“We shall wish our minister an execrable new year on Sunday, January 11th,” they announced sardonically on their blog beforehand.
This is the scene. The group is La Ronde Infinie des Obstinés, the Infinite Rounds of the Stubborn, which I wrote about a little bit last summer. Now it is winter. They have been meeting again every week to make the rounds. Two hours. Six to eight. At night. On mondays, right in front of the Minister of Higher Education. It has a regularity to it. A rhythm. If you’re going to walk in circles for hours on end, you better have a high tolerance for repetition.
Last week there wasn’t a big crowd. Twenty people, thirty at most. Carrying their red flags, which, though it’s hard to make out, have an emblem of a circle and the words la ronde infinie des obstinés in black script. There’s a ritual symbolism to marching with red flags, as if little political rites were one way of endowing otherwise inscrutable political acts with a publicly visible symbolism. In other words, without the red flags it would be ever so much harder for passers-by to get the political point. The red flags have a hint of a definite political content (Le rouge est aussi la couleur du communisme, says wp), but also and perhaps more importantly they serve to mark the event as political, and as they serve to mark the event as an event, as something that retains its identity from week to week not only politically but also visually.
Metapolitics, for lack of a better word, has been one of the major issues in the French university sphere. By metapolitics I mean the political question of whether some issue is a political issue. For many protestors last year, university policy was viewed rather like a space of battle, of political forces, of political ideologies. Sauvons l’Université! (Save the University!) went as far as to talk about a repoliticization of the university — though that was in July and now, six months later, the repoliticization has dwindled. But this view of events as political would never have been shared by the Ministry, for whom the protests appeared not as political acts but a species of irrational academic conservativism. In other words, as not politics. As just a kind of nuisance resistance to policy. The large part of the government response to the university movement consisted in ignoring it, hence in aiming to deny its status as politics worthy of official recognition. In short, there was a contest over political legitimacy, a metapolitical contest over political status that was itself folded back into the political situation.
(This raises some methodological problems for political anthropologists. Is it already partisan on my part to talk about university politics? To talk about conflicts? There is no local consensus on whether ‘university politics’ even exists as such. To analyze is already inevitably to take a stance on some of these issues.)
In a situation rife with metapolitical concerns, the red flags, drooping under the weight of their symbolism, come to seem like an effort to repoliticize a dormant situation. (And I wanted to write more about the red flags, about the scene at the Ronde, about stubbornness as a political project and emotion, but perhaps on the whole it is more sensible to split things up into a series of shorter posts. NB: Thanks to Jean-Claude for the photo.)