Chapter 2

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. In 1976, Giscard d’Estaing affirmed that "the era of concrete at any cost is over." 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.

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." 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").

 

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."

 

Some of Renaud’s songs from this period have been aptly described by Jacques Erwan as "sung reports" from the zone. 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.

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.

 

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. 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. 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. 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.

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. 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." 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.

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!" 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." 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.

 

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." 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,
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. 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!
_____________________

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 chicks,
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." 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.

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."

 

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.

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."

 

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.

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. 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.

 

 

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?
Laisse béton,
j’démystifie!
_____________________

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. 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.

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. 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. 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:

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:
Laisse béton!
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:
Forget it!
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." 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.

 

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." 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.

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...

 

One could write a whole thesis on the extent to which Renaud’s language constitutes a genuine form of argot. 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." 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 politics

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. 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." 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." 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!...

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.

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 copains,
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."

 

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.

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...

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...

 

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. 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. 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.

This contradiction between theoretical ideals and political practice did, however, have significant precedents in the anarchist tradition. 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. 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." 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."

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. 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.

 

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. 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. 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.

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......
_____________________

Joyfulness is my character,
It’s Voltaire’s fault,
Poverty is my uniform
Blame Rousseau......
I’ve fallen to the ground,
It’s Voltaire’s fault,
Face down in the gutter,
Blame......

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. 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." 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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