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Rescripting the fait divers

Counternarratives of Race and Migration in Literature and Journalism from the 1970s to the Present
Madeleine Dobie et Olivia C. Harrison

Résumés

Le genre de reportage journalistique connu sous le nom de faits divers a joué un rôle démesuré dans la production de stéréotypes raciaux en France, depuis l’apogée de l’antisémitisme à la fin du XIXe siècle jusqu’à la cristallisation du discours anti-immigré à l’époque postcoloniale. Cet article aborde ce que Dominique Kalifa a appelé la “fait-diversification” du reportage à l’ère du nativisme pour interroger les fictions de la race : les stratégies narratives sur lesquelles repose la pensée raciale, mais aussi les efforts récents pour subvertir les stéréotypes raciaux dans le domaine de la fiction. Depuis les années 1970, des activistes, écrivains et cinéastes ont réécrit le genre des faits divers dans une critique soutenue des stéréotypes raciaux, des collectifs de théâtre pour migrants aux romans de Leïla Sebbar, Ahmed Zitouni et Ahmad Kalouaz et aux films de Matthieu Kassovitz et Alice Diop. Contre la “fait diversification” des relations sociales basée sur une compréhension paranoïaque de la différence raciale, ces fictions narratives proposent de sortir des fictions de la race.

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Fait Diversions

  • 1 Dominique Kalifa notes that the kind of faits divers published by a newspaper was a reflection of (...)
  • 2 Gérard Noiriel, Une histoire populaire de la France, Marseille, Agone, 2018.
  • 3 Yves Citton, “Contre-fictions: trois modes de combat”, Multitudes, vol. 1, n°48, 2012, p. 72-78.

1The short, often sensational news stories known in French as faits divers originated in the mid nineteenth century in tandem with the rise of the popular press. As newspapers proliferated and strove to increase their circulation beyond the upper classes, they allocated an increasingly large space to stories about crimes, accidents, and disasters. Though ostensibly removed from the concerns of serious literature, faits divers quickly infiltrated the architecture of the novel. Even writers who were openly disdainful of journalism wrote novels inspired by faits divers. Le rouge et le noir, Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, and L’étranger are among the famous examples cited by Dominique Kalifa, who goes so far as to suggest that crime narratives provide the prototype of the modern novel. The relationship between the fait divers and literary fiction is, however, a two-way street, since faits divers are themselves a kind of fiction with their own narrative conventions, tropes, and topoi. They have also, from the outset, been vessels for social imaginaries, playing an outsized role in the production of class-based and racial stereotypes from the surge of anti-Semitism at the turn of the twentieth century to the explosion of anti-immigrant discourse in the postcolonial era1. The focus of this article is, however, not the fait divers as a vehicle for racial fictions – an analysis that has been conducted by the historian of immigration Gérard Noiriel among others – but rather their more unexpected rescripting in antiracist literature2. We consider how, beginning in the 1970s, writers and political collectives in France have channeled the narrative grammar of the fait divers to expose the harmfulness of persistent racial stereotypes and to cultivate media literacy. Close to Yves Citton’s concept of the “counter-fiction” – un récit fictionnel visant à transformer la réalité actuelle dans un projet de lutte contre la reproduction d’un donné perçu comme mutilant” – these works deploy imaginative strategies to undermine the purported factuality of mainstream media representations3.

  • 4 Roland Barthes, “Structure du fait divers”, Essais critiques, Paris, Seuil, 1964, p. 188-89.
  • 5 Pierre Bourdieu, Sur la télévision, Paris, Liber Editions, 1996.
  • 6 Todd Shepard, Sex, France, and Arab Men, 1962-1979, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2017.
  • 7 We do not put ethno-racial terms like Arab in inverted quotes, but rather show throughout our ana (...)

2For Roland Barthes “le fait divers (le mot semble du moins l’indiquer) procéderait d’un classement de l’inclassable, il serait le rebut inorganisé des nouvelles informes”. It escapes classification because it is fundamentally self-contained: “le fait divers […] est une information totale, ou plus exactement, immanente ; il contient en soi tout son savoir : point besoin de connaître rien du monde pour consommer un fait divers”4. Akin to a fragment of a novel (again Barthes), it is a purely narrative form of knowledge (Kalifa), devoid of historical or sociological analysis. Scholars have nonetheless explored and taken different views of the political valence of the genre. For Pierre Bourdieu, “les faits divers, ce sont aussi des faits qui font diversion”, i.e., they are distractions that divert attention from the forces really operating in modern societies5. Dominique Kalifa, on the other hand, suggests that if people are drawn to faits divers it is because they see themselves represented in them. He argues that it is not incidental that the genre emerged at a time of rural exodus and increasing social fragmentation, since faits divers promoted social cohesion. Kalifa acknowledges that foreigners, along with other marginalized groups, have been over-represented as the suspected authors of crimes reported in faits divers, but overall pays relatively little attention to their role as vectors for ethnic and racial stereotypes, despite ample evidence that individual stories of crime and violence nourished racist and anti-immigrant attitudes. The historian Todd Shepard shows that between the end of the Algerian war of Independence and the first electoral victories of the Front national in the early 1980s, a path to a Far-Right politics grounded in anti-immigrant sentiment was laid by recurrent depictions of Arab men as sexual and reproductive threats to the French nation6. If this imaginary gained ground it was through the repetition of news stories portraying Arab men as misogynists, deviants and rapists7.

  • 8 Fausto Giudice, Arabicides: Une chronique française, 1970-1991, Paris, La Découverte, 1992, p. 10 (...)

3The antiracist rescriptings of the fait divers that we examine adopt a variety of strategies. Many draw attention to the fact that young Arab men were more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violent attacks. They show isolated stories about the murder of Arab youths to be part of a much bigger picture of police violence and popular racism. The journalist Fausto Giudice indeed coined the term “arabicide” to designate crimes that proliferated in France in the 1970s and 1980s: “Plusieurs centaines d’Arabes ou désignés comme tels ont succombé, de 1970 à 1991, au geste fatal d’un policier, d’un gendarme, d’un militaire, d’un vigile, d’un commerçant, d’un concierge, d’un particulier ou d’un ou plusieurs inconnus”, Giudice writes. He salvages these cases from the fait divers rubrics of national and regional newspapers by restoring the names and narratives of the victims, retracing in excruciating detail the circumstances of their deaths and the minutiae of the trials of the accused, which most often culminated in dismissal, acquittal, or disproportionately light sentences. Paraphrasing a glib comment by the notorious lawyer for revolutionaries and terrorists, Jacques Vergès, Giudice suggests that in France, Arabicide is a “misdemeanor”, not a “crime”8. Other writers, including Tahar Ben Jelloun and Nacer Kettane, whose work we discuss below, similarly compiled lists of members of the immigrant community killed or injured in racially motivated incidents.

  • 9 Lia Brozgal, Absent the Archives: Cultural Traces of a Massacre in Paris, 17 October 1961, Liverp (...)
  • 10 Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts”, Small Axe, 26, June 2008, p. 1-14.

4The often simultaneous over- and under-representation of marginalized and dominated groups, and the conditions under which alternative representations, including self-representations, become possible, have been the subject of many critical reflections. In her work on the media blackout that followed the violent police suppression of protests by Algerian immigrants in Paris on October 17, 1961, Lia Brozgal, drawing on the work of Jacques Rancière, shows that the “scene of the crime” was effectively obscured by the crime of the (un)seen9. To respond to erasures of violence such as this may require the compilation of new archives where none previously existed. For her part, in her now classic essay, “Venus in Two Acts”, Saidiya Hartman suggests that anecdotal references to the violence inflicted on enslaved women who are otherwise absent from the archive call for “critical fabulation”, i.e. the supplementation of historical research with imaginative reconstruction10. In loosely similar ways, the works that we consider strive to make visible what has remained unseen and, with the aid of fiction, attempt to reconstruct lives and moments that have been lost to history. Formally heterogeneous, these fait-diversions are unified by their attentiveness to ways in which knowledge is produced and consumed. While several employ documentary techniques or methods borrowed from the social sciences, they also avoid the potential traps of a realist mode in which the facts of a story are marshaled as evidence at the expense of complexity and context.

From Protest to Performance

5The antiracist rescripting of the fait divers in France began in the early 1970s in migrant rights and antiracist movements that were formed in response to a wave of violence targeting the Maghrebi and immigrant communities. Our exploration begins with the work of these groundbreaking collectives.

  • 11 Formed in the wake of Black September – the Jordanian army’s assault on fighters of the Palestini (...)
  • 12 “Pour arrêter les crimes racistes descends dans la rue!”, Fedaï, n° 15, February 23, 1972, p. 1, (...)
  • 13 Jacques Rancière, “La cause de l’autre”, Lignes, n° 30, 1997, p. 41.

6On October 27, 1971, a fifteen-year-old Algerian boy, Djellali Ben Ali, was shot to death by the male companion of his concierge in the working-class neighborhood of la Goutte d’Or in Paris’s 18th arrondissement. The newly formed Comités de soutien à la révolution palestinienne (CSRP), a migrant rights group active since September 1970, turned this fait divers into l’affaire Djellali, placing the struggle against racism on the front page of its militant publications, including Fedaï: Journal de soutien à la révolution palestinienne11. Against the relegation of racist crimes to the fait divers columns, the CSRP called for migrant workers and their allies to “take to the streets to protest racist crimes”12. A protest march held on November 7, 1971 rallied some four thousand activists, including intellectuals and artists such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Claude Mauriac, and Jean Genet. The first large-scale antiracist rally held in France since the march of October 17, 1961, during which some two hundred Algerians died at the hands of the Paris police, the Djellali protests anchored the fledgling antiracist movement in the history of anticolonial protest in France. The ten-year anniversary that Djellali’s murder adventitiously marked served as a reminder of the tight connections between colonialism, immigration and racially motivated violence. It also drew attention to the media “blackout” following October 17 and persistent disregard vis-à-vis racist crimes in the ensuing decade13.

  • 14 Bouchra Khalili, “The Tempest Society. Video. 2017”, accessed February 8, 2022, URL : www.bouchra (...)

7The murder of Djellali helped to launch the first autonomous migrant rights movement, culminating in the symbolic campaign of an anonymous migrant who took the pseudonym Djellali Kamal during the 1974 presidential election. The Djellali affair also inspired creative works, including poetry, plays, a “radio immigrée” (Radio Assifa), and an anonymous film script. With the exception of a few documents preserved by CSRP activists like Saïd Bouziri, most of these texts have been lost. But it is possible to reconstitute, or “reactivate”, in the words of contemporary artist Bouchra Khalili, some of these creative responses14. One of these was “Ça travaille, ça travaille et ça ferme sa gueule”, a series of skits about the plight of migrant workers produced by the theater collective of the Mouvement des Travailleurs Arabes (MTA, 1972-1976), Al Assifa.

  • 15 “Qu’est-ce que Assifa?”, undated tract, ARCH/0057/18, Fonds Saïd Bouziri, La contemporaine.

8Founded in 1972 by Mohamed “Mokhtar” Bachiri, a Moroccan metalworker and CSRP activist, and Marxist-Leninist students Geneviève Clancy and Philippe Tancelin, Al Assifa was, according to its founding manifesto, “un collectif composé de travailleurs immigrés et de travailleurs français, participant directement aux mouvements et luttes des travailleurs immigrés en France”. Named after the armed wing of the PLO’s Fatah party, The Tempest, Al Assifa used “theatrical interventions” in the service of the struggle for migrant rights: “nous sommes un groupe qui ayant mené et menant des luttes pour la reconnaissance des droits des travailleurs immigrés, s’est emparé de l’arme du théâtre pour prolonger l’efficacité de son combat”15.

9“Ça travaille” was the result of an encounter between Al Assifa members and striking workers at Lip (a watch and clock manufacturer), who asked the troupe to put on a play explaining the experiences of migrant workers to their French comrades. The product of a conversation between migrant and French workers striking together for improved working conditions, “Ça travaille” was, in its very creation, an antiracist performance. But its aim was also pedagogical, exposing the mechanisms that brought cheap migrant labor from the former colonies to the metropole, as well as the various forms of racism to which migrant workers were subjected in France, not least the forms of violence ordinarily relegated to the fait divers columns.

10The play premiered at the Lip factory in Besançon in August 1973, during confrontations between workers and police forces who threw tear gas grenades into the mêlée. Over the next three years, Al Assifa performed “Ça travaille” for thousands of migrant and French workers in factories, foyers (state-run workers’ lodgings), cafés, and public squares throughout France, changing the play according to current events and audience participation. Performed in French and Darija (North African Arabic dialects), Al Assifa’s plays were inspired by the performance traditions of North Africa, including al-halqa (the circle formed around a storyteller) and street music. Crucially, they relied on audience participation, both during the performances and after, as the rare audio recordings and transcriptions of the plays attest.

  • 16 “La télévision ne fait pas partie du décor, elle est un personage bien vivant qui a ses idées, sa (...)

11The porosity between the space of representation and the public is a crucial element in the scene we focus on below, which stages a confrontation between migrant workers and the television – written into the play as a fully-fledged character, not a prop – reporting on the murder of Mohamed Diab, an unarmed Algerian immigrant shot at close range by a police officer in a police station in Versailles on November 29, 197216. Here is how we might reconstitute the confrontation between the television and the migrant workers it claims to represent, based on the account Clancy and Tancelin give of various performances during strikes at the Lip and Chausson factories and in a Bordeaux theater:

Communiqué de presse :

Cet après-midi au commissariat de Versailles, un brigadier est contraint d’abattre un ressortissant algérien qui s’était livré à un attentat à la pudeur et menaçait l’ensemble des gardiens qui tentaient de le contenir…

  • 17 Ibid., p. 166-167.

Clancy and Tancelin describe the audience’s reaction to this press release during the strike at the Chausson factory: “A peine la télé commence-t-elle ses mensonges, que les interventions fusent. T’as pas honte, menteuse, c’est faux !” In response to the spectators’ protests, a member of Al Assifa recites the testimony of Fatna Diab, who witnessed the execution of her brother and maintained the accuracy of her account, against the police version of what happened: “voilà, c’est ça la verité, c’est ça la vérité”17.

12This scene, performed numerous times in migrant communities in France, served to counter and contest the cover-up of a deadly bavure policière, one of the many Arabicides inventoried by Giudice and others. In this sense, Al Assifa’s performances provided a contre-information, an alternative source of news for migrant workers. Like the cover stories dedicated to the victims of racist crimes in militant publications such as Fedaï and Al Assifa, they also functioned as a rallying cry for migrant rights within the public spaces of contestation, the factory and the streets. In their memoir devoted to the work of Al Assifa, Clancy and Tancelin explain the catalyzing function of the performance of counter-testimony during the Chausson strike:

  • 18 Ibid., p. 159.

Et quand vient la scène du témoignage de Fatna Diab, c’est le silence lourd de tout ce qu’on sait, de tout ce qu’on craint. À la fin de la pièce c’est un concert spontané de darboukas et de bendirs. Concert qu’ils tiendront jusqu’aux jours suivants où, se battant contre les C.R.S., ils le feront aussi avec leurs chansons, leur musique attachée à leurs cris, à leurs exigences.18

The members of the troupe were not actors representing reality, they were “activists acting”. Against the exigencies of realism and satire, Al Assifa staged a confrontation that extended the struggle for migrant rights even as it catalyzed further action:

  • 19 Ibid., p. 194-195.

Quand nous jouons le rôle du policier et de la télévision, nous ne cherchons pas à nous identifier à l’un ou à l’autre. Nous ne cherchons pas à les mettre à distance de nous par la caricature. Nous nous exprimons dans des gestes, des contours physiques qui les rendent reconnaissables et crédibles, non pas objectivement ou de façon réaliste, mais du strict point de vue qui est le nôtre, par rapport à eux : notre refus, notre lutte contre eux, contre leurs gestes, leurs fonctions.19

Breaking down the boundary between the arena of struggle and the space of representation, Al Assifa transformed the stage into a springboard for action. But if Al Assifa rejected realism and caricature, it was also to subvert the modes of representation that govern media accounts of migrant and banlieusard criminality, distilled in the fait divers genre: stereotype and vraisemblance. As we will see in the following section, the critique of caricature and realism is also a refusal of the forms of racial stereotyping that make even the most fanciful faits divers credible.

Right to Respond

13Building on the activities of antiracist collectives such as the CSRP and the MTA in the 1970s, in the early to mid-1980s, several writers from the French-Maghrebi community embraced the mission of challenging pervasive racist stereotyping by creating counter-narratives and establishing media platforms to host these self-representations. With one foot in journalism and another in literature, writers including Tahar Ben Jelloun, Nacer Kettane, Leïla Sebbar and Ahmed Zitouni were well placed to measure the social impact of racist faits divers and to imagine strategies for disarming them.

14In his ironically titled essay of 1984, Hospitalité française, Ben Jelloun compared the weight of news stories concerning pro-democracy protests in Poland, on the one hand, with those bearing on Palestinian rights or racist crimes targeting Arabs on the other:

  • 20 Tahar Ben Jelloun, Hospitalité française: Racisme et immigration maghrébine, Paris, Seuil, 1984, (...)

Je constate qu’il est plus facile de mobiliser la France de 1984 pour la Pologne que pour la Palestine ou les travailleurs immigrés arabes. […] Les morts arabes pesaient moins lourd que d’autres sur la conscience de l’homme occidental.20

  • 21 Ibid., p. 148.
  • 22 Ibid., p. 86.

Whereas in the early 1970s, intellectuals and writers such as Sartre, Foucault, and Genet rallied for migrant rights – Ben Jelloun mentions the large rally after the murder of Djellali Ben Ali – the intellectual class largely remained silent in the face of racist crimes in the 1980s. “Après l’été meurtrier de 1984, le silence des intellectuels est lourd”, he writes21. Against this trahison des clercs, Ben Jelloun proposes unraveling the French myth of color blindness to reveal the historical and social fabric that makes racist murders possible. Relegated to the fait divers pages, racist crimes targeting Arabs are not, he argues, simply the acts of deranged individuals, isolated from the larger context that produced them. Rather, they are signs of a social pathology that requires treatment. “Lorsque le même geste se reproduit pour les mêmes raisons dans d’autres lieux du pays, ce n’est plus une affaire d’individu à individu – ce n’est plus un fait divers isolé et exceptionnel – , mais c’est une affaire qui concerne l’ensemble de la société”22.

  • 23 Ibid., p. 28.
  • 24 Ibid., p. 18.
  • 25 Roland Barthes, “Structure du fait divers”, op. cit., p. 189.
  • 26 Albert Camus, L’étranger, Paris, Gallimard, 1942.
  • 27 Tahar Ben Jelloun, Hospitalité française: Racisme et immigration maghrébine, op. cit., p. 23.

15Writing in the wake of the urban rebellions of Vénissieux in the banlieue of Lyon in the summer of 1981, Ben Jelloun draws up a list of forty-five men, women, and children who were killed or maimed between May 1982 and October 1983. The macabre list reads simultaneously like a pastiche of the fait divers genre of reporting – at its most pithy, a three-line news item citing the bare facts, without any context – and a liturgical practice of naming the dead. Some of the names in Ben Jelloun’s list have become legendary in the history of antiracist struggle – the nine-year old Taoufik Ouannès, whose murder spurred the antiracist movements of the 1980s, and Toumi Djaïdja, initiator of the Marche pour l’égalité et contre le racisme that galvanized national attention in October-December 1983 – but the forgotten names in his inventory are perhaps even more touching in their brevity and near anonymity: “HACHICHI Walid, 18 ans, assassiné le 28 octobre 1982 à Lyon”23. The fact that Ben Jelloun does not cite a motive is intentional: “le meurtre raciste a le privilège de se passer de motifs”24. Like the fait divers, which, as Barthes argues, is a “closed structure” severed from a larger récit25, racist crimes are often portrayed as individual crimes of passion or unreason, as absurd as Meursault’s unthinking murder of an anonymous Arab in Albert Camus’s L’étranger26. The sun, the heat, the smell, the noise are sufficient motives for these cheap crimes, seemingly divorced from the historical context and political discourses that fuel them. But the psychology of the crime is irrelevant for Ben Jelloun: “Qu’importent le nom, la situation sociale de l’individu qui, ne supportant plus le bruit des pétards, tire dans le tas. Cet homme ne m’intéresse pas”. What is of interest, rather, is the récit that authorizes racist crimes, the invisible structure that gives the fait divers the appearance of immanence. “La France a été alertée,” warns Ben Jelloun. “Elle n’a peut-être pas entendu les messages de Vénissieux et autres ensembles”27.

16On the ground, the residents of Vénissieux and other banlieues across France were organizing their “right to respond” to this renewed climate of racially motivated crimes. In this they were fighting against the relegation of racist crimes to the status of faits divers and placing the names of Djaïdja, Ouannès and other victims of racist violence on the banners of their cortèges and on the front page of their militant publications. As Radio Beur activist Naceur Kettane put it in Droit de réponse à la démocratie française, those he calls “les Maghrébins de France” (North African migrants and their French-born children) were beginning to spill over from the fait divers columns into the streets, much to the surprise of a French public used to immigrants hugging the walls or committing petty crimes:

  • 28 Naceur Kettane, Droit de réponse à la démocratie française, Paris, La Découverte, 1986, p. 39; p. (...)

Habitués à voir des têtes frisées dans la rubrique faits divers ou au chapitre délinquance-prison, la France s’est sentie chatouillée dans sa léthargie. Car ces mêmes têtes faisaient irruption quotidiennement sur les écrans et dans les journaux et osaient revendiquer: la France découvrait la réalité de sa jeunesse.28

  • 29 Ibid., p. 17.
  • 30 Ibid., p. 76.
  • 31 Ibid., p. 18.

17Best known as the founder of Radio beur (1981), a pathbreaking private radio station out of which grew Beur FM (1992), a radio franchise, and Beur TV (2003) – all platforms designed to highlight France’s cultural diversity and showcase the voices and talents of the Maghrebi community – Kettane also published fiction and political commentaries. Among these are Droit de réponse (1986), a book-length essay in which he avails himself of the accused’s “right to respond” to hostile media depictions of Maghrebi immigrants and their French-born children. Kettane observes that while France was becoming increasingly multicultural, forces on both the Right and the Left were resisting diversity rather than adapting to it29. The problem, as he saw it, was not so much that working-class French people were individually racist, but rather that the steady stream of media characterizing “les Maghrébins” collectively as criminal and dangerous produced a climate of racism. To counteract the psychological hold of tropes and topoi such as the arabe violeur/voleur or the immigrant as social parasite30, the “têtes frisées” had to move from the crime columns to stories about political activism and the arts31. Kettane argues that exercising more influence over media would make it possible for the Franco-Maghrebi community to represent itself on its own terms and optimistically lists the various forms of content – recent migration-related films and literature, vibrant new musical groups and genres – that were ready for distribution.

  • 32 Ibid., p. 75

18Droit de réponse also makes the point that the persistent negative stereotyping of Arabs as criminals and delinquents masked the fact that they were far more frequently the victims of violent crimes. Like Giudice and Ben Jelloun, Kettane enumerates the racist crimes committed in France in the preceding years: 150 murders of youths aged nine to thirty between 1980 and 198532. At the summit of this pervasive violence he places the ejection of an Algerian tourist named Hamid Grimzi from the train from Bordeaux to Ventimiglia in 1983, a spectacular incident that attracted more media attention than most other racist crimes and to which we return below.

  • 33 Sans frontière was published 1979-1985. Sebbar was a contributor from 1980-1982 and a member of t (...)
  • 34 The trilogy consists of Shérazade, 17 ans, brune, frisée, les yeux verts, Paris, Stock, 1982; Les (...)

19Another French-Maghrebi writer who took up the cause of challenging and reframing racist stereotypes was Leïla Sebbar, a prolific novelist and essayist who began her career as a contributor to the migration-focused journal Sans frontière. The objectives of this magazine, in some respects similar to those of Radio beur, were to “intervenir dans le domaine de l’information des immigrés et de l’opinion publique sur le sujet des immigrés, favoriser l’insertion des immigrés résidant en France, être vigilant sur toute forme de discrimination raciale, sexiste, ou autre [...], [et] favoriser une meilleure connaissance des cultures dont sont originaires les populations immigrées”33. Sebbar’s early fiction writing, including her breakthrough “Shérazade” trilogy (1982, 1985, 1991), novels that narrate the story of a young French-Maghrebi woman and her ethnically diverse friend-group, was tightly entwined with her writing for Sans frontière. The title of the first volume of the trilogy, Shérazade, 17 ans, brune, frisée, les yeux verts (1982), for example, mimics the form of a petite annonce about a runaway teen 34.

  • 35 Nancy Huston, review of On tue les petites filles, in Sorcières: Les femmes vivent, 1979, n° 16, (...)
  • 36 Leïla Sebbar, On tue les petites filles, Paris, Le Manuscript, 2024.
  • 37 Promotional text on the publisher’s website, URL: https://lemanuscrit.fr/livres/on-tue-les-petite (...)
  • 38 Leïla Sebbar, On tue les petites filles: Une enquête sur les mauvais traitements, sévices, meurtr (...)

20As a reporter working the “immigration beat”, Sebbar encountered such stories regularly and took them seriously enough to author a book-length exposé on violence committed against women and girls. On tue les petites filles (1978) is a pathbreaking if harrowing account of “mauvais traitements, meurtres, sévices, incestes, viols contre les filles mineures” (words that appear in the book’s subtitle). In a review published in the feminist journal Sorcières, the writer Nancy Huston comments that “le livre de Sebbar relie les récits sordides pour en montrer le système35, suggesting that Sebbar found in shocking individual crimes evidence of systemic patriarchal violence and societal indifference. Long neglected as a contribution to the sociology of gender, On tue les petites filles has recently been revisited in a new edition published by Le manuscript press in a seies on gender and sexual identities36. Promotional materials for the new edition situate the book as a precursor of the #MeToo movement, whose goal of exposing the “invisibilisation permanente des violences familiales, domestiques, patriarcales, archaïques qui impactent encore nos sociétés” it anticipated by several decades37. The connection with #MeToo is justified - Sebbar characterizes the project as a feminist investigation seeking to inspire more vigorous efforts to address pervasive yet largely invisible violence against women and girls. She also highlights the question of how such violence is covered in the media, insisting on the difference between her objectives and more sensational reporting on these issues. The back cover of the book starkly announces: “On bat les petites filles, on les tue, on les viole. Il fallait lever le secret. Rendre publique une actualité qui n’apparaît que dans la presse à sensation pour qu’elle échappe aux spécialistes du scandale” (in the book, Sebbar names Le Nouvel Observateur and Libération as two of the main culprits of such sensationalism)38.

21But although Sebbar explains that “ce livre veut lire autrement ce qui d’habitude n’est qu’un fait divers” (back cover), writing “otherwise” proves to be complicated, since she draws on many of the same sources that are used in fait divers reporting – i.e. medical, judicial and police archives – and examines stories with similar features, not least recurrent linkages between crime and abuse and poverty and immigration. Part sociological analysis, part media-critique, her analysis moves back and forth between the lived experiences of vulnerable women and social discourses about them. Some passages draw attention to tropes that predetermine how working-class and brown and black women are perceived and treated by the criminal justice, healthcare, and social welfare systems. Yet in others, Sebbar explains how social pathologies arise, in the process suggesting that these are not merely stereotypes: “il ne s’agit pas seulement d’analyser un fait divers mais de comprendre que beaucoup des représentations de la sexualité feminine : mauvaise mere depravée, bonne mère frigide, célibataire stérile, vieille fille chaste ou putain… ont leur origine dans les violences qu’ont subies, petites filles, tant de femmes”, she concludes (back cover). This interpretative instability is mirrored in the book’s innovative narrative perspective, which shifts between the first and the third person. One reading of this structure would be that the book registers the limitations of the archive and testimony with regard to such pervasively censored issues as domestic abuse and sexual violence. Viewed form a different perspective, however, it illustrates the difficulty of depicting violence within and against marginalized communities in ways that don’t reinscribe dominant attitudes toward them.

  • 39 I borrow the expression “declining the stereotype” from Mireille Rosello, Declining the Stereotyp (...)

22Sebbar carefully avoids diagnosing misogyny, femicide, pedophilia, and infanticide as features of Maghrebi or Arab culture – as faits divers typically portrayed them in the 1970s and 80s, and as they are still widely represented in anti-immigrant discourses – treating them instead as much wider social ills. Rather than playing into the ethno-religious stereotypes that were driving anti-immigrant animus, she links crime and abuse to the social marginalization of the poor and of immigrants and the threadbare social safety net. In stark contrast, in his novel Avec du sang déshonoré d’encre à leurs mains, Ahmed Zitouni takes the opposite tack, “declining the stereotype” of the violent, misogynistic Arab in a masterful satire of the fait divers genre39.

  • 40 Ahmed Zitouni, Avec du sang déshonoré d’encre à leurs mains, Paris, Laffont, 1983, p. 13.

23The narrator of Zitouni’s novel is a denizen of the fait divers columns, gunned down by a police officer after stabbing a stranger to death and condemned to eke out the rest of his existence in the pages of various publications. The novel takes the form of a picaresque quest for a mysterious Monsieur X: “J’habitais à côté de lui. Temporairement. Dans la colonne mitoyenne : un infect et inconfortable quatre lignes et demie d’Arabe, tué ou abattu (c’était selon le concierge du jour). À la rubrique : BAVURES”40. But this encounter is short-lived. Monsieur X, whose claim to fame is the rape and murder of two little girls, is quickly replaced by less sensational news items. To his surprise, the narrator’s own story has more staying power:

  • 41 Ibid. p. 15.

J’avais quand même habité dans ce douillet quatre-lignes-et-demie, au cœur du quartier le plus recherché dans le secteur des faits divers, pendant une semaine entière : ce qui prouve bien que c’était un véritable journal de gauche, puisque j’étais locataire à titre d’immigré victime d’une méchante bavure.41

  • 42 Ibid. p. 54.

A send-up of the kind of reportage that would place such disparate news items in the same column“notre concierge a pensé qu’un assassin de fillette et un assassin abattu allaient bien ensemble”42Avec du sang blows up the stereotypes that fait divers reporting is based on, producing an absurd collage of crimes that lay bare the fictions of race.

24Leaning into the realist conventions of the novel and the preliminary disclaimers of fiction, the text opens with an “avertissement” explaining that, contrary to the imaginary heroes of novels, Monsieur X probably exists, despite the grotesque nature of his character. The narrator explains that:

certaines personnes […] m’ont sentencieusement affirmé qu’un dégénéré sexuel de cet acabit […] ne peut travestir qu’un mythe dangereux qui aurait pris son inquiétante source dans la gangrène d’un cerveau de décadent suicidaire, inventeur satanique doublé d’un mythomane reclus : écrivain de énième zone.

  • 43 Ibid., p. 10-12.

Others claim that he must exist because he passes through their darkest fantasies: “il ne pourrait pas ne pas exister”. The narrator concludes that “l’existence de Monsieur X a été sentie, ressentie, voire redoutée, parfois haïe, mais n’a jamais été clairement établie”43. In search of the much-maligned Monsieur X, he plunges into the world of grisly crimes with the frisson of recognition, meeting pedophiles, rapists, murderers, terrorists, and even dog-killers whose narratives meld into his own.

  • 44 Ibid., p. 88.
  • 45 Ibid., p. 111-112.
  • 46 See for example Rachid Djaïdjani, Boumkoeur, Paris, Seuil, 1999; Mohamed Rezane, Dit violent, Par (...)

25The eight chapters of the novel recount the narrator’s encounters with various “traversiers de faits divers”, beginning with the narrator’s decision to end his life by committing a crime that will lead to his arrest or shooting by the policea recurring narrative pretext that culminates in his death by guillotine in the final chapter. Alternating between first- and third-person narratives, the stories that compose the novel are, true to the fait divers genre, almost all set in working-class environments and often told by migrant workers, most notably “comment s’appellait-il donc, Luis, José, Pedro, Miguel”44, who kills his only companion, a dog, and Abderrahman (alias Impermastic), who shoots his neighbor Bouzid, a stand-in for the various figures of authority in charge of the banlieue: the police and CRS patrolling the cités of Marseille, the social worker tasked with inculcating civilization to his family, and the schoolteacher who mispronounces his name. “Abderrahmane ?... Abderrahmane ! Avec un nom pareil, qu’est-ce qu’on peut faire, sinon raser les murs, les mordre, ou bien, carrément se taper la tête dessus. […] De toute façon, avec un prénom comme ça, on est fichu d’avance”45. A figure of social death that anticipates the heroes of more recent banlieue literature46, Impermastic is, perhaps more than any other character in the novel, a proxy for the narrator:

  • 47 Ahmed Zitouni, Avec du sang déshonoré d’encre à leurs mains, op. cit., p. 216. Zitouni has contin (...)

Je serai toujours Impermastic quand il réalisa qu’il ne pouvait tuer, à travers tous les flics qui se présentaient, la maîtresse d’école, l’éducateur, le tenancier de bistrot qui ne servait pas les Arabes, la boulangère qui l’avait souvent traité de bicot, le chauffeur de bus qui accélérait au lieu de s’arrêter devant l’arrêt obligatoire… quand il réalisa qu’il ne pouvait venir à bout de toutes les haines, de tous les mépris, toutes les négations, toutes les manifestations de racisme qu’il portait en rides intérieures et qu’aucun carnage ne pouvait exorciser. Plus que jamais je serai Impermastic, page 4, deux colonnes, mué en Abderrahmane, préférant mourir plutôt que d’en finir avec l’humanité entière.47

26The blurring of identities in this carnival of petty crimes reaches its climax when the narrator decides to commit suicide by taking the fall for the murder of his concierge, an act driven by a perverse desire for recognition by the Republic:

L’idée avait jailli, s’était imposée, lumineuse : faire l’économie d’un suicide, tout en acculant au crime d’authentiques potentats dits de justice. La mort de la vieille arrivait au bon moment. Qui accuser en premier lieu, sinon moi. J’étais le coupable parfait. L’assassin désigné. Qui égorge au couteau, hein? C’est bibi, Mohammed. […]

On me dira : Asseyez-vous, Monsieur… Par ici, Monsieur… Signez ici, Monsieur… Ce sera différent des Y’en a toi attendre… Tes papiers, carte de séjour, fiches de paye…

  • 48 Ibid., p. 199-200.

On me reconnaîtra un nom, un prénom, une date et un lieu de naissance, tout un cheminement individuel.48

  • 49 Ibid., p. 198.
  • 50 L’étranger is an explicit intertext in Avec du sang déshonoré d’encre à leurs mains, particularly (...)
  • 51 Ahmed Zitouni, Avec du sang déshonoré d’encre à leurs mains, op. cit., p. 83-87. On the collusion (...)

But the narrator’s hopes for dignified treatment are cruelly dashed during the court proceedings, which rely first on an Arabic interpreter to interrogate the accused“je suis censé très mal comprendre le français”49and quickly devolve into petit-nègre, the condescending patois used to speak to indigènes (colonial subjects) and immigrants. Reminiscent of Meursault’s observations about the arbitrary nature of justice in L’étranger50, the trial scene offers a hilarious satire of the structural racism undergirding the French judicial system. That the narrator exploits this system to end his life is a comical form of revenge, one that indicts the courts and the journalistic profession that aids and abets the criminalization of migrants, as the narrator charges in an invective devoted to the fait diversiers who make racial stereotypes their trade: “Ils ne m’ont pas raté, les vautours ! Des milliers de crimes qu’ils m’ont inventés, en me fourrant sans ménagement sous leurs colonnes de première page”51. Rather than proving the fait diversiers and the courts right about Arab criminality, however, the narrator’s final act exposes the racial biases that motivate fait divers reporting and the judicial system alike. Subverting the fictions of race, the narrator takes the fall for a crime he did not commit, certain that the mechanism of (in)justice will bring him inexorably to the guillotine.

  • 52 Kamel Daoud, Meursault, contre-enquête, Algiers, Barzakh, 2013; Arles, Actes Sud, 2014.

27Avec du sang is a tragicomic satire of the fictions of race spun by fait diversiers, judges, lawyers, and the public that avidly consumes these fictions. It is also a revenge fantasy that flips the script of several previously fictionalized fait divers, from Meursault’s sun-stoked killing of an Arab in L’étranger – here, it is the Arab who kills a stranger – to the murder of the narrator’s concierge, a literary retribution for Djellali Ben Ali that culminates in an indictment of the court system that exonerated his killer. Decades before Kamel Daoud’s Meursault, contre-enquête52, Avec du sang exposes the racial biases of the judicial system and the journalists that give it fodder. But this time, it is the unjustly condemned man who designed the whole scheme. He is the agent of his own execution and, in metanarrative terms, the author of Avec du sang, a novel that exposes, and exploits, the narrative principles of the fait divers.

Strangers on Trains

  • 53 Dominique Kalifa, L’encre et le sang: Récits de crimes et société à la Belle Époque, op. cit., p. (...)
  • 54 CharlElie Couture, “Jacky”; Lahlou Tighremt, “Averrani”; Nuclear Device, “Habib Grimzi”.
  • 55 Ahmad Kalouaz, Point kilométrique 190, Paris, L’Harmattan, 1986; Train d’enfer, dir. Roger Hanin, (...)

28As Dominique Kalifa notes, from the early days of train travel during the Second Empire, “le chemin de fer émerge comme un lieu privilégié de la dangérosité urbaine”53. The modern crime imaginary was activated by the combination of high speed and the potential for encounters among strangers of different social backgrounds, and indeed for encounters from which it was impossible to escape. Given the long history of train-related faits divers, it is not surprising that the death in 1983 of a young Algerian named Habib Grimzi after he was thrown from the Bordeaux-Ventimiglia train by a group of military cadets became a cause célèbre. The fact that this racially-motivated murder occurred during the Marche pour l’égalité et contre le racisme, a highly mediatized protest march that drew attention to the precarious situation of immigrants and their descendants and high levels of police violence against them, only heightened its social and cultural impact. In addition to garnering extensive media coverage, the Habib Grimzi affair generated a number of creative responses, including songs by prominent contemporary artists such as CharlElie Couture, Nuclear Device and Lahlou Tighremt and works of literature and film54. We focus on two of these efforts to memorialize the death of Habib Grimzi on terms different to those of the fait divers: Ahmad Kalouaz’s novel Point Kilométrique 190 (1986) and the feature film Train d’enfer (1985), directed by Roger Hanin55.

  • 56 Ahmad Kalouaz, Point kilométrique 190, op. cit., p. 75.
  • 57 Ibid., p. 42-43. Through the voice of Grimzi, Kalouaz evokes as “l’héritage de deux siècles d’his (...)
  • 58 Ibid., p. 59-60.

29Ahmad Kalouaz seems to have had several motivations for revisiting this horrific crime. In his novel, he takes issue with the suggestion that the cadets had turned violent because they were drunk, insisting rather on racist predispositions and drawing connections with the history of colonial violence56. Speaking in the first person, Grimzi remembers French soldiers carrying out “reprisals” in his village during the Algerian War, implicitly connecting the cadets to old wounds that continued to fester in the French military57. The novel also takes aim at the indifference of bystanders. Although the attack occurred on a busy evening train, no one, with the exception of a conductor, intervened; the other passengers looked away, unwilling to get involved58. Kalouaz’s reproach echoes the platform of SOS-Racisme, the antiracist organization launched in October 1984, a few months after Grimzi’s death. The official slogan, “Touche pas à mon pote”, exhorted French people to stand up to racist bullying and aggression.

  • 59 Ibid., p. 68.
  • 60 Ibid., p. 9.

30Kalouaz’s larger goal, however, was to counteract the short news cycle of the fait divers in order to preserve the memory of both the victim and the crime. This work of memorialization is accomplished through several overlapping literary strategies. Borrowing the textual conventions of a film screenplay, Grimzi’s journey is rendered as a series of frames, as, for example, in this passage evoking the moments before the attack: “23h 55. Le dernier plan en traveling commence. Extérieur nuit. Lumière voilée, caméra dans la tête. À partir de cette heure les images ne se comptent plus en secondes”59. By gesturing to the medium of film, the novel establishes a self-reflexive commentary on the different forms in which incidents such as Grimzi’s murder are portrayed. Indications such as “les images passent”, for example, evoke the detached perspective of the television spectator. But other perspectives are also represented in the novel, which alternates different narrative voices to the point that that it is sometimes hard to tell who is speaking and who is being addressed. In addition to the metadiegetic third person voice, the first person is used to express the thoughts of Grimzi as well as those of a fictional character inserted into the story by Kalouaz – a journalist named Sabine who was called to photograph the crime scene and has since been haunted by the image of Grimzi’s broken body. “Ils m’avaient appelé, en pleine nuit. Un fait divers, comme d’autres”, she recalls60. A year after the event, Sabine retraces Grimzi’s journey, recording the train’s progress from Bordeaux to the fatal point kilométrique 190 where he was thrown from the train. She recalls his last moments, while also anticipating the next stages of her own journey, creating a complex play of analepsis and prolepsis in which the murder itself is the elusive event that resists representation. Sabine’s presence as co-narrator also introduces a feminine presence into the story of a crime that involved young men and in which the masculine codes of the legionnaires doubtless played some role. This affective dimension is reinforced by the novel’s allusions to Hélène, the lover who is waiting for Grimzi in Marseille, and to Grimzi’s mother. Together, these female figures invite readers to imagine Grimzi as a young man who was cherished in life and mourned after his death.

31The novel’s obsessive attention to both time and location suggests a process of documentation aimed at preserving every detail of Grimzi’s final journey. Yet in reality, Kalouaz altered many details of the story. Grimzi was not, for instance, traveling to Marseille to reunite with his lover Hélène, but rather returning to Algeria after visiting his French correspondent and girlfriend, Florence, who lived in Bordeaux. While seemingly minor, these changes raise questions about the relationship between fact and fiction. Was the objective to preserve the exact details of Grimzi’s life as the documentary style implies, or to render the broader political and affective meaning of what happened to him? In its departures from the script of the fait divers, this novel raises a different set of questions about the ethics of documentary fiction.

32Roger Hanin’s 1985 film Train d’enfer takes a very different approach to representing a story that had already received spectacular coverage in the press. The film makes no effort to document or memorialize what happened to Grimzi specifically. Instead, it depicts a similar murder on a train of a young Algerian by three young French men, while making changes to the story that reflected Hanin’s own political agenda. A left-wing actor-director from an Algerian-Jewish background, Hanin saw in the Grimzi story an occasion to indict the politics of France’s at the time still relatively new far right parties. Instead of cadets, the men who attack the Algerian on a train are working-class supporters of a French nativist movement led by a wealthy businessman. A stand-in for the Front National, this movement blames immigrants from North Africa for social ills including unemployment and rising crime. The plot revolves around the movement’s leaders’ efforts to incite hatred and violence through false-flag robberies and acts of vandalism that they try to pin on Maghrebis. In a striking scene, an anti-immigrant crowd lays siege to a police station where a small group of these wrongly-accused suspects are being held. The crowd sings the Marseillaise, showing obvious relish for the lines about spilling impure, i.e. foreign blood. Though Hanin was politically well-connected (among other things, he was President François Mitterrand’s brother-in-law), scenes such as this proved to be too much for the French film and television industry to embrace, and the film was effectively censored. Hanin had succeeded in making a film even more sensational than the faits divers on which it was based.

  • 61 Michael Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization(...)

33But if Train d’enfer was trying to deliver a strong political message about the rise of ant-immigrant extremism, it undermines this objective by centering the political contest between two white French men – the nativist businessman and the honest police commissioner played by Hanin himself – while relegating the North-African characters to marginal roles. It is not incidental in this regard that the film repeatedly associates right-wing ideas with Nazism and the Second World War. The nativists compare themselves to the French resistance fighting against an Arab occupation, while also drawing ideological inspiration from Mein Kampf. Although, as Michael Rothberg argues, the memory of violence has often been multidirectional, in this instance allusions to the Holocaust further dilute the film’s attention to anti-immigrant bias.61

34Whereas other works we consider in this article strive in one way or another to rewire the communication circuit of the fait divers, Train d’enfer stretches it out over two hours. Rather than commemorating and mourning the victim, the film’s realist mode accommodates and naturalizes violence. The murder of the young Algerian is shown in explicit detail, as though it were taking place before our eyes. Since viewers (especially a French audience in 1985), would have known from the start how the attack would end, this sequence feels both excruciating and gratuitous. A more thoughtful choice is the incorporation into the narrative of media coverage of the murder and its aftermath. The camera pans across the front pages of newspapers and we watch characters gathered in a sports bar as they watch the famous news anchor, Anne Sinclair, delivering a report on the murder. There is also television footage from the Marche pour l’égalité et contre le racisme. Though Train d’enfer falls short of offering a meaningful commentary on the fait divers, it offers a pointed, if incomplete, critique of media representations.

35Neither the exploration of racist and sensational crimes committed on trains nor the multidirectional referencing of the Holocaust ended with the Habib Grimzi affair. On July 9, 2004, a young woman named Marie Leblanc filed a report at the Gennevilliers police station claiming that she had been attacked on the RER D by six youths of Maghrebi origin who drew swastikas on her belly, slashed her face, cut a strand of her hair, and knocked over the stroller carrying her one-year-old daughter before fleeing at the Garges-Sarcelles station in the Val d’Oise. The media frenzy and political outrage that followed was abruptly cut short when, on July 13, Leblanc retracted her story, invented, she explained, to elicit the sympathy of her estranged lover. They had watched a television reportage on the defamation of a Jewish cemetery in Alsace, and she hoped he would be moved by her story. The fact that Leblanc was not Jewish was not an item of discussion in the analyses and mea culpas that followed this revelation, nor were the racial stereotypes her fabulation relied on. The consensus in the media and political class, rather, was that it was better to be outraged à tort than to remain silent in the face of an alleged anti-Semitic crime.

  • 62 The play and film based on the RER D affair take for granted the credibility of Leblanc’s story a (...)
  • 63 Pierre-André Taguieff, La nouvelle judéophobie, Paris, Mille et une nuits, 2002.
  • 64 Éric Zemmour, Petit frère, Paris, Denoël, 2007. For a non-exhaustive list of publications and fil (...)
  • 65 All quotes from the press cited in Mogniss Abdallah, “L’affaire du RER D: Chronique d’un emballem (...)

36What became known as l’affaire du RER D – Leblanc’s story but also the media fallout that followed – captures the ways in which the fait divers genre of reporting has been deployed to construct evidence of banlieusard criminality. Because it was revealed to be fiction, not fact – today we might use the term fake news – the RER D affair also ruptures the deontological codes of journalistic truth and evidences the narratological function of the fait divers. As commentators noted after the story was revealed to be a hoax, Leblanc’s story was false, but it could just as well have been true. The script was believable, as the writer Henri Raczymow put it succinctly: “Elle ment, mais elle ment vrai”. As reported in the news and condemned by the political class, the narrative of Leblanc’s victimization satisfied readerly expectations about banlieusard criminality62. In the aftermath of 9/11, the second Intifada, and the onset of the global war on terror, it also aligned perfectly with Pierre-André Taguieff’s diagnosis of a “new Judeophobia” breeding in the banlieues63. Had Leblanc not retracted her story, it would have constituted further evidence of banlieusard anti-Semitism, along with the murder of Sébastien Selam by his Muslim friend and neighbor in 2003 – the fait divers retold in Éric Zemmour’s novel Petit frère – or the brutal torture and murder of Ilan Halimi in January and February 2006, which made headlines until the trial of the gang des barbares concluded in 2009, inspiring a number of memoirs, novels, essays, and film adaptations along the way64. The political and mediatic terrain was ready for Leblanc’s story. In a sense, it made it possible. As her lawyer succinctly put it, Leblanc “harnessed the anxiety of the times”65.

  • 66 Ibid., p. 123.
  • 67 Anne-Claude Ambroise-Rendu, Petits récits et désordres ordinaires: Les faits divers dans la press (...)
  • 68 Roland Barthes, “L’effet de reel”, Communications, n° 11, 1968, p. 84-89.

37As Mogniss Abdallah notes in his analysis of the media frenzy surrounding the RER D affair, the early twenty-first century marked a sharp rise not only in anti-Semitic crimes, but also in anti-Muslim violence and racist crimes indistinctly targeting Jews and Muslims. The moral outrage Leblanc’s story elicited across the political spectrum stands in stark contrast to the comparative disregard for racist violence toward Muslims. It also completely ignores the tireless activism of militants combating racism in the banlieue in all its forms, including anti-Semitism. “Les indignations sélectives montrent plus que jamais leurs limites”, concludes Abdallah66. But we can go further: the selective outrage vis-à-vis anti-Semitic crimes in the banlieue, including fictional ones, also serves to exonerate France’s historic responsibility in producing and perpetuating anti-Semitism, and to shift attention away from the persistence of anti-Muslim, anti-Black, and anti-Arab stereotypes that made Leblanc’s story so convincing that the media reported it as fact before any evidence was found. In this sense, it doesn’t matter that the RER D affair was a hoax. Based on a preexisting narrative of banlieusard criminality and Muslim Judeophobia, it quickly passed the test of verisimilitude, contributing to the “effet de réél” that is, according to Anne-Claude Ambroise-Rendu, a requirement of the fait divers genre67. Like the accrual of insignificant details and gratuitous descriptions that produce the reality effect according to Roland Barthes, the proliferation of stories like the RER D affair have played a cardinal role in producing the figure of the violent banlieusard68. They have also served to bury the evidence of racist violence against Muslims. The disproportion between the attention given to Leblanc’s story in the media and what actually happened (nothing) is not representative of the deontological codes of French journalism as a whole. Nor is it representative of reality – anti-Semitic crimes are indeed on the rise. But in almost satirical fashion, the RER D affair makes glaringly obvious the double standards in the press treatment of racist crimes.

  • 69 François Maspéro, Les passagers du Roissy Express, Paris, Seuil, 1990. Alice Diop, Nous, Paris, N (...)
  • 70 See for example this interview conducted by contributors to Médiapart: https://www.youtube.com/wa (...)

38Perhaps in response to the fallout from the RER D affair, some recent cultural reflections on urban transit, race and class have steered clear of crime narratives and instead portrayed experiences of commuting that are both more quotidian and more poetic. This trend began with journalist and editor François Maspero’s book Les passagers du Roissy-Express (1990), which recounts Maspero and photographer Anaïk Frantz’s month-long exploration of places and people along the RER B line. Their project is updated and translated into the medium of film in Alice Diop’s documentary Nous (2021)69. Loosely structured around interviews with people who live near the RER B, or who use the train to commute to work, it reflects Diop’s commitment as a filmmaker to preserving traces of ordinary lives. The title Nous might at first seem ironic, since the film highlights the extreme social and economic diversity of the neighborhoods the train line traverses along with the racial division of labor and leisure – wealthy white people are shown hunting in the Rambouillet Forest, while black and brown residents board the train before dawn to get to their jobs – but it is perhaps better understood as a question or an exhortation. In interviews, Diop has said that the film is about whether and how people can “faire nous” or “se nouer” and as a result confer meaning on French republican values such as equality70. Nous also represents an effort to film the banlieue in ways that avoid the associations with crime, unemployment, and more recently terrorism that have dominated public discourses since the 1970s. If Diop returns to the narrative topos of “strangers on trains”, it is to travel on a different track to the sensationalism of the fait divers.

Concluding Thoughts

39We have observed that literary and cinematic rescriptings of fait divers take many forms and respond to different features of the genre, from its overemphasis on immigrant criminality and the corresponding erasure of crimes committed against immigrants, notably by the police, to its objectification of both perpetrators and victims and gravitation to sensational details that reinforce stereotypes. The narrative grammar of the fait divers is appropriated in a variety of ways, through parody or pastiche, or by providing social context, biographical detail and interpretative frameworks that challenge its ostensible self-containment. These choices with regard to form reflect, among other things, the intended audience. Works produced in the 1970s under the auspices of immigrant workers’ collectives such as the Mouvement des travailleurs arabes were intended to enhance participation among people with lived experience of racial bias. As such, they had a kind of immanent political character. By contrast, a film such as Train d’enfer addressed a much broader French audience. Its internal tensions reflect the complicated task of persuading the entire nation to reconsider its perceptions of immigration and cultural diversity and to rein in the rise of the Far Right.

  • 71 Dominique Kalifa, Crime et culture au XIXe siècle, Paris, Perrin, p. 191.

40Discourses about what immigration means to France and what France does to immigrants have remained at the forefront of politics and media since they first coalesced in the 1970s and 1980s, though media now encompasses a wider, more fragmented, and more invasive spectrum of platforms and genres. Though the classic three-line newspaper fait divers may be a dying art, the spirit of the attention-grabbing news item that confirms racial tropes is alive and well, as are efforts to counteract “fait-diversification”71, as illustrated by prominent recent works of francophone literature and film such as Mathieu Kassovitz’s La haine (1995), an influential film that has itself drawn criticisms for sensationalizing the banlieue, Kamel Daoud’s prize-winning novel Meursault contre-enquête (2013), which reworks Camus’s reworking of a fait divers in L’étranger, and Alice Diop’s feature film St. Omer (2022), which turns a story about an infanticide committed by an immigrant into a multidimensional portrait of social isolation and multi-generational exposure to racial and gender bias. We hope that the readings we offer here will lay the ground for further consideration of the fait divers as a genre that produces racial fictions even as it invites subversive counternarratives.

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Note de fin

1 Dominique Kalifa notes that the kind of faits divers published by a newspaper was a reflection of its editorial line: Left-wing and anarchist publications were reticent about crime stories that lent support to the police or the courts but relished anything that pointed to bourgeois or aristocratic delinquency. Dominique Kalifa, L’encre et le sang: Récits de crimes et société à la Belle Époque, Paris, Fayard, 1995, p. 25-26.

2 Gérard Noiriel, Une histoire populaire de la France, Marseille, Agone, 2018.

3 Yves Citton, “Contre-fictions: trois modes de combat”, Multitudes, vol. 1, n°48, 2012, p. 72-78.

4 Roland Barthes, “Structure du fait divers”, Essais critiques, Paris, Seuil, 1964, p. 188-89.

5 Pierre Bourdieu, Sur la télévision, Paris, Liber Editions, 1996.

6 Todd Shepard, Sex, France, and Arab Men, 1962-1979, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2017.

7 We do not put ethno-racial terms like Arab in inverted quotes, but rather show throughout our analysis how the fait divers genre has contributed to produce and reify these identities.

8 Fausto Giudice, Arabicides: Une chronique française, 1970-1991, Paris, La Découverte, 1992, p. 10-11.

9 Lia Brozgal, Absent the Archives: Cultural Traces of a Massacre in Paris, 17 October 1961, Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 2020.

10 Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts”, Small Axe, 26, June 2008, p. 1-14.

11 Formed in the wake of Black September – the Jordanian army’s assault on fighters of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in September 1970, an action that resulted in the deaths of thousands of fedayeen and refugees – the CSRP deployed “Palestine as a rallying cry” for migrant rights in France, calling for equal treatment before the law, improved working conditions, access to decent lodging, freedom of association and expression and, most urgently, an end to the racist crimes that were terrorizing migrant communities. The expression “Palestine as a rallying cry” is from Edward Said, The Question of Palestine, New York, Vintage Books, 1979, p. 125. For more on the CSRP, see Olivia C. Harrison, Natives against Nativism : Antiracism and Indigenous Critique in Postcolonial France, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2023, p. 25-54.

12 “Pour arrêter les crimes racistes descends dans la rue!”, Fedaï, n° 15, February 23, 1972, p. 1, ARCH/0057/04, Fonds Saïd Bouziri, La contemporaine.

13 Jacques Rancière, “La cause de l’autre”, Lignes, n° 30, 1997, p. 41.

14 Bouchra Khalili, “The Tempest Society. Video. 2017”, accessed February 8, 2022, URL : www.bouchrakhalili.com.

15 “Qu’est-ce que Assifa?”, undated tract, ARCH/0057/18, Fonds Saïd Bouziri, La contemporaine.

16 “La télévision ne fait pas partie du décor, elle est un personage bien vivant qui a ses idées, sa politique, et des tas de mots pour déguiser tout cela.” Geneviève Clancy and Philippe Tancelin, Les tiers idées: Pour une esthétique du combat, Paris, L’Harmattan, p. 203.

17 Ibid., p. 166-167.

18 Ibid., p. 159.

19 Ibid., p. 194-195.

20 Tahar Ben Jelloun, Hospitalité française: Racisme et immigration maghrébine, Paris, Seuil, 1984, p. 66-67.

21 Ibid., p. 148.

22 Ibid., p. 86.

23 Ibid., p. 28.

24 Ibid., p. 18.

25 Roland Barthes, “Structure du fait divers”, op. cit., p. 189.

26 Albert Camus, L’étranger, Paris, Gallimard, 1942.

27 Tahar Ben Jelloun, Hospitalité française: Racisme et immigration maghrébine, op. cit., p. 23.

28 Naceur Kettane, Droit de réponse à la démocratie française, Paris, La Découverte, 1986, p. 39; p. 18.

29 Ibid., p. 17.

30 Ibid., p. 76.

31 Ibid., p. 18.

32 Ibid., p. 75

33 Sans frontière was published 1979-1985. Sebbar was a contributor from 1980-1982 and a member of the editorial board from 1981. The full set of issues can be consulted in digital format on the Odysséo platform: https://www.lesamisdegeneriques.org/Presentation/p9/Presentation-d-Odysseo. The mission statement appears on the poster announcing the launch of the journal: https://www.lesamisdegeneriques.org/ark:/naan/a011433752307UJct1F.

34 The trilogy consists of Shérazade, 17 ans, brune, frisée, les yeux verts, Paris, Stock, 1982; Les carnets de Shérazade, Paris, Stock, 1985; and Le fou de Shérazade, Paris, Stock, 1990.

35 Nancy Huston, review of On tue les petites filles, in Sorcières: Les femmes vivent, 1979, n° 16, p. 57, URL : https://femenrev.persee.fr/doc/sorci_0339-0705_1979_num_16_1_4443.

36 Leïla Sebbar, On tue les petites filles, Paris, Le Manuscript, 2024.

37 Promotional text on the publisher’s website, URL: https://lemanuscrit.fr/livres/on-tue-les-petites-filles/.

38 Leïla Sebbar, On tue les petites filles: Une enquête sur les mauvais traitements, sévices, meurtres, incestes, viols contre les filles mineures de moins de 15 ans, de 1967 à 1977 en France, Paris, Stock, 1978, p. 345.

39 I borrow the expression “declining the stereotype” from Mireille Rosello, Declining the Stereotype: Ethnicity and Representation in French Cultures, Hanover, University Press of New England, 1998. For an astute reading of the multiple ways in which Avec du sang subverts stereotypes of Arabs, see Michel Laronde, “Urbanism as a Discourse of Cultural Infiltration in Post-Colonial Fictions in France”, Nottingham French Studies, vol. 39, n° 1, 2000, p. 70. Born in Saïda, Algeria, in 1949, Zitouni emigrated to France in 1973. A prolific writer, Zitouni has not received the critical attention his work deserves, undoubtedly because his idiosyncratic novels do not easily fit into the category of Beur literature. Zitouni offers a searing satire of the mediatic production of the Beur writer in his novel Attilah Fakir: Les derniers jours d’un apostropheur, Tizi Ouzo, Éditions Frantz Fanon, 2019. On the marketing of Beur literature, see Kathryn Kleppinger, Branding the “Beur” Author: Minority Writing and the Media in France, Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 2015.

40 Ahmed Zitouni, Avec du sang déshonoré d’encre à leurs mains, Paris, Laffont, 1983, p. 13.

41 Ibid. p. 15.

42 Ibid. p. 54.

43 Ibid., p. 10-12.

44 Ibid., p. 88.

45 Ibid., p. 111-112.

46 See for example Rachid Djaïdjani, Boumkoeur, Paris, Seuil, 1999; Mohamed Rezane, Dit violent, Paris, Gallimard, 2006.

47 Ahmed Zitouni, Avec du sang déshonoré d’encre à leurs mains, op. cit., p. 216. Zitouni has continued to write novels that offer acerbic critiques of anti-Arab racism and satires of the fait divers, revisiting the stories of several characters from Avec du sang, including Impermastic. See for example Y a-t-il une vie avant la mort?, Paris, La Différence, 2007; Au début était le mort, Paris, La Différence, 2008.

48 Ibid., p. 199-200.

49 Ibid., p. 198.

50 L’étranger is an explicit intertext in Avec du sang déshonoré d’encre à leurs mains, particularly in the trial leading up to the narrator’s death by guillotine, which his lawyer’s Camus-inspired tirade against the death penalty is helpless to prevent.

51 Ahmed Zitouni, Avec du sang déshonoré d’encre à leurs mains, op. cit., p. 83-87. On the collusion between the fait diversiers, the police, and the courts, see Dominique Kalifa, L’encre et le sang: Récits de crimes et société à la Belle Époque, op. cit., p. 216.

52 Kamel Daoud, Meursault, contre-enquête, Algiers, Barzakh, 2013; Arles, Actes Sud, 2014.

53 Dominique Kalifa, L’encre et le sang: Récits de crimes et société à la Belle Époque, op. cit., p. 113.

54 CharlElie Couture, “Jacky”; Lahlou Tighremt, “Averrani”; Nuclear Device, “Habib Grimzi”.

55 Ahmad Kalouaz, Point kilométrique 190, Paris, L’Harmattan, 1986; Train d’enfer, dir. Roger Hanin, 1985.

56 Ahmad Kalouaz, Point kilométrique 190, op. cit., p. 75.

57 Ibid., p. 42-43. Through the voice of Grimzi, Kalouaz evokes as “l’héritage de deux siècles d’histoire” words such as “Cantonnement, Razzia, Insurrection, Terrorisme”.

58 Ibid., p. 59-60.

59 Ibid., p. 68.

60 Ibid., p. 9.

61 Michael Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization, Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press, 2009.

62 The play and film based on the RER D affair take for granted the credibility of Leblanc’s story and focus instead on the personal and psychological factors that drove her to this act of fabulation. Jean-Marie Besset, RER, Paris, L’avant-scène théâtre, 2009. André Téchiné, La fille du RER, Neuilly-sur-Seine, UGC Vidéo, 2009, DVD.

63 Pierre-André Taguieff, La nouvelle judéophobie, Paris, Mille et une nuits, 2002.

64 Éric Zemmour, Petit frère, Paris, Denoël, 2007. For a non-exhaustive list of publications and films about the Halimi affair, see Ruth Halimi et Emily Frèche, 24 jours: La vérité sur la mort d’Ilan Halimi, Paris, Seuil, 2009; Alexandre Arcady, 24 jours: La vérité sur la mort d’Ilan Halimi, Paris, Alexandre Films, 2014, DVD; Morgan Sportès, Tout, tout de suite, Paris, Fayard, 2011; Richard Berry, Tout, tout de suite, Paris, Mars Film Distribution, DVD.

65 All quotes from the press cited in Mogniss Abdallah, “L’affaire du RER D: Chronique d’un emballement politico-médiatique”, Hommes et migrations, n° 1251, September-October 2004, p. 118-123.

66 Ibid., p. 123.

67 Anne-Claude Ambroise-Rendu, Petits récits et désordres ordinaires: Les faits divers dans la presse française des débuts de la IIIe République à la Grande Guerre, Paris, Éditions Séli Arslan, 2004, p. 25.

68 Roland Barthes, “L’effet de reel”, Communications, n° 11, 1968, p. 84-89.

69 François Maspéro, Les passagers du Roissy Express, Paris, Seuil, 1990. Alice Diop, Nous, Paris, New Story, 2021.

70 See for example this interview conducted by contributors to Médiapart: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=caJgENn2iVA.

71 Dominique Kalifa, Crime et culture au XIXe siècle, Paris, Perrin, p. 191.

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Madeleine Dobie et Olivia C. Harrison, « Rescripting the fait divers »Revue critique de fixxion française contemporaine [En ligne], 28 | 2024, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2024, consulté le 14 juillet 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/fixxion/13863 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/11u07

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Madeleine Dobie

Columbia University

Olivia C. Harrison

University of Southern California

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