the songs if I’d refused to use those means...152
However, Renaud’s decision to work within the system continued to trouble him. In an interview with Sacha Reins some ten years later, he concluded pessimistically:
Our society is democratic, entertainment-based and capitalistic . . . I criticise this society, I’m given permission to do so, these criticisms become a consumer product. Huge amounts of money are involved and, in the final analysis, I’ve become a mere link in the chain. Philosophically, I might feel better if I sang in a basement, far removed from crowds, applause and money. An artistic creation, even if it criticises society, becomes a product as soon as the media are involved. The system is extremely shrewd, even in its contradictions. Bossuet used to say: “Only those who can do nothing are allowed to speak.” That’s certainly my case...153
Où c’est qu’j’ai mis mon flingue? represents nonetheless a creative attempt to burst through the alienating effects of “la société du spectacle” and challenges its capacity to contain subversion from within.
Renaud’s artistic manifesto leads in to a political one:
Y’a pas qu’les mômes, dans la rue,
qui m’collent au cul pour une photo,
y’a même des flics qui me saluent,
qui veulent que j’signe dans leurs calots.
Moi j’crache dedans, et j’crie bien haut
qu’le bleu marine me fait gerber,
qu’j’aime pas l’travail, la justice et l’armée.
C’est pas d’main qu’on m’verra marcher
avec les connards qui vont aux urnes,
choisir c’lui qui les f’ra crever.
Moi, ces jours-là, j’reste dans ma turne.
Rien à foutre de la lutte des crasses,
tous les systèmes sont dégueulasses!
J’peux pas encaisser les drapeaux,
quoiqu’le noir soit le plus beau.
La Marseillaise, même en reggae,
ça m’a toujours fait dégueuler.
Les marches militaires, ça m’déglingue
et votr’ République, moi j’la tringle,
mais bordel! où c’est qu’j’ai mis mon flingue?
It’s not just kids, in the street,
who pester me for a photo,
there are even cops who say hi,
who want me to sign the inside of their hats.
I spit in them, and shout out loud
that navy blue makes me spew,
that I hate work, the legal system and the army.
Don’t hold your breath waiting to see me
standing in line with arseholes at the ballot box,
voting for the next one who’ll make them suffer.
On election days, I stay in my room.
Couldn’t give a stuff about crass struggle,
all systems stink!
I can’t stand flags,
even though the black one’s the nicest.
La Marseillaise, even the reggae version,
has always made me spew.
Military marches really kill me
and your Republic can go screw itself,
Fuck! where’ve I put my gun?
Renaud’s typically anarchistic contempt for parliamentary democracy was no doubt reinforced by the bitter power struggles which divided the French Left in the period leading up to the presidential elections of May 1981. His expression “lutte des crasses,” a piquant and inventive deformation of lutte des classes (class struggle), lends a shabby, sordid aspect to this sectarianism (Renaud’s idiosyncratic use of the noun “crasse” – which literally means either “filth” or “a dirty trick” – in reference to political power mongers is difficult to translate into English). Renaud’s depth of feeling is further suggested by his rejection of the reggae version of the French national anthem, released by his friend Serge Gainsbourg in April 1979. This was itself a subversive gag, which provoked a public scandal and violent protests by paratroopers at Gainsbourg’s concerts.154 It may seem surprising given Renaud’s vitriolic rejection of the ballot-box in Où c’est qu’j’ai mis mon flingue? that he subsequently voted in the elections, for his friend Coluche in the first round, then for François Mitterrand in the second round.155 Renaud confessed to Erwan:
First let me say that I voted. And yet, for an anarchist, to vote is to choose one’s master, to go along with the power game and to take part in the farce of democracy in which one buffoon succeeds another. However, even if my vote had only helped to free Knobelspiess, I wouldn’t regret having voted for the Left. In Où c’est qu’j’ai mis mon flingue? I called upon people not to vote; without renouncing my position, let me say that I wrote the song in a bad mood and without humour. It was an angry outburst.156
This contradiction between theoretical ideals and political practice did, however, have significant precedents in the anarchist tradition.157 Many former soixante-huitards through their support behind Mitterrand. Although the presidential candidate had cynically exploited the May movement in a precocious and unsuccessful bid for power in May 1968, he nonetheless represented the Left’s best chance of political victory and appeared to support more genuinely egalitarian values than his rival Giscard. He had lost the presidential elections of May 1974 by an extremely narrow margin; notwithstanding the collapse of the Union de la Gauche and the Programme Commun in September 1977, the possibility of a Socialist victory in May 1981 was strengthened by acute social and industrial unrest at the end of Giscard’s term in office.
It is this unrest which Renaud evokes in the remaining verses of Où c’est qu’j’ai mis mon flingue?:
D’puis qu’on m’a tiré mon canif,
un soir au métro Saint-Michel,
j’fous plus les pieds dans une manif
sans un nunchak’ ou un cocktail.
A Longwy comme à Saint-Lazare,
plus de slogans face aux flicards,
mais des fusils, des pavés, des grenades!
Gueuler contre la répression
en défilant “Bastille-Nation”
quand mes frangins crèvent en prison
ça donne une bonne conscience aux cons,
aux nez-d’boeux et aux pousse-mégots
qui foutent ma révolte au tombeau.
Si un jour j’me r’trouve la gueule par terre,
sûr qu’ça s’ra d’la faute à Baader.
Si j’crève le nez dans le ruisseau,
sûr qu’ça s’ra d’la faute à Bonnot.
Pour l’instant, ma gueule est sur le zinc
d’un bistrot des plus cradingues,
MAIS FAITES GAFFE! J’AI MIS LA MAIN SUR MON FLINGUE!
Since my pocket-knife was confiscated,
one night at the Saint-Michel metro station,
I never go to a demo
without nunchakus or a [Molotov] cocktail.
At Longwy and Saint-Lazare,
no more slogans when confronted by the pigs,
but guns, cobblestones and grenades!
Yelling against repression
during “Bastille-Nation” marches
when my brothers are dying in prison
only gives arseholes a good conscience,
as well as the drop kicks and tools
who think they can bury my revolt.
If I wind up dead one day,
it’ll definitely be Baader’s fault.
If I die in the gutter,
Bonnot’s the one to blame.
In the meantime, I’m at the bar
of the filthiest of pubs,
WATCH IT! I’VE JUST FOUND MY GUN!
These verses allude to the various movements which had recourse to violent protest in the late 1970s, and constitute a powerful apologia for the anarchist belief in “propaganda by the deed.” Two recent incidents in particular enabled Renaud to bring together once again “the labouring classes and the dangerous classes.”
At the end of 1978, the “Longwy ville morte” campaign had been launched to counteract the mass layoffs in the Lorraine iron and steel industry announced by the Giscard government in its “Plan Acier.” This was followed by clashes between metal workers and the CRS during demonstrations in early 1979. Although most metal workers were law-abiding citizens, Elisabeth Schemla wrote at the time that certain inhabitants of Longwy had become so exasperated by governmental policy that they were threatening to use “shotguns and even explosives” as weapons of resistance.158 On 7 March, seven riot-police were shot at by a group of demonstrators in Denain. In May, Renaud took part in a benefit concert organised by unions at Longwy and in a radio program organised by the independent communist station Lorraine Coeur d’Acier as well as singing for workers at the USINOR factory on which the crisis was centred.
On 13 January 1979, the Saint-Lazare district of Paris had been the site of a demonstration advertised the previous day in Libération as “a New Wave party (organised by the ‘Hard Autonome’ group) in protest against rising prices, rent and other indirect taxes.”159 The “ringards” (“dorks”), “fêlés” (“loonies”) and “zonards” invited to the “party” arrived with iron bars and Molotov cocktails. They intended to attack what they considered to be symbols of capitalist exploitation: temping agencies, a pornographic cinema and the Taxation Office. They smashed shop windows, looted a gun shop and fought with the police. Although subsequent reports vastly exaggerated the violence, passers-by had been terrified. The autonomes who organised the demonstration constituted a diverse and loosely-structured formation. Two journalists writing for L’Express explained:
Autonomie, which emerged in France in 1976, was originally – and still is – a state of mind, a vague concept, the meeting point for diverse discontents. Disappointed by the extreme Left, which they now call “retro,” squatters, unemployed youths, penniless students, drifters and rebels without a cause have all at various times defined themselves as autonomes. Autonomie was the rejection of dogmatism, of hierarchical organisation, and the justification of direct action. Taking up in their own fashion the slogan of “Long live the Revolution,” the Maoist formation which wanted “Everything immediately,” they have decided to use, “according to our needs,” they say, “this society which subjects us to daily violence.”160
Although the various groups defining themselves as autonomes were not always in agreement – the more political elements, for example, sought to distance themselves from the zonards and from the violence at Saint-Lazare – the movement as a whole represented an alarming expression of the growing division in France between rich and poor.
The idea that “the labouring classes and the dangerous classes” could be brothers in arms was reinforced at a demonstration on 23 March 1979 against the redundancies in the iron and steel sector. Plain-clothes policemen dispersed among the crowd with a view to intercepting the notoriously elusive autonomes arrested more than a hundred protesters. Spurious charges were brought against several young men, who received between one and three-year prison terms.161 Renaud may well have had this scandal in mind when he wrote that his “brothers are dying in prison,” although this phrase has a more obvious connection with the subsequent reference to Andreas Baader, who, along with Jan Carl Raspe, Gundrun Ensslin and Irmgard Möller, was alleged to have committed suicide in October 1977 while detained in solitary confinement at Stammheim Prison. Baader, Ensslin and Ulrike Meinhof had founded in 1970 the Fraction Armée Rouge, a German terrorist group which sought to promote the ideas of the New Left by adopting the urban guerilla tactics employed by Latin American revolutionaries. One of their key aims was to provoke and thereby unmask what they considered to be the repressive nature of the capitalist system. The violent extremism of the Baader-Meinhof gang pointed to the increasing polarisation in Western society between libertarian and authoritarian forces and foreshadowed the proliferation of terrorist activity in the second half of the 1970s.162
Renaud also evokes the name of Bonnot, a legendary Belle Epoque gangster who had been a mechanic and an active member of the anarcho-syndicalist movement before turning to crime in the years leading up to the First World War. Bonnot died on 28 April 1912 following a spectacular shoot-out with the police. Renaud’s audience would almost certainly have connected his reference to Bonnot with the fate of contemporary figures such as Jacques Mesrine and Pierre Goldman. Mesrine was France’s most wanted criminal, a violent, daring, but highly intelligent and colourful gangster who had captured the imagination of the French public by presenting himself as a contemporary Robin Hood and as a champion of those whom he considered to be the victims of a repressive penal system.163 On 2 November 1979, Mesrine was shot dead by police during a massive operation involving more than three hundred personnel. Renaud dedicated the album Marche à l’ombre to a certain “Paul Toul,” among others: this was one of the aliases used by Mesrine.164 Although Renaud himself had never served time in prison, he performed on more than one occasion at Fleury-Mérogis, where the March protesters had been incarcerated, and gave a free concert at Melun Prison on 20 December 1980.
Pierre Goldman had been killed by unidentified assailants only six weeks before Mesrine, on 20 September 1979. A former soixante-huitard and member of the Union des Etudiants Communistes (UEC), Goldman left France after May 1968 to join guerilla forces fighting in Venezuela. Following his return to France in October 1969, he drifted into a life of crime and was arrested in December of that year for three armed robberies and two murders. Found guilty on all counts and eventually sentenced to life imprisonment in 1974, he was released two years later after being acquitted of the murder charges. During his seven years in prison, he gained degrees in philosophy and Spanish and wrote his autobiography, Souvenirs obscurs d’un juif polonais né en France. The day after his murder, Serge July reflected on Goldman’s significance for the May generation:
In his own brutal, absolute, cut and dried manner, Pierre Goldman was the purest among us. The one who confronted his demons the most directly. That which for others was a literary theme was for him an open wound. That which for others was a conversational topic was for him a tragedy... Before 68, we spoke about the [Latin American] guerilla; he was part of that small group who went and joined it. Despairing of ever taking part in a revolution which we could call our own, we spoke about our quest for action in delinquent mode. Pierre carried out armed hold-ups. While we watched him. Intermittently, without knowing at that point that he was exploring on our behalf the limits of a generation who feared more than anything else the prospect of ending up lost.165
Renaud’s reference to his role models at the end of Où c’est qu’j’ai mis mon flingue? is a pastiche of Gavroche’s swan song; this reinforces the historical connection between the ideals of May 1968 and the various forms of “illegalism” into which they later evolved:
Joie est mon caractère,
C’est la faute à Voltaire,
Misère est mon trousseau,
C’est la faute à Rousseau......
Je suis tombé par terre,
C’est la faute à Voltaire,
Le nez dans le ruisseau,
C’est la faute à......166
Joyfulness is my character,
It’s Voltaire’s fault,
Poverty is my uniform
I’ve fallen to the ground,
It’s Voltaire’s fault,
Face down in the gutter,
The association of Baader and Bonnot (and, by extension, Mesrine and Goldman) with Voltaire and Rousseau may seem disconcerting, yet both the terrorist and the gangster were powerful symbols of their troubled times and were admired by a significant minority of French youth.167 This helps to explain the draconian attitude adopted by the French judiciary towards the young protesters of March 1979.
Curiously, Où c’est qu’j’ai mis mon flingue? escaped the censorship attracted by Hexagone five years earlier. This may have been due to the progressive relaxation of censorship laws during the 1970s or to Renaud’s increasing popularity; it may also have reflected the entertainment industry’s confidence in its capacity to empty genuine protest of its subversive content by transforming it into a commodity. However, the song provoked a bitter feud between Renaud and the Jeunesses Communistes, one of whose members published an article in Avant-Garde entitled “Adieu Renaud, on n’est pas du même camp” (“So long Renaud, we’re not on the same side”), in which he attacked “a Gavroche of the year 2000 expertly constructed by the show business industry.”168 Renaud had not only made a specific jibe at the revered communist poet, Louis Aragon (and, by extension, at the communist singer-songwriter Jean Ferrat, who set Aragon’s poetry to music), he had also ridiculed anti-abstention campaigns and protest marches from the Place de la Bastille to the Place de la Nation, both traditional PCF tactics. This came at a time when the PCF was being eclipsed by the rising star of Mitterrand’s Parti Socialiste and when increasing numbers of intellectuals were renouncing their faith in communist ideology. More generally, Où c’est qu’j’ai mis mon flingue? celebrated both the lumpenproletariat and the “illegalism” denounced by authoritarian communists since the time of Marx.
In many respects, Où c’est qu’j’ai mis mon flingue? was indeed a settling of scores with the PCF, which had not only betrayed the May movement, but which had also withdrawn from the Union de la Gauche in 1977. However, the popularity of the song among other listeners perhaps owed more to the way it forcefully articulated profound feelings of discontent in contemporary French society. Renaud’s apparent support for terrorism and the extremely violent tone of his poetry are in some ways quite shocking, but they reflect a period when parliamentary politics often appeared morally bankrupt. Renaud’s zonard was both an embodiment of social deprivation and a harbinger of violent revenge; coupled with the revolutionary ardour and eloquence of a former soixante-huitard, he was a force to be reckoned with.
The figure of the zonard was thus Renaud’s major source of inspiration throughout the second half of the 1970s. It enabled him to combine and develop in a topical context the political militancy and delinquent manner which he had acquired during May 1968. He experimented with this figure in a number of ways, from the documentary approach of Les Charognards and the carnivalesque flavour of Je suis une bande de jeunes to the revolutionary posture of Où c’est qu’j’ai mis mon flingue? forging in the process a mature poetic style and producing a compelling vision of relations in contemporary French society.
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