Abstract France’s de-industrialization in the mid-1970s was catastrophic for the proletarian communities of the Parisian banlieue. By the 1980s, the effects of prolonged unemployment were apparent, with high rates of voter abstention and growing support for the Front national. In the summer of 1989, writer François Maspero and photographer Anaïk Frantz spend a month wandering through former Communist bastions — the banlieue rouge — to take stock of this political shift. While the chronicle of their journey, Les Passagers du Roissy-Express (1990), has attracted much scholarly interest, its reflections on the legacy and decline of municipal Communism have gone largely undiscussed. As I show, however, Les Passagers presents the social problems of the banlieue primarily in terms of a collapse of political horizons. Having long been involved in anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist activism, Maspero intimately experiences the implosion of the radical left during the Mitterrand years. Les Passagers documents his attempt to work through it. Written against the backdrop of the brutal suppression of pro-democracy protests in China and the first signs of the coming dissolution of the Soviet Union, Les Passagers demonstrates a rare sensitivity to the complex, shifting relationships between state and municipal Communism, and between local party politics and an ethical culture of solidarity. This article examines the contribution that Les Passagers makes to a more nuanced understanding of the history of the French left. Les Passagers du Roissy-Express (1990) describes a month-long expedition undertaken by François Maspero and photographer Anaïk Frantz along Line B of the RER through the banlieues of Paris, from Charles de Gaulle Airport in the north-east to Maspero’s family home in Milon-la-Chapelle in the south-west.1 Written in the form of a travel chronicle, the narrative comprises historical accounts of the places visited, conversations with inhabitants, logistical details, and personal observations. Frantz’s photographs are interspersed throughout the text. While the majority of the photographs are portraits, they are taken in a variety of interior and exterior spaces — in apartments, in cafés, on the street, against walls of graffiti — and often framed spaciously to give a rich sense of the environment.2 In the twenty-five years since its publication, Les Passagers has attracted a great deal of critical attention, possibly because it stands at the intersection of two emergent fields of interest: postmodern travel literature and representations of the banlieue. Maspero’s text reworks the conventions of travel writing by shifting the destination to the writer’s home city — a conceit subsequently adopted by other French writers, such as Jean Rolin, François Bon, and Philippe Vasset. Predating by a few years Pierre Bourdieu’s La Misère du monde, Les Passagers also offers a relatively early investigation into the social world of the Parisian banlieue, featuring, like Bourdieu’s sociological study, interviews with residents about their lives.3 As Edward Welch notes in a recent article on Les Passagers, much of the scholarship to date has focused on how Maspero’s relocation of the travel narrative to the banlieue interrogates conventional geographies of the exotic and distinctions between centre and periphery.4 Thus, according to Katherine Gantz’s and Xavier Ridon’s criticisms of the text, Maspero’s treatment of the banlieue as a tourist destination rehearses the exoticizing tropes of a colonial mentality.5 More sympathetic readers, such as Margaret Atack and Filippo Zanghi, have argued that by composing a portrait of France from the perspective of marginalized populations, Les Passagers pointedly disrupts official discourses of the nation on the bicentennial of the French Revolution.6 Despite these differences of judgement, discussions of Les Passagers have consistently attributed social unrest in the banlieue to the failed integration of immigrant communities; Maspero is seen to situate this failure in a history of racial violence that includes the Vichy regime and colonialism in North Africa.7 The focus on identity politics and, in particular, the ethics of representing cultural difference, has tended to obscure the ways in which Les Passagers engages with radical left (that is, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist) politics. Yet, Les Passagers persistently highlights the effects of deindustrialization in disempowering and depoliticizing the historically Communist municipalities of the banlieue. Indeed, the histories of racial conflict mentioned above take shape within a larger narrative of the interplay between state violence and popular resistance. In Les Passagers, the memory of French colonialism is inextricably bound up with the Algerian War of Independence, during which Maspero acted as a porteur de valises for the Front de libération nationale (FLN), and the massacre of peacefully protesting Algerians in Paris on 17 October 1961. The Occupation, too, is indissociable from the Resistance, in which Maspero’s whole family participated at terrible personal cost: Maspero’s parents were both sent to the camps and his brother, Jean, died in combat at the age of nineteen while serving as a translator for American troops. Maspero links these two instances of state violence, moreover, to the suppression of the Commune of 1871 and the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Beijing that unfold contemporaneously with his trip through the banlieue. Many have commented on Maspero’s concern in Les Passagers with the rising popularity of the Front national (FN), usually pointing to Maspero’s respectful treatment of cultural difference as the main modality of his resistance to it. It seems to me, however, that Maspero responds to a culture of intolerance with a call not to tolerance but rather, to use an old term, to class consciousness. He suggests that, under conditions of deprivation, the scapegoating politics of the FN take capitalistic ‘rational self-interest’ to its irrational dog-eat-dog conclusion. By attributing the prevailing culture of intolerance more fundamentally to economic than ethical problems, Maspero indicates that the most viable form of opposition lies in a politics of collective resistance to a situation of imposed scarcity. As I seek to show, Les Passagers presents an account of the legacy of French municipal Communism as a counterpoint to prevailing political discourses on both the right and the contemporary left. ‘Banlieue rouge’ Although there have been various compelling interpretations of Maspero’s route through the banlieue, nobody to date has observed that the itinerary of Les Passagers reflects Maspero’s investment in the history of left militantism. According to Welch, Maspero and Frantz pay particular attention to the boundaries between old towns and villes nouvelles in order to highlight ‘the varied, complex, and often problematic nature of the new landscapes emerging in France towards the end of the twentieth century’.8 They thus present ‘the crise des banlieues… [as] manifestations of a broader spatial crisis’ resulting from the technocratic approach to urban development taken by successive post-war governments.9 For Charles Forsdick, the gesture of starting at the airport and walking along a railway line privileges deceleration over acceleration, the everyday over the exotic, the miniscule over the panoptic.10 For Atack, the visit to Drancy in the north and return to Maspero’s childhood home in the south juxtapose the exploration of the banlieue’s cultural otherness with narratives of personal and national trauma associated with the deportations carried out under Vichy, thus complicating the oppositions of self and other, native and immigrant.11 However, foregrounding Maspero’s interest in the history of municipal Communism allows us to offer the most complete account of his movements, since virtually all the territory Les Passagers explores in detail is associated with the radical left. As Michael Sheringham notes, the journey in Les Passagers is curiously lopsided. The travellers cover ‘the fourteen stops of the northern half in sixteen days’ and then, in the southern part of the line, rush through ‘twenty-four stops in ten days’, ending their journey several days short of the projected month.12 Sheringham suggests that having grown up in the south-western suburbs, Maspero finds that region less interesting: ‘already an habitué, he sees mainly what he already knows’.13 While this may be true, we should also note that the northern part of the RER line runs entirely through the traditionally Communist département of Seine-Saint-Denis, which was the thickest section of the ceinture rouge around Paris. Ten of Les Passager’s twelve chapters are devoted to Seine-Saint-Denis. Of the two final chapters on the more conservative south-western banlieues, moreover, one focuses on the Communist enclave of Arcueil, leaving the other to discuss the remaining twenty-two stations. The number of accompanying photographs also declines in this last part, with Frantz lamenting the lack of worthwhile subject matter in the picturesque suburb of Sceaux (p. 297). In Les Passagers, Maspero goes in search of historical and contemporary manifestations of radical left sociability. His focus on local politics — that is, on municipal, rather than state, Communism — stems from a lifelong faith in politics from below. Although Maspero was very active politically, as I shall discuss in greater detail, he maintained a sceptical distance from political parties, with two brief exceptions. In the wake of the Khrushchev ‘Thaw’, Maspero joined the Parti communiste français (PCF), but was almost immediately expelled for denouncing the party’s violent suppression of the Hungarian Revolution and lack of support for the Algerian struggle for independence. About a decade later, in the wake of May ’68, Maspero became a member of the Trotskyist Ligue communiste but, following the group’s dissolution in 1973, refrained from joining its successor, the Ligue communiste révolutionnaire. In line with Maspero’s personal approach to political practice, Les Passagers tends to present local political cultures as distinct from national parties and state politics. Thus, while Maspero discusses numerous Communist mayors in detail, he never mentions the PCF’s general secretaries. In light of the contemporary decline of the organized left, moreover, he speculates that real change can come only from small-scale, local initiatives. As he put it in an interview shortly before his death: ‘Il y a un éclatement des partis, je pense que l’on ne pourra pas revenir là-dessus. Mais j’espère encore énormément des milliers d’initiatives, des points de départ individuels qui deviennent collectifs et sont formidables, partout dans le monde.’14 Indeed, one of the signal contributions that Les Passagers makes lies in its attention to the complex, shifting relationships between state Communism, municipal Communism, the non-PCF revolutionary left, and local cultures of solidarity. The tension between these different registers of political reality comes to a head in the book’s penultimate chapter on the Communist bastion of Arcueil. Maspero transcribes at some length a speech by the mayor, Marcel Trigon, at the local bicentennial festivities, interspersed with distracted banter and derisive commentary from the audience (p. 300). As others have remarked, Trigon’s speech is ‘anti-European and xenophobic’,15 and consists of pompous rhetoric that underscores ‘the opposition between real histories and the fake history of modern commemorative culture’.16 It is clear that ‘le camarade Trigon’ (p. 299), as Maspero sardonically calls him, is simply parroting his party’s line against joining the European Union. The PCF’s defensive stance in the face of change is made all the more poignant by the juxtaposition of Trigon’s speech with the bloody dénouement of the pro-democracy protests in China. A few moments before Trigon takes the stage, Maspero and Frantz are informed by a friend that the Chinese army has just invaded Tiananmen Square with tanks, killing hundreds of protestors (p. 299). While, as Trigon and the events in China demonstrate, there is no inherent correspondence between Communist governments and a political culture of solidarity, Maspero posits a correlation in their mutual decline. In Les Passagers, Maspero’s objective of tracing a history of radical left sociability, or what he calls ‘la morale révolutionnaire’,17 is clearly reflected in his descriptions of the towns he visits. When the travellers pass through Arcueil, for example, Maspero notes that the town’s former inhabitants include François-Vincent Raspail, a doctor who ministered to the poor and who was sent to prison at the age of eighty for writing in defence of the Communards; his son, Émile, who, as mayor of Arceuil, advanced the causes of proletarian education and gender equality by establishing childcare centres and a part-time school for young workers; and the composer Erik Satie who, despite his extreme poverty, supported the local youth centre with free music lessons and occasional donations, and is even rumoured to have founded the local chapter of the PCF (pp. 286–87). Although, as commentators have tended to emphasize, a number of the travellers’ interlocutors express xenophobic sentiments, Les Passagers more often highlights the presence in the banlieue of figures affiliated with the left. It is true, of course, that many of these figures are historical, rather than contemporary, which only speaks to the problem at hand. Nonetheless, Maspero and Frantz make a point of meeting up with people with sympathetic political commitments and conveying their reflections on the banlieue. Two of their local guides, Gilles in the northern banlieue and Gérard in the south, are former graduate students of the Marxist geographer Yves Lacoste, whom Maspero and Frantz also visit at his home in the southern suburbs. Another of the few social appointments made in advance is with a M. Marin, who came to Arcueil as an orphan fleeing the Spanish Civil War, at a time when the Communist municipality offered refuge to the children of Republicans. Fifty years on, he maintains that ‘la solidarité des communistes reste manifestement l’une des belles valeurs humaines’ (p. 272). Taken in concert with the testimonies of other elderly inhabitants in Arcueil, Maspero’s conversation with M. Marin functions, moreover, to complicate the negative perception of the banlieue’s grands ensembles. By harkening back to a time when workers lived in slums without electricity or gas, these testimonies reveal the ‘grandes visions humanistes’ (p. 179) that originally gave rise to the HLM (habitations à loyer modéré). In other words, while Maspero recognizes the deprivations endured by their contemporary inhabitants, he presents the HLM as an unfinished project rather than a failure. Whereas the grands ensembles are often reduced to the hateful emblem of a technocratic state that approaches the problem of accommodation in terms of ‘[le] stockage humain’ (p. 196), Maspero calls attention to the egalitarian aspirations behind public housing. He resituates the HLM in an alternative history of socialist initiative in which the main figures include: Henri Sellier, long-time mayor of Suresnes, minister in the Front populaire government, ‘d’origine ouvrière… et même un bref temps communiste’ (p. 179), who constructed many of the first HLM (then called HBM, or habitations à bon marché) around Paris; the Communist architect André Lurçat, who was the first to hold consultations with the future inhabitants of the HLM about their needs (p. 144); and Roland Castro, the architect to whom President Mitterrand entrusted the ‘Banlieue 89’ campaign to rehabilitate the grands ensembles and who, Maspero notes, ‘fut, dans sa lointaine jeunesse, un grand leader maoïste’ (p. 45). The pointed evocation of Castro’s radical past as definitively past indicates that there is more at stake in Les Passagers than a nostalgic hagiography of the left. In his postface of 1993, Maspero describes Castro’s political trajectory as a ‘passage exemplaire d’un radicalisme rouge ne jurant que par la révolution culturelle au réformisme rose’ (pp. 339–40). If his references to Castro sometimes took on a sardonic cast, Maspero explains, it was because Castro symbolizes the left’s abandonment of its former ideals. Three years after the initial publication of Les Passagers, Maspero revisits his treatment of Castro to index a further shift in the political terrain. Castro’s eventual resignation from Mitterrand’s government in 1992 over the appointment of celebrity businessman Bernard Tapie as ministre de la Ville marked, Maspero argues, the disappearance of ‘le peu qui restait du projet de la gauche, décrété archaïque, d’un monde meilleur, que celle-ci laissait s’écrouler’ (p. 340). And, finally, a few months after these events, he adds, ‘la gauche elle-même s’est écroulée’ (p. 340). In Les Passagers, Maspero contemplates the future of an anti-capitalist left that in 1989 seemed merely a vestigial feature of the European political landscape and, a few years later, became entirely virtual. A crisis of the left Maspero’s decision in 1989 to tell the story of municipal Communism was timely and poignant; the ceinture rouge around Paris was beginning to disintegrate. In 1977, the inaugural year of the RER B, the PCF’s representatives were elected in every commune along the northern part of the railway line from Paris to the terminus at Charles de Gaulle Airport. The next year, the PCF swept the legislative elections in Seine-Saint-Denis, placing their delegates in all nine of the département’s parliamentary seats. That was to be the culmination of a history dating back to the 1920s, when the concept of the banlieue rouge was first established.18 The following round of municipal elections, in 1983, marked the beginning of a massive shift. The PCF lost a quarter of its positions in Seine-Saint-Denis: seven of twenty-seven communes. In a special issue of Hérodote in 1986, Yves Lacoste addresses the results of that year’s legislative elections, in which ‘le Front national, dont l’essor ne date que de 1983–1984, a obtenu d’importants succès dans des villes qui étaient jusqu’alors des bastions de la gauche […], surtout celles du département de Seine-Saint-Denis’.19 The PCF again sustained heavy losses nationally in the following round of municipal elections, which took place less than two months before the start of Maspero and Frantz’s trip. In Seine-Saint-Denis, almost all the remaining Communist municipalities re-elected their incumbents, but support for the extreme right continued to grow, notably in Sevran where the FN won 24 per cent of the vote, their fourth-highest national result that year.20 From the beginning, the terrain of Les Passagers is invested with a crisis of political vision. On his inaugural journey out to Charles de Gaulle Airport, Maspero reads the suburban landscape for signs of this crisis. In the former industrial hub of Blanc Mesnil, he points out a remnant of the proletarian militancy that once characterized the region: still visible on a wall, a slogan proclaims that the workers, united, will never permit the closure of a factory that has long since disappeared. ‘Jadis, il n’y a pas si longtemps,’ Maspero writes, ‘le paysage ferroviaire clamait des convictions politiques et sociales’ (p. 10). Now, however, most of the statements on display are supplied by advertising copy. Maspero is rehearsing here a familiar lament of the post-war left: that de-industrialization and consumerism have resulted in depoliticization and social atomization. There is a brief moment of hope, as Maspero notes the emergence of a new form of resistance that demystifies the commodity spectacle by defacing its signs: ‘Mais il y a, pour leur répondre, les tags’ (p. 10). Yet, he can discern no clear political content to the graffiti, which, moreover, appear to make no distinction between the voices they drown out. When he finally spots some evidence of the region’s old convictions in a set of posters for the Trotskyist party Lutte ouvrière — ‘enfin du social, enfin du politique’ (p. 10), he exclaims — he adds that they, too, have been covered over by tags. Since Maspero eagerly hails the appearance of Lutte ouvrière posters as a remnant of class consciousness in the region, we might expect him to be disappointed by the taggers’ lack of discrimination between capitalist and anti-capitalist forces. However, he ultimately sides with those disengaged from organized left politics. He notes that the Lutte ouvrière festival, which remains one of the most important public gatherings for the radical left in Europe, had taken place the day before but that, this year, neither he nor Frantz had attended. The passage concludes with a self-ironizing performance of nostalgia, with Maspero turning to Frantz and reminiscing: Tu te souviens du temps où? Le soleil clair, la fête, la vraie, allongés dans l’herbe sous le ciel immense où filaient les nuages, la loterie aux canards vivants, le discours d’Arlette, la course en sac, le débat sur l’impérialisme et le tiers monde, la joie des enfants, et la nôtre, et ce monde à faire, à refaire, différent? — Non, dit Anaïk, je ne me souviens pas: je ne suis jamais allée à la fête de Lutte ouvrière. (p. 10) Maspero’s idyllic portrait of the festival conveys, above all, the fluid integration of the natural, the political, and the social, alternating between references to political debates and speeches (by Arlette Laguiller, leader of Lutte ouvrière, familiarly invoked) and images of families at play (‘la course en sac’, ‘la joie des enfants’), against a pastoral backdrop (bright sun, bed of grass, vast sky). This relaxed, organic continuity between humankind and nature, private and public, evokes nothing short of the Communist utopia Marx described in his early writings. The charming reverie comes to an abrupt end, however, with Frantz’s deadpan response, which reveals Maspero to be even more out of touch than he had suspected. The subtle tonal shifts between sincerity and irony in Maspero’s staging of their exchange function, firstly, to affirm his continuing desire for social transformation — to see the world as ‘ce monde à faire, à refaire, différent’ — and, secondly, to anticipate the criticism that this desire lacks political potential in 1989. There is no indication, however, as to how the revolutionary left might be rebuilt, and the passage ends at an impasse. This impasse expresses the central problematic of Les Passagers. Maspero’s fond mention of ‘le débat sur l’impérialisme et le tiers monde’ speaks to his long-time involvement in tiers-mondiste activism. Tiers-mondisme was a political current in the late 1950s to mid-1970s that rallied around anti-imperialist revolutions around the world, particularly in Algeria, Cuba, and Vietnam. Often espousing Maoist or Trotskyist principles, tiers-mondistes represented a new radical left alternative to both Maurice Thorez’s Stalinist Communist Party and Guy Mollet’s centrist Socialist Party (called the Section française de l’internationale ouvrière (SFIO) until 1969).21 Although he refused the title of militant, except in his stint as a porteur de valises during the Algerian War and, later, as a member of the Ligue communiste, Maspero was at the centre of tiers-mondiste efforts in Paris.22 For two decades, Maspero ran a bookstore in the Latin Quarter, La Joie de lire, which stocked banned books and was a favoured meeting place for militants. He also managed a publishing house, Éditions Maspero, which issued a huge catalogue of works by radical intellectuals and militants, especially those directly involved in struggles abroad, such as Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara, Jomo Kenyatta, Vo Nguyen Giap, and Malcolm X. These activities were not without personal risk. In addition to heavy fines and legal fees, which eventually forced him to give up the bookstore in 1975 and the publishing house in 1982, Maspero was sentenced to three months in prison for publishing a book criticizing Mobutu in 1973, when the Zairean dictator still had the support of the Western powers.23 (Luckily for Maspero, then-President Georges Pompidou died soon after the trial and his successor, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, granted him a presidential pardon.) Maspero continued to affirm the basic principles of tiers-mondisme right up to his death in 2015 at the age of eighty-three. In one of his last interviews, he gave this simple summation of his political commitments, quoting Engels’s famous slogan: ‘J’ai toujours été sensible aux luttes des peuples pour leur liberté et concerné par cet axiome: “un peuple qui en opprime un autre ne peut être un peuple libre”’.24 By the summer of 1989, however, something had changed. As fondly as Maspero remembers ‘le débat sur l’impérialisme et le tiers-monde’, the reference appears tinged in sepia, a relic of an era that has been definitively sealed off from the present. In the only sustained treatment to date of the legacy of tiers-mondisme in Les Passagers, Anne-Louise Milne situates Maspero against the conversion of former tiers-mondiste intellectuals into advocates of neo-imperialist humanitarianism.25 The nouveaux philosophes, as many of these former leftists came to be known, essentially turned tiers-mondiste principles inside out, constructing the third world not as a revolutionary class but as victims. While Milne rightly notes that Maspero cannot be assimilated into this group of neo-liberal intellectuals, she claims that Les Passagers nonetheless ‘clearly states its origins in the collapse of tiers-mondisme, with thinly veiled expressions of the futility of reporting on China and of the hackneyed nature of all so-called journeys of discovery’.26 Milne refers here to Maspero’s disenchanted account in Les Passagers of a reportage he undertook for Radio-France in the 1980s. Tasked with reporting on the cramped housing conditions in Shanghai, Maspero is suddenly struck by the illegitimacy of his presumption to speak with authority about standards of living halfway across the globe when he doesn’t even know ‘la manière dont on vit à une demi-heure des tours de Notre-Dame’ (p. 12). In Maspero’s construction of the banlieue, however, Milne sees the paradoxical persistence of certain tiers-mondiste commitments: ‘Yet it [Les Passagers] also seems to reproduce the same structure of investing hope for a more “authentic” society in an elsewhere, now the banlieue rather than Cuba’.27 This paradox is, to me, a false one. Upon closer examination, it becomes clear that Maspero’s criticisms of the project in Shanghai do not convey a rejection of tiers-mondiste principles at all. Radio-France’s brief was, if anything, the opposite of tiers-mondisme: it was to report on the misery and not the agency of those elsewhere in the world. In other words, the problem for Maspero lay in the nature of the reportage, not its location. Maspero was not renouncing the possibility of a critique of capitalism from the perspective of those on the short end of uneven development. He was objecting, rather, to the highly mediatized spectacle of white men airlifted into developing countries to make pronouncements about the depth of human suffering. Indeed, Maspero’s reluctance to report on tiny Shanghainese homes is offset in Les Passagers by his thirst for news about the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. He conveys updates regarding the situation in China on at least seven separate occasions throughout the book.28 If Maspero’s political commitments had not been shaken up by a ‘post-Marxist suspicion of generalizing explanatory frameworks’,29 as Milne surmises, how do we account for his tendency to speak about the radical left, at least in France, in the past tense? What is at stake, I suggest, is not a theoretical but a practical problem, namely, the changed conditions of collective political agency. In accounting for the decline of a culture of political initiative and solidarity in the former banlieue rouge, Maspero highlights the social and economic consequences of de-industrialization. It is particularly important to emphasize Maspero’s materialist approach as a counterpoint to the focus on identity politics in the existing scholarship on Les Passagers. Thus, while Atack is undoubtedly right to observe that ‘[t]he unhappiness of so many of today’s immigrants is that their memories are inscribed nowhere’,30 we should understand that, for Maspero, this unhappiness arises more fundamentally from economic precarity and state violence: ‘insécurité face à l’emploi, qui abolit tout projet, toute perspective d’avenir; insécurité face à la violence des quadrillages policiers’ (p. 338). The historical roots of these latter insecurities are first described at length when Maspero and Frantz visit the housing projects in Aulnay, known as ‘les 3 000’. ‘Les 3 000’ was built around the Citroën plant in 1971. The promise of 11,000 new jobs (8,500 of which were created by Citroën) drew immigration into the area from Turkey and North Africa, as well as elsewhere in France. Then, with the global economic crisis of 1973–75, the Citroën factory began a long series of layoffs only four years after it opened its doors; Ideal Standard in Aulnay went under completely, along with 2,960 jobs; and so on. The workers of ‘les 3 000’ had to look for employment elsewhere. The planners had not provided for a transportation infrastructure, however, so the residents were hemmed into their collapsed economy, as Maspero notes (p. 49). Around the same time, local governments and HLM offices began to implement informal quotas on apartments for immigrants. These policies had the effect of concentrating the most vulnerable populations in already deprived areas. Contrary to popular misconceptions, Maspero concludes, the problems of ‘les 3 000’ did not stem from drugs, delinquency, intolerance, or racism but, rather, ‘Le vrai problème des 3 000 a eu nom Citroën’ (p. 52). Visiting the housing projects in Sevran two days later, Maspero tells essentially the same story, concluding as before: ‘Le vrai problème, c’est celui des licenciements’ (p. 92). This history of de-industrialization, mass unemployment, and stranded immigrants is refracted throughout the book. Maspero mentions the similar demise of a housing estate in Lorraine, which used to be the centre of the French steel industry (p. 199); he notices old factories repurposed as warehouses in the industrial zone of La Molette (p. 146); at the bus stop in Roissy an exhausted West Indian man from Stains says he has been travelling around the banlieue since 4:30 that morning in search of work (p. 67); in La Plaine Saint Denis, a Portuguese man speaks of having worked for twenty years at a factory that is now closed (p. 263). Meanwhile, Gilles, Maspero and Frantz’s guide in the north-eastern banlieue, insists that housing is denied on the principle of ‘[o]n fout dehors tout ce qui n’est pas blanc’ (p. 118). As a postman, he has observed a decline in the number of Arab and African names on letterboxes in the HLM. The topic resurfaces in Arcueil, which has maintained the proportion of immigrants in the local population under 10 per cent (p. 288) and again in Les Ulis, an HLM complex in Massy, where exclusionary policies make it impossible for many immigrants to secure decent accommodation without taking on huge amounts of debt (p. 326). In short, far from rejecting ‘generalizing explanatory frameworks’, Les Passagers espouses a fairly orthodox materialist analysis of the banlieue’s social problems. For Maspero, these problems stem above all from the lack of protection afforded to workers from the vagaries of the global economy and corporations’ bottom lines. This vulnerability is compounded by governments (right-wing and Socialist alike) more invested in controlling than supporting non-voting populations. Thus, while it is important to challenge the oppositions that underpin the xenophobic discourse of groups such as the FN — notions of self and other, native and foreigner, centre and periphery — the deconstruction of identity cannot be said to constitute the core of the critical work performed by Les Passagers. As Maspero’s aetiology of the crise des banlieues suggests, such a critique falls short as long as it does not address what is obscured by scapegoating tactics and identitarian discourses: firstly, that the experiences of insecurity and deprivation of the poorer banlieues are related to structural inequities and, secondly, that these inequities are products of the existing economic and governmental system and therefore may be impossible to resolve within it. Politics and ethics A question remains: if Maspero does indeed construct a coherent historical framework for understanding the social problems of the banlieue, why then does he consistently highlight the limits of his understanding, to the point where Les Passagers reads like the narrative of a failed experiment? As the journey progresses, Maspero finds it increasingly difficult to maintain the coherence of the narrative. His notes eventually become so erratic that he relinquishes altogether the task of organizing them and resorts simply to quoting from them: ‘Les notes disent […]’, ‘Elles disent aussi, les notes […]’ (p. 202). In its final pages, the narrative dwindles to a series of disjointed, factual statements about the travellers’ activities, finally trailing off on a note of exhaustion: ‘Bref, il est temps que le voyage s’achève’ (p. 326). The epigraphs to the book’s three sections offer a neat index of the travellers’ deepening disorientation; the last of these, from La Famille Fenouillard, a fin-de-siècle cartoon about a bumbling provincial family travelling around the world, simply reads: ‘Et Monsieur Fenouillard avoue qu’il n’y comprend plus rien’ (p. 269).31 These expressions of incomprehension emphasize the overwhelming complexity of the banlieue. More generally, they speak to the recognition, in Les Passagers, of an unbreachable distance between the travellers, their object of analysis, and even their own experience, which is reflected in the formal composition of the narrative and photographs. Instead of the customary first-person perspective of travel literature, Les Passagers is written in the third person; in conjunction with lengthy, unframed monologues by the travellers’ interlocutors and free indirect discourse, Maspero’s choice of a third-person narrative voice has the effect of undermining the sense of an organizing authorial presence.32 Likewise, Frantz’s photographs, as Dervila Cooke notes, ‘use distance and externality to stress her lack of access to “la vraie vie”’, for example by framing the subjects from afar or from the back so that their expressions are illegible.33 For many commentators, the authors’ refusal of authority is among the most important qualities of Les Passagers. According to Forsdick and Milne, Les Passagers deconstructs the sovereign, monadic subject, dismantling ‘the traveller’s autocratic and aristocratic discourse of self-sufficiency’ to the point of ‘dis-identification with regard to a certain sense of self, or a certain project’.34 For Sheringham and Ross Chambers, Maspero’s departure from a narrative framework of progress and closure enables him to notice whatever is usually disregarded. In its open-endedness, Maspero’s enquiry is, for Sheringham, ‘a tribute to the invention of a mode of enquiry where the everyday is given a space to breathe, without being pressed into existing moulds’.35 By tarrying with the everyday in its banality, Chambers writes, Maspero ‘transvalues the trivial’.36 Maspero and Frantz’s embrace of digression and uncertainty models a relation to the world that is centred around receptivity rather than the will. Maspero indicates the stakes of this approach when he recalls a collection of writings and artwork by teenagers in Gennevilliers, a working-class banlieue, that he had published with the anthropologist Gérard Althabe (p. 100). The book appeared in a series that Maspero and Althabe had titled ‘Luttes sociales’, in which they had sought to make available ‘des livres pas du tout comme les autres, venus d’ailleurs que la tête de professionnels, journalistes ou sociologues, mais utiles à ceux-là aussi, sans démagogie, sans prêche non plus, sans raccourcis’ (p. 98). It is this sort of book, Maspero suggests, that stands the best chance of instigating change. Les Passagers clearly aspires to be such a book. It shares interests with journalism and sociology, but differs from them insofar as it rejects mastery in the form of political or moral authority (‘sans démagogie, sans prêche’) and pre-existing concepts and methodologies (‘sans raccourcis’). What this comparison reveals is that Les Passagers rejects mastery not only as an ethical or epistemological principle in itself, but also for tactical reasons. The rejection of mastery favours change insofar as it allows Les Passagers to meet the reader in the realm of practice rather than theory. Maspero’s embrace of amateurism highlights the situational context of engagement; he takes up a bricoleur’s approach, in contrast to the more abstracted perspective of the journalistic or sociological ‘engineer’. As a result, the text affirms a principle of solidarity — and, perhaps more fundamentally, of equality — that is foreign to disciplinary discourse. Maspero addresses the reader as someone who is no less capable of carrying out the same project: ‘Chacun peut faire ça’, he insists; all it takes is bit of goodwill and free time (p. 335). Describing the project as not an investigation but simply ‘un regard, le leur’ (p. 22), he adopts an attitude of unassuming curiosity that rejects any hierarchy between himself and the people he meets in Les Passagers. To emphasize the dual act of looking and caring designated in this ‘regard’, Maspero quotes from Miguel Benasayag: ‘Plûtot que de regarder, dire: ça me regarde’ (p. 22). The numerous letters Maspero and Frantz received upon the publication of Les Passagers suggest that their approach tended to inspire in its readers a reciprocal sense of personal investment. As Maspero recounts in the postface, the letter-writers saw themselves as collaborators in Maspero and Frantz’s project. They added details to the historical events described in the book, pointed out mistakes, and related their own unusual journeys (p. 334). We can view the polyphonic construction of Les Passagers as collaborative in a similar way. Maspero’s account of the banlieue pieces together the testimonies of various interlocutors without resolving the contradictions between different voices into one homogenous narrative. It encourages the reader to observe commonalities among the banlieue’s inhabitants without reducing one person’s experience to another’s; it loosens the private character of their concerns while preserving their individual integrity. Max Silverman puts it elegantly: ‘Maspero’s effort seems to be to seek reconnections through dialogue, rather than submit either to the atomization of disconnected voices, moments and images, or to the simplistic construction of new imagined communities speaking, each one, with a single voice’.37 While Maspero foregrounds the importance of dialogue, however, he also indicates what cannot be resolved through dialogue alone. This is where the political dimension of Les Passagers re-enters the picture. Let us take an instance where the narrative places different voices in an imagined dialogue. Benoît, who speaks sympathetically of the FN, complains that his black neighbours are inconsiderate and noisy, concluding that the success of the extreme right is the logical consequence of ‘cette absence de respect de l’autre’ on the part of immigrants (p. 126). Shortly thereafter, when a group of residents from Mali in the same housing complex have their say, they express an almost identical sentiment, lamenting that while their compatriots always had respect for the French, in France ‘on a perdu le respect des autres’ (p. 127). Maspero’s juxtaposition of these perspectives might at first appear to be a plea for Benoît and his Malian neighbours to overcome their discord through respectful dialogue. All that seems to be required is for one side to make the first overture. However, we can see elsewhere in Les Passagers that the social tensions of the banlieue are rooted in more intractable, structural problems. In tandem with the ethical discourse of respect emerges an ‘anti-ethical’ discourse of economic humiliation that rationalizes criminality as an alternative to ‘l’image du père qui a donné toute sa force, sa vie, et qui se retrouve chômeur, écrasé, vaincu’ (p. 55). Daoud, a young man in the notorious housing projects at La Courneuve, puts it succinctly: ‘À quoi ça sert d’être honnête? Ce ne sont pas les voleurs qui sont les plus voleurs’ (p. 219). What exchange of words could possibly resolve the differences between Benoît and Daoud? It is at this moment that Maspero’s aetiology of the crise des banlieues becomes most pertinent, because it shows that the only way to mediate between their two positions is to address the material causes of the powerlessness both express. Ultimately, Benoît’s authoritarian and Daoud’s anti-authoritarian discourses are only variations on the same regrettable but understandable focus on survival, or as Maspero puts it, ‘la démerde individuelle’ (p. 340). In Les Passagers, dialogue is a means to reveal shared problems and a common struggle, but not a solution in and of itself. An ethical culture is necessary to revive a sense of collective possibility, but, as Maspero’s history of municipal Communism suggests, only political change can sustain such a culture of solidarity. Footnotes 1 François Maspero, Les Passagers du Roissy-Express, photographs by Anaïk Frantz (Paris: Seuil, 2004). Subsequent references to this work will be given parenthetically in the text. 2 For an insightful examination of the photographs and their relation to the text in Les Passagers, see Dervila Cooke, ‘Connection and Peripheral Encounters in Paris bout du monde and Les Passagers du Roissy-Express: Text and Photography by François Maspero and Anaïk Frantz’, Journal of Romance Studies, 8 (2008), 91–106. 3 Pierre Bourdieu and others, La Misère du monde (Paris: Seuil, 1993). 4 Edward Welch, ‘Apprehending the banlieue: Les Passagers du Roissy-Express and Spatial Enquiry in Contemporary France’, Francosphères, 3 (2014), 172–86 (p. 176). 5 Katherine Gantz, ‘Dangerous Intersections: The Near-Collision of French and Cultural Studies in Maspero’s Les Passagers du Roissy-Express’, The French Review, 73 (1999), 82–93; Xavier Ridon, ‘Un barbare en banlieue’, Nottingham French Studies, 39 (2000), 25–38. 6 Margaret Atack, ‘The Politics and Poetics of Space in Les Passagers du Roissy-Express’, Modern and Contemporary France, 15 (2007), 441–55; Filippo Zanghi, Zone indécise: périphéries urbaines et voyage de proximité dans la littérature contemporaine (Villeneuve d’Ascq: Presses universitaires du Septentrion, 2014). 7 For an explicitly postcolonial articulation of this problematic, see Mireille Rosello’s discussion of Les Passagers in ‘Madame Zineb’s Tea: Hospitality in the banlieues’, in Postcolonial Hospitality: The Immigrant as Guest (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), pp. 68–77. 8 Welch, ‘Apprehending the banlieue’, p. 179. 9 Welch, ‘Apprehending the banlieue’, p. 178. 10 Charles Forsdick, Travel in Twentieth-Century French and Francophone Cultures: The Persistence of Diversity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 188–89. 11 Atack, ‘The Politics and Poetics of Space’, pp. 448–50. 12 Michael Sheringham, Everyday Life: Theories and Practices from Surrealism to the Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 319. 13 Sheringham, Everyday Life, p. 320. 14 Interview with Maspero, ‘François Maspero, les chemins de la liberté’, Bron Magazine, 257 (2014), 22–23 (p. 23). 15 Kathryn Jones, ‘Voices of the banlieues: Constructions of Dialogue in François Maspero’s Les Passagers du Roissy-Express’, Contemporary French and Francophone Studies, 6 (2004), 127–34 (p. 130). 16 Sheringham, Everyday Life, p. 319. 17 Maspero, interviewed by Félix Boggio Éwanjé-Épée and Stella Magliani-Belkacem, ‘Entretien avec François Maspero: “Quelques malentendus”’, Période (2014) <http://revueperiode.net/entretien-avec-francois-maspero-quelques-malentendus> [accessed 16 May 2017]. 18 See Annie Fourcaut, ‘Banlieue rouge’, in Dictionnaire historique de la vie politique française au xxe siècle, ed. by Jean-François Sirinelli (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 2013), pp. 115–21 (p. 116). 19 Yves Lacoste, ‘Éditorial: Après les banlieues rouges?’, in Après les banlieues rouges (= special issue of Hérodote, 43.4 (1986)), 3–5 (p. 3). 20 See Les Passagers, p. 126. 21 See Christoph Kalter, ‘Tiers monde et gauche radicale’, in Histoire des mouvements sociaux en France: de 1814 à nos jours, ed. by Michel Pigenet et Danielle Tartakowsky (Paris: La Découverte, 2014), pp. 378–89 (p. 318). 22 See François Maspero, Les Abeilles et la guêpe (Paris: Seuil, 2002), pp. 186 and 259. 23 See Maspero, Les Abeilles et la guêpe, pp. 194 and 257–58. 24 In ‘Entretien avec François Maspero: “Quelques malentendus”’. 25 Anne-Louise Milne, ‘From Third-Worldism to Fourth-World flânerie? François Maspero’s Recent Journeys’, French Studies, 60 (2006) 489–501. 26 Milne, ‘From Third-Worldism to Fourth-World flânerie?’, p. 494. 27 Milne, ‘From Third-Worldism to Fourth-World flânerie?’, p. 494. 28 See Les Passagers, pp. 94, 107, 123, 163–64, 238, 299, and 310. 29 Milne, ‘From Third-Worldism to Fourth-World flânerie?’, p. 495. 30 Atack, ‘The Politics and Poetics of Space’, p. 453. 31 For more discussion of the epigraphs, see Cooke, ‘Connection and Peripheral Encounters’, p. 98. 32 For a close reading of these formal aspects of the narration, see Jones, ‘Voices of the banlieues’. 33 Cooke, ‘Connection and Peripheral Encounters’, p. 99. 34 Forsdick, Travel in Twentieth-Century French and Francophone Cultures, p. 195; Milne, ‘From Third-Worldism to Fourth-World flânerie?’, p. 502. 35 Sheringham, Everyday Life, p. 320. 36 Ross Chambers, Loiterature (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999), p. 35. 37 Max Silverman, Facing Postmodernity: French Thought on Culture and Society (London: Routledge, 1999), p. 95; emphasis in the original. © The Author(s) 2018. 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French Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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