I write this from Marseille on the second day of the 2016 Euro Cup.
Several days ago I read an article in the New York Times, describing France’s counter-terrorism preparations. Security forces are completely overstretched as they perform various drills to practice for the likely event of a terrorist attack. The biggest fear is that terrorists will attack the big outdoor fan zones. Marseille has one of the largest fan zones in France, expecting some 80,000 people.
““We must say the truth to the French people: 0 percent precautions means 100 percent risk, but 100 percent precautions does not mean 0 percent risk,” Bernard Cazeneuve, the interior minister, said in late May.” (NYTimes).
Aside from military and police, countless undercover security agents in plain clothes mix with the crowds. I haven’t read the specific numbers related to these Euro Cup events but a few years ago I remember reading a report about security at Times Square on New Year’s Eve. The report estimated that one in five people in the crowd were undercover security agents. I remember thinking: what is actually being performed in this mediated spectacle when one fifth of the crowd is only there in spectator drag? I imagined being in the crowd, myself performing spectatorship, with the knowledge that every fifth person I brushed shoulders with was an authority masked as spectator. At what point does the ratio of masked security to spectator tip over? Can we imagine a future where there is one undercover agent for every spectator? Would that still pass as celebration?
On the second day of the Euro Cup, England plays Russia at the Marseille stadium. I am almost completely oblivious to this event happening minutes from where I live. It is Saturday and I go for a jog on my normal path, around the old port. I leave the apartment and already feel a certain charge in the air and in the people I pass. I reach the old port to find it full of enormous luxury yachts. They all have giant flags hanging from their rails; half of them Russian, the other half English. My French roommate David told me that during the last World Cup, the authorities passed a law making it illegal to show any flags in public two days before the biggest Algerian match.
It is absurd for me to try to get through the crowds, but I am already out and a certain stubbornness kicks in. I approach a scene that unfolds in front of me and makes me sorry I don’t have my camera with me. An Englishman somewhere between his mid-40s and 50s is on his knees and elbows on the ground, assuming a prayer position that looks not unlike the position of Muslim men at prayer. I had already seen many men sprawled comatose on the ground, drunk and sunstruck, and at first glance, this seems like a similar situation. But then I notice the phone in one of his hands and see how his other hand is busy positioning an empty bottle of Heineken in front of a giant English flag he has hung as a backdrop for this self-motivated, self-sponsored advertising. His body has assumed this position to stage the snapshot.
“Two things are at stake: France’s image and security,” said Pascal Boniface, the director of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris…” (NYTimes)
The rest of what I see is probably too obvious to describe. It is as terrifying as it is known, as predictable as it is awe inspiring. Packs of repressed men stumbling through landscapes that will only ever exist as their toilets, performing a nationalism that allows the violent repression of their waking lives to take a justifiable, if explosive, form.
Against this backdrop (but I struggle to determine what elements constitute the background and foreground) I identify three different types of French authorities. There are large numbers of soldiers armed with automatic machine guns. I’ve become used to seeing these jarring characters everywhere from the train station to the harbor. They, both during the Euro Cup and every day, are presumably looking for terrorists – their eyes trained in the implicit racial profiling procedures. Then I see bigger amounts of riot police wearing body armor, helmets, shields. They carry batons instead of machine guns. They are presumably looking for hooligans. Their eyes don’t need specific training because the football uniforms have already arranged themselves as targets. Then I see regular police officers. It is unclear to me what their specific function is at this event other than maintaining the general image of order. I am describing what is visible to me. At the same time, it seems to me that the visible has a significant disadvantage in describing these events and their implications.
“But the French authorities have organised a major security operation. The security at the game is believed to be the tightest of any match on the continent with surface-to-air missiles placed on rooftops and on prominent hills in the city. Dozens of police snipers were said to be in strategic positions; and fast patrol boats were understood to be operating in the Mediterranean. “It is a bit shocking for us Brits when you see police with guns, but it is reassuring,” said Gareth Davies, 46, an engineer, from Hertford.” (The Guardian)
In 2016, this type of international event means that for about a week, both the city’s apartments being rented out on Airbnb as well as apps like tinder are full of Russian and English nationals. Directly after the riots this Saturday, I saw many posts on social media by French people venting their anger at “disgusting British tourists who England should be ashamed of”. Reporting on the event, the media was also quick to draw national lines. But when one of those tourists showed up at an Airbnb, rented out by a French person in a legal grey zone, I can easily summon an image of the interaction in which the British person was asked to introduce themselves as the renter’s cousin or friend in the event that the landlord shows up. This ‘cousin’, armed with an array of social apps, explicitly designed to transcend pre-existing boundaries, might at some point have sex with a French national they meet on tinder. The lines that allow the perverse symbolic clarity of uniforms and flags are swapped, penetrated and performed in ways that defy any logical identity separations.
As my legs stutter along the path I am determined to get through I begin to feel like I am hallucinating. I can’t separate between the different types of authoritarian powers, their embodiments both futuristic and primitive, their uniforms spanning centuries of authoritarian drag. I feel both trapped in the political darkness of the present and completely outside of time. I feel engulfed both in the invisible power of technologically advanced military operations and the sweaty smell of a visible medieval mob.
“Around 20,000 English fans had travelled to Marseille despite serious warnings from British ministers of a terrorist attack. Those suggestions were based on the discovery of a computer belonging to Salah Abdeslam, the only surviving member of last November’s Paris attacks. Abdeslam is on remand in a high-security prison in Paris from where he has confirmed that Islamic State wants to launch another attack.” (The Guardian)
At some point, it occurs to me that all the people I’m passing most likely have college degrees. I think about this historical moment and how until recently (half a century or so) the same men would have either been employed in the military or as factory workers. I feel that my hallucinations are not my own but those of a capitalism that has simply placed them in the wrong uniforms. They are, after all, desperate to be in uniform! On my way back I pass expensive waterfront restaurants where groups of English and Russian uniform clad football fans sit wasted, eating expensive food. It dawns on me that these people earn significantly higher wages than I do. They are truly middle class. I, an educated cultural laborer, perform middle class, where in reality, I have never been more than a hair above the poverty line. They can afford things I can’t. They have real jobs. I don’t. I imagine they have probably never heard the word anthropocene.
It has almost become impossible for me to imagine that wars were once fought in relation to specific plots of land. On this plot of land Russian yachts are parked next to English yachts. They eat oysters and drink champagne on either side respectively. I imagine them waving to each other across the gap between their yachts then turning back around to their own countrymen to make snide remarks. The men on the luxury yachts wear the same uniforms and hold the same flags as the hooligans on the streets. But they are worlds apart. The split between the men on the yachts and the men on the street summons various images I have in my mind of how battles might have once been fought. I imagine the split in military rank, where generals kept their hands clean, met enemy generals with cigars, whiskey and gentleman’s handshakes, while the rank and file impaled each other, taught to understand those wearing the wrong uniform not only as an enemy to kill but as the embodiment of a cause worth dying for. It seems, again, that capitalism has successfully replaced this ranking order by turning nations into brands. Everyone has the freedom to wear the uniform but those without real capital are naive enough to believe that this drag is their skin.
There is an incredible scene in Jean Renoir’s 1937 The Grand Illusion, the entire film a foundational reference point for thoughts around identity and nationalism. French soldiers are being held in a camp as prisoners of war. In this scene, they stage a vaudeville performance for their own entertainment. With no women around, the female roles are performed by male soldiers dressed in drag. The comedic performance feels strangely suspended from the realities of their camp environment. The performance is suddenly interrupted by a soldier carrying the news that French troops have recaptured a strategic position from the Germans. The crowd of French spectators / prisoners of war immediately stand up and erupts into singing the Marseillaise. The camera cuts to a close-up of a performer on stage, a man dressed in drag, his posture suddenly snapped into the upright form of national gravity, proudly singing the national anthem he has been trained to understand as the representation of his freedom.
I put these thoughts down as I try to navigate a hallucinatory hall of mirrors where everything is not only doubled but also in drag. This is a contemporary landscape in which I am unable to tell whether an Isis member or a nationalist football fan is more eager to crack my skull; where I don’t know which uniform represents the more crass authoritarian power; where a drunken hooligan might be a secret agent protecting me from terrorism; where those seen as active contributors to society are on their knees and elbows cropping images they will surely post on social media in which regressive nationalism is paired with accelerated advertising to function as social capital for their own accumulation and further contributions to this world order.
The Guardian references: