The songs of Renaud’s early career constitute a journey which began with the effervescence of May 1968 and culminated in the image of "le zonard déchaîné." During this journey, Renaud discovered both a stance and a mode through which he was able to retain and develop the most significant aspects of his experience as a soixante-huitard. The stance he found was that of the delinquent outsider; the mode was the delinquent’s street slang.


Renaud’s first, Situationist-inspired songs of May 1968 exemplified the soixante-huitards’ quest for a revolutionary identity. The problematic relationship between the soixante-huitards and the militant proletariat led the former to look elsewhere for a way in which to express their opposition to the consumerist and paternalistic values of post-war capitalist society. This they found among the lumpenproletariat, whose visceral antiauthoritarianism had already attracted the attention of Situationist theorists like Raoul Vaneigem. The view that the lumpenproletariat possessed untapped revolutionary potential was later summed up succinctly by Henri Lefebvre:


In the conditions of the modern world, only the man apart, the marginal, the peripheral, the anomic, those excluded from the horde . . . has a creative capacity . . . [he] bears a tension that would kill others: he is both inside and outside, included and excluded, yet without being for that matter torn asunder . . . He passes alongside promised lands, but he doesn’t enter . . . Discovery, that’s his passion.

Without abandoning the working-class cause, many soixante-huitards adopted the provocative and delinquent manner of the blouson noirs, disaffected youths from the housing estates of outer Paris who took part in many of the May riots and whose appeal to the soixante-huitards was reinforced by the government’s vitriolic accusation that the May movement had been infiltrated by the "underworld." The soixante-huitards’ identification with both workers and delinquents had the intriguing result of reviving the perceived convergence between "the labouring classes and the dangerous classes" which had been a feature of popular culture since the first half of the nineteenth century. In Renaud’s repertoire, the black biker jacket worn by the blousons noirs and subsequent generations of delinquents would become an emblem akin to the black flag of the anarchists.


The political defeat of the May movement and the decline of working-class culture during the 1970s strengthened the appeal of "the dangerous classes" to former soixante-huitards. The old genre of popular song known as chanson réaliste, which depicted the Parisian low-life of the Belle Epoque and interwar years, provided Renaud with a way of dramatising his continuing opposition to bourgeois society. At the same time, chanson réaliste enabled him to retain an historical connection with "the labouring classes," who had constituted the largest audience for this type of song.


In the second half of the 1970s, Renaud reinvented the realist genre by singing about the delinquent youths or zonards from the housing estates of contemporary Paris. These zonards embodied a cause which Renaud defended and promoted with the fraternalism, ardour and eloquence of a former soixante-huitard. In some of Renaud’s songs, the zonards themselves appear as successors to the May generation and promise revenge against its adversaries. Although they are keenly aware of social inequalities, Renaud’s protagonists tend to remain outside working-class as well as bourgeois society. However, their conquest of urban space recalls in some respects the Commune of 1871. At the end of the 1970s, the accumulating effects of economic recession and de-industrialisation on zonards and workers alike and the involvement of both groups in anti-government demonstrations gave Renaud an opportunity to bring together more explicitly "the labouring classes and the dangerous classes" in a song such as Où c’est qu’j’ai mis mon flingue?


The marginal world of the zonards represented for Renaud a last bastion of resistance against the encroachment of bourgeois values. In some respects, the zone of the 1970s was to former soixante-huitards what Bohemia had been to student radicals during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when, as Jerrold Seigel has observed:

The urban underworld drew outsiders toward itself, anxious to explore human possibilities that had emerged nowhere else . . . Violence and strong emotion were part of the attraction; here behavior was permitted that respectability cast out. Beyond this was a suspicion that necessity had mothered great inventiveness in these dark margins of the city, even a kind of artistry.

The celebration of criminality in the wake of defeated revolution also had significant precedents. Peter Marshall relates the story of the physician Ernest Coeurderoy and the upholsterer Joseph Déjacque, who both took part in the Revolution of 1848:


The bitterness of failure and exile led them to apocalyptic celebration of violence and barbarism. ‘Anarchist revolutionaries,’ Coeurderoy declared, ‘we can take hope only in the human deluge, we can take hope only in chaos, we have no recourse but a general war’ . . . Déjacque advocated ‘war on civilization by criminal means’ and secret societies

Similarly, the enormous impact of Aristide Bruant’s realist songs in the 1880s and 1890s was perhaps related to the defeat of the Communards, whose memory was evoked by the singer’s red scarf if not explicitly in his lyrics. Former Communards like Jean-Baptiste Clément and subsequent generations of working-class activists struggled, on the contrary, to emphasise the differences between "the labouring classes and the dangerous classes"; Jacques Rougerie’s description of the high percentage of Communards with prior criminal convictions was considered something of a revelation in 1964. However, Bruant had a profound influence on many of his anarchist contemporaries, who increasingly couched their militant politics in low-life slang. Since the Belle Epoque, successive generations of anarchist songwriters, from Charles d’Avray to Léo Ferré, have included realist songs in their repertoire.


It is in this anarchist tradition, which bridges the gap between Clément and Bruant, that Renaud ultimately takes his place. The collection of Renaud’s lyrics published by Le Seuil in 1988 emphasises Clément’s heritage; both the title of the collection (Le Temps des noyaux) and Max Cabanes’s cover illustration, which portrays Renaud sitting on the Butte Montmartre playing a guitar in the form of a cherry, allude to Clément’s most famous song, Le Temps des cerises. Montmartre itself was a Communard stronghold and a depot for the Commune’s heavy artillery. However, it also included a notorious red-light district; its pimps, prostitutes and vagabonds provided the raw material for many realist songs, and it was here that Bruant established his first cabarets. As if to remind us that revolution and street life are two sides of the same coin in Renaud’s repertoire, seated beside him in Cabanes’s illustration is Gavroche, one of the earliest literary incarnations of the convergence between "the labouring classes and the dangerous classes."


During the 1980s, the zonard became a less prominent figure in Renaud’s songs. On a personal level, the birth of his baby daughter, Lolita, in August 1980, made the violent, macho culture of the delinquent gang less appealing. Lolita subsequently appeared in many of Renaud’s songs as a feminine counterpart to Gavroche, replacing Hugo’s protagonist as her father’s principal muse. In 1982, Renaud discovered a passion for seafaring, which also drew him away from the zone:


J’ai troqué mes santiag’
Et mon cuir un peu zone
Contre une paire de dock-side
Et un vieux ciré jaune

I swapped my cowboy boots
And my street kid jacket
For a pair of docksiders
And an old yellow oilskin

Several months at sea in a "fameux trois-mâts / Fin comme un oiseau" ("brilliant three-master / sleek as a bird") which he had helped to build inspired Renaud to refocus his attention on the world at large and on universal themes such as environmentalism. On a political level, the figure of the zonard may simply have seemed less subversive following Mitterrand’s victory at the presidential elections of May 1981. Within its first year of office, the new Socialist government abolished the death penalty and revoked the "loi anti-casseurs" ("anti-riot law") introduced in the wake of May 1968. More than six thousand prisoners received a Presidential pardon, while 300,000 immigrants were permitted to regularise their residential status.


The zonard figure also had its own, internal tensions. As early as May 1968, the alliance between students and delinquents had been a double-edged sword. Lucien Coudrier’s contingent of hoodlums, who had been hired to ensure security at the occupied Sorbonne, was finally evicted after terrorising many of the students. According to Patrick Hamon and Hervé Rotman, the loubards present during the burning of the Paris Stock Exchange on 24 May 1968 were oblivious to the symbolic significance which this institution held for their soixante-huitard allies. While it made sense that the soixante-huitards should empathise with dispossessed social groups, the revolutionary potential which they saw in the lumpenproletariat was sometimes a projection of their own aspirations rather than an accurate perception of reality.


Renaud himself subsequently came to accept that zonards were not systematically or inevitably victims of repressive and authoritarian social forces. In 1992, he explained:


I often meet journalists who say that I’m the spokesmen for the suburbs. I may have been – inadvertently – ten years ago . . . now, I feel totally disconnected from suburban youth. When I go to the suburbs now . . . I’m frightened. Now, it’s a ghetto, just like the Bronx . . . For a long time, I also thought that delinquents were heroes, that they were all Robin Hoods or Zorros. And [now], I think that there are just as many bastards among the delinquents as there are among the cops. Maybe they’ve got more reason for becoming violent and full of hatred, for rejecting others.

Even an earlier song like Marche à l’ombre! (1980) evoked what Renaud later described as the "latent racism" which existed in certain delinquent gangs and which ran counter to the fraternal spirit of May 1968.


In other songs, such as Viens chez moi, j’habite chez une copine (1981), Renaud debunked the mythology of the zone in terms which made his protagonists appear pathetic rather than endearingly human:


Je glande un peu partout
Avec mon sac de couchage
Je suis dans tous les coups foireux
Tous les naufrages
J’ai des potes qu’ont d’l’argent
Ben y travaillent c’est normal
Moi mon métier c’est feignant
Hé mec t’as pas cent balles
J’ai des plans des combines
Pour vivre comme un pacha
Hé viens chez moi j’habite chez une copine
Sur les bords au milieu c’est vrai qu’je crains un peu

I drift around everywhere
With my sleeping bag
I’m involved in every dead-end scheme
Every shipwreck
Some mates of mine have got money
They work, so that makes sense
I work as a bum
Hey mate, can you spare twenty bucks?
I’ve got ideas and plans
To live like a king
Hey, come to my place, I live with a girlfriend
It’s true that I’m a bit of a totally dodgy character

Two years later, a song which he wrote about a real friend, Loulou (a nickname taken from a diminutive form of loubard), suggested even more forcefully that the mythology of the zone was wearing thin:


T’as pris des coups quand t’étais p’tit
T’en as donné aussi beaucoup
Maint’nant tu prends surtout du bide
Tu prends des rides, Loulou...
You got a few beatings when you were little
You’ve also given plenty
Now what you’re mainly getting is fat
You’re getting wrinkles, Loulou...

The narrator of Deuxième génération, another song from the same year, is portrayed on the contrary with a great deal of empathy, but inhabits a kind of black hole in which any notion of revolutionary action is unthinkable:


J’ai rien à gagner, rien à perdre
Même pas la vie
J’aime que la mort dans cette vie d’merde
J’aime c’qu’est cassé
J’aime c’qu’est détruit
J’aime surtout tout c’qui vous fait peur
La douleur et la nuit...

I’ve got nothing to win, nothing to lose
Not even life itself
I only like death in this shit life
I only like what’s broken
I only like what’s destroyed
I ’specially like the things that you’re scared of
Pain and the night...

However, while he recognised its limits, Renaud continued – albeit intermittently – to draw inspiration from the theme of the zone. In Petite (1988), he used the term "zone" itself as a positive, emblematic adjective to describe the generation of SOS-Racisme who constituted part of his audience:


Une petite main jaune au revers du zomblou
Un côté un peu zone pour crier ton dégoût
De ce monde trop vieux, trop sale et trop méchant
De ces gens silencieux, endormis et contents

A little yellow hand inside your jacket
A street kid side for shouting your disgust
At this world which is too old, too dirty and too mean
At these people who are silent, asleep and happy


Marchand de cailloux (1991), in which Renaud’s daughter asks him to explain the fate of the intifada fighting in ghettos throughout the world, shows a continuity with his earlier songs about the zone:


Pourquoi les enfants d’Belfast
Et d’tous les ghettos
Quand y balancent un caillasse
On leur fait la peau
J’croyais qu’David et Goliath
Ça marchait encore
Qu’les plus p’tits pouvaient s’débattre
Sans être les plus morts

Why do children in Belfast
And in every ghetto
When they throw a stone
Get killed?
I thought David and Goliath
Was still a goer
That the smallest could still fight
Without being the deadest

Renaud’s direct experience and artistic representation of the Parisian zone and its delinquent youth provided the foundation upon which he elaborated the broader vision of his later songs, a vision encapsulated by Henri Lefebvre’s aphorism: "Thinking the city moves towards thinking the world."