A year ago, Renaud Séchan reappeared after a long absence, remembering those who, like me, have forged a part of their political culture and their critical spirit in his company. Haunted by his disappearance, I am even more by his return, so much the gap between « the annoying singer » of yesterday and « the phoenix » of today is abysmal. Renaud seems unrecognizable, to the point that there is no better denial of some of his current positions than his songs of the past. History of a disenchantment…
My parents, who were churchgoers, brought me up with Georges Brassens and Anne Sylvestre records in my ears, took me to see Pierre Desproges in concert, while « Charlie Hebdo » and « Hara Kiri » were never far from « Spirou Magazine » and « Pif Gadget » on the living room table… I was therefore predisposed to be interested in Renaud Séchan’s realist songs It was when I was about ten years old that I discovered this fellow who, touching my young libertarian fibre and still slumbering revolutionary aspirations, was going to cross my life, play a founding role and have more influence than all my teachers combined. His songs and his positions helped me to think about the world. It is partly thanks to his verve that class consciousness, a taste for freedom, social justice or ecology were distilled in my brain. It was through his stories that I first approached worlds such as the suburbs and the working class. I learned slang from his pub poems. With his two-bit puns, his self-deprecation and his obvious bad faith, I had my first adult laughs.
« Too much wind, not enough / The water was too wet. »
While I had discovered Renaud with the success of his sixth album « Morgane de toi » (1983), I was sorry in retrospect and a little paradoxically that this one also marks a turning point in his sources of inspiration. His life as a family man would lead him to write more tender songs and to leave behind the characters of the gavroches, loubards, small thugs, rebels and other marginalized people (Manu, Germaine, Lucien, Dédé, Mimi or Jojo) whose portraits he drew with inspiration and malice. I also listened to bands like Mano Negra and Bérurier Noir, I liked this character of anarchist appearance, impertinent and provocative whose first compositions were entitled « Die bitch! » and « Ravachol » (in 1968, he was 16 years old), who first appeared on television with « Camarade bourgeois » (1975), which dedicated its fourth album to Jacques Mesrine (« Marche à l’ombre » in 1980), but I felt at the same time a lot of affection for this man with a deep sensitivity, having never hidden to be fragile, shy, clumsy and full of contradictions.
« I like to sing the scum /
The weed of the slums /
The bad boys, the scoundrel /
Those who were born on the pavement ».
One of these contradictions is his relationship with political power and elections, which he has constantly sung about and proclaimed as not changing things… while supporting candidates (in turn ecologists, communists, socialists) in every presidential election since 1981 — with the advent of François Mitterrand, from whom he fell « He was so charmed that he publicly asked him to run again in 1988, despite the austerity measures and the abandonment of his economic promises in 1983. The kind of inconsistency that aroused the ire of purists and the benevolent sarcasm of those who consider that Renaud has always been endowed with a fundamental quality: sincerity. For my part, this is how I understood that the human being is not limited to his strength of character and his political coherence, that weaknesses and paradoxes are part of life…
TRUMPETS OF FAME
Having had the opportunity to spend some time with Renaud, I remember him as an eminently kind, generous man with a sparkling look in his eyes, who developed a very strong relationship with his audience. In the second half of the 1980’s, I published with his complicity and that of his brother David, « L’énervant », a fanzine about his lyrics, his universe and the causes he defended. During this period, Renaud explored a register with more universal and consensual themes than at his beginnings, forgetting the postures of « gavroche » or « loubard », mixing with skill intimate and political tones, naive and denunciatory, melancholic and sarcastic. Each of his new albums (« Winning Mistral », « Fucking truck. » « Marchand de cailloux ») was then spinning for months in loop on my turntable, giving me both energy and mobilizing all that was necessary for the realization of this little review, while the melodies and lyrics of his repertoire were printed in indelible ink in my memory.
In the early 1990’s, my life took me on a different path. First of all, journalism, with months spent investigating and then writing, publishing and following up a book on the Belgian far right, which was in the process of emerging in the polls and organizing itself by trying to follow the French example of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front. This was the time when anti-racism and anti-fascism in general, and SOS Racism in particular, was an important and very institutional movement. It took me months of militancy to realize that I was in fact participating in a consensual movement, carried at arm’s length by the parties of the right as well as of the left, and particularly the social democrats who were thus giving themselves a good conscience, they whose betrayal of the working classes is one of the main vectors of the breakthrough of the extreme right. In 1991, Renaud thought no less when he declared: « I have no more illusions about French politicians, nor about the French left, nor about the Socialist Party, nor about François Mitterrand. […] When I see the intelligentsia, the showbiz, the cultured people of all stripes taking advantage of all the platforms to throw stones at Le Pen, I tell myself that I prefer to save my voice for other battles. »
What I was going to do in my turn, opening in parallel my horizons as well artistic as political, being interested in other forms of commitments, music and also French song (Brigitte Fontaine, Richard Desjardins, Dick Annegarn, Claude Nougaro, Alain Bashung, Jacques Higelin…). I met Renaud for the last time during the recording of « Renaud cante el’ Nord », his album in Ch’ti (1993), and found myself listening to « À la belle de mai » (1994) only with a distant ear. It took me a while to realize that I was hoping to protect myself from getting one of those slaps that make you feel old. That deep down, I was terrified by the prospect of seeing « badly aged » people who were for me examples, landmarks, like this singer who was dear to me and whose success and social ascension I feared would make him more conformist, that by dint of bathing in the show business milieu his inspiration would dry up, his angles would become rounded, his pen would become polished, his tone would become dull, his literary flavor would become poorer…
« I want my songs to be caresses /
Or a punch in the face /
Whoever I’m talking to /
I want to shake you up in your seats ».
Yet, like a relative or close friend, what he became continued to affect me. This is still the case today, even though it may seem irrational and I don’t know what to do with this feeling: when I know it’s wrong, something inside me is shaken.
And it’s been a long time that this skinned man is tormented by the pain of living. From the mid-1980s, in the era when anyone who was interested in social justice began to feel helpless in the face of the growing number of seemingly lost causes in this globalized world, political disillusionment began to transpire from Renaud’s songs. For him, one of the tipping points is the « big slap in the face » that he took during a trip to the USSR in 1984 (especially when the crowd left his Moscow concert while he was singing « Deserter ») which plunges him into a crisis of paranoia, then the deaths of some close relations (Coluche in 1986, Pierre Desproges in 1988…).
« There’s not enough room in my heart anymore /
To house the revolt, the disgust, the anger ».
A decade later, other personal disappointments were added, revealing a humanly disillusioned, politically jaded Renaud, eaten away by nostalgia and by his inner demons, who finally reappeared in 2002 with « Boucan d’enfer », a therapeutic disc presented as a resurrection because recorded at the end of five years, according to its terms, « at the bottom of the hole », hiding to drown his pain and to « close to cyrrhosis ».
It was at this time that I began to feel a deeper uneasiness towards him than his usual political contradictions: he with whom I shared a healthy repulsion towards the soixante-huitards who had become « company boss » (such as Serge July) or « defender of social democracy » (such as Daniel Cohn-Bendit), had ended up supporting and endorsing the drift of Philippe Val’s « Charlie Hebdo », this « philosopher » and post-sixties singer who used in 1992 not pretty-pretty methods towards Cavanna and Choron, its founders, to take over the title of the libertarian and satirical ex-hebdo of the years 1970–80 and to make of it a capitalist company of which he enthroned himself boss. He used it as a stepping stone for his career as an editorialist in Paris and later as director of France Inter under Nicolas Sarkozy (where his first feats of arms were the dismissal of comedians Stéphane Guillon and Didier Porte, who were considered too critical of Sarkozysm). After the attacks of September 11, 2001, Val will transform the newspaper « stupid and nasty » as a dogmatic organ (always under the guise of humor) of a rigorous and divisive secularism based on a Manichean reading of the world that opposes Western civilization to Muslim obscurantism… In 2008, it will go so far as to fire Siné, one of the historical pillars of « Charlie », under the pretext of anti-Semitism — an accusation supported by Bernard-Henri Lévy (Philippe Val’s « soldier » in the case of the Mohammed cartoons, as he defined himself) and other sandbox gang leaders, but contradicted by the courts that will judge this dismissal totally abusive. On this occasion, we did not hear Renaud (original shareholder and regular columnist of the new « Charlie ») defend his old comrade Siné or distance himself from Val’s autocratic and intellectually dishonest methods.
« Pissed off by these lefties / Who have become fat bosses /
I threw my newspaper out the window ».
Another surprise in 2005, when he learned that, convinced by the same Val, always quick to moralize the public debate, Renaud called to vote ‘yes’ to the referendum on the European Constitution. With an argument curiously tinged with resignation, just like the left, which has ended up integrating neo-liberalism as an inescapable fact, like a delayed victory of Thatcherism: « Triumphant liberalism and relocations, even if I fight against them, are unfortunately the foundations of the capitalist policies of all European countries, including socialist ones. These phenomena are inevitable and it is certainly not by choosing ‘no’ that we will put an end to these practices. By voting ‘yes’, we will make Europe stronger economically, socially, culturally and politically. »
It was the time when Renaud mobilized for the liberation of Ingrid Betancourt, released « Rouge sang » (2006) and « Molly Malone », an album of Irish folk songs (2009), and then disappeared from the artistic and political radar. In 2010, he said he had « lost the sap »: « commenting on this world, criticizing it, [lui] seems totally futile today ». Loss of meaning, loss of gusto. For a decade or so, he sank again into alcohol and depression, « spend[ant] his days and nights thinking about his childhood and adolescence« He divides his time between his favorite Parisian brasserie and his vast property located in the « Beverly Hills » of a small sunny tourist town in the Vaucluse, where pastis flows freely and the National Front scores exceptionally high. This is the bath in which Renaud touched the bottom and almost didn’t come up to the surface. Hence the somewhat pompous term » phoenix » which this dwarf, who has been known to be more humble, has since then used to mark the occasion of his second « rebirth ».
RESURRECTION, CON TRAP
The announcement of the release of a new album, in 2016, obviously pleased a very large audience. Yet, that’s when the disenchantment went up another notch for me. Because the recording suggests that Renaud is mostly concerned about his health, almost bitter, settling accounts with the media, to whom he has not hidden his private life and who he even toured to promote this new album. A Renaud strongly shocked by the Paris attacks of January and November 2015 (including that of « Charlie Hebdo ») which lead him to a mainly emotional, cookie-cutter reaction, celebrating without hindsight the national consensus that followed these attacks, feeling « a particular resentment against Islam », speaking of « these violent people who love nothing […] but death« denouncing the barbarity of the terrorists without questioning the use of this term or the socio-political context of this sad and complex time that it does not help me to think nor to criticize… A reaction and a state of mind that strongly denote the sensitive and sociological approach that the same author showed, in 1983, when to depict the « Second generation » of immigrants he drew the portrait of Slimane, 15 years old, inhabitant of La Courneuve:
« Sometimes I think that 3,000 miles away / From my city, there’s a country / That I’ll probably never know / That maybe it’s better, maybe it’s worse / That over there too, I’ll be a stranger / That over there too, I’ll be nobody / So, to feel like I belong / To a people, To a country / I wear around my neck on my leather / The black and white and grey keffiyeh / I’ve invented brothers / Friends who are dying too / I’ve got nothing to gain, nothing to lose / Not even life / I only like death in this shitty life / I like what’s broken / I like what’s destroyed / I especially like everything that scares you / The pain and the night… »
On his new album, Renaud also sings « I kissed a cop« He released a single and a video clip at the very moment when the state of emergency is used to cover up the worst security measures (searches and police custody, house arrest of activists, especially environmentalists…) and when the French police are beating up demonstrators against the Labour Law. The contrast is striking. In the clip of « Always on his feet », he wears on his perfecto the insignia of the prefecture of police of Paris, which he explains (in an interview given to the blog of the said prefecture!) to be « a message of friendship towards the Parisian police, and also a nice message of provocation to the attention of the thugs, the cop eaters who perhaps imagine me as one of them ». In other interviews, he states: « In the past, the more cops there were, the more afraid I was, now the more cops there are, the happier I am. Now they are the victims, in every demonstration they are shot at, they are burned with Molotov cocktails by the scum. » Or: « I’ve evolved a bit and so have the cops. They have changed. Today, they are young. They are fraternal with me. They are trying to suppress the riots that the anti-airport morons of Notre-Dame-des-Landes are spreading to throw rocks at the poor CRS and the cops. I have changed. I like cops. They are there to protect us, to maintain a semblance of republican and democratic order. »
« I’m just a militant / From the party of the birds /
Whales, children / Land and water ».
Mazette! What supernatural power could have transformed this environmental activist into a contemptuous critic of the « anti-airport morons of Notre-Dame-des-Landes »? Should we deduce that the character of « Mon beauf » has finally rubbed off on his interpreter, to explain that he now despises « the scum » he once liked to sing, poses as a defender of « republican order » and takes up the expression » casseurs » without the slightest nuance? A term that the authorities and the media associate with demonstrators who could well, in part, have a filiation with the repertoire of a singer whose hymns were firebrands against the State, the Republic and the police. We think of « Where did I put my gun? » (1980) and, of course, to « Hexagone » (1975), a song that « the annoying singer » continued to sing in public throughout his career and of which he still said in 2010: « If I were to write it today, I would do it again as is. » Today, « the phoenix » speaks of it as « a song of youth » whose text he finds in part « caricatural » and too « vindictive, » adding that he would like to « to make up for all the cruelties » he may have said there.
« I don’t set foot in a demonstration anymore /
Without a nunchak’ or a cocktail /
In Longwy as in Saint Lazare /
More slogans in front of the cops /
But guns, paving stones, grenades! »
THE GREAT CONFUSION
I understand that an artist does not belong to his public, and that the human being evolves with age (still happy that one is not immutable), but at this point… By what dirty trick of life, this anti-militarist, anti-clerical, justice-loving, in solidarity with the exploited and oppressed, and among other fights, militant for the liberation of occupied Palestine, does he end up considering today that« Israel is the most beautiful democracy in the world » ?
« I’ve gone off the grid, » says Renaud, who recently swapped the Huguenot cross for the Star of David around his neck, saying he « plans to wear a yarmulke on a few occasions » and has almost « converted to Judaism. Well, that’s his business. The problem is the absolute confusion of these words: in the hope, he says, of « [se] reconciling with a community that [l’a] a little mistreated for [son] pro-Palestinian commitment« And on the grounds of a rampant anti-Semitism that is winning lost souls like those who sowed a terrible death in a kosher supermarket in Paris, here he is setting himself up as a defender of Israel, an oppressive state, and of its democracy based on a colonial, racist and militaristic policy. In doing so, he makes two major mistakes: on the one hand, he confuses the Jewish community, Judaism and the State of Israel, and on the other hand, he reduces the Palestinian cause to a religious issue rather than to the political right to self-determination of a people.
In any case, the turnaround is amazing from someone who said « always in love with the small peoples that are denied » and proud to defend « the particularities, the languages, the customs, the regional cultures, often oppressed, or victims of Jacobinism, of Parisian centralism », this friend of the Bretons and the Catalans, who fought apartheid in South Africa, who supported the Kanak people « against French colonialism », to Basque rebels and conscientious objectors, Corsican political prisoners, etc.
How to understand it? No doubt remembering that Renaud was accused of anti-Semitism on several occasions in the 1980s and 1990s (for having taken a stand against the Gulf War, or for having compared in « the fate of the Palestinians to a genocide), by a intellectual and media« intelligentsia » of which he said he was disgusted to have « been their good conscience ». He seems to have been traumatized by it and to act as if he has been made to feel guilty by it. As if by a curious return of boomerang he was now pledging allegiance to this kind of thought police that once dragged him through the mud… The same one that, in the French debate, in the image of the great lesson givers like Philippe Val or Bernard-Henri Lévy, systematically tries to amalgamate pacifists with « Munichers » and opponents of Zionist colonialism with anti-Semites. The one that tries to disqualify (by calling them « islamo-leftists » or « red-browns ») the lucid minds that do not want to explain everything by religious phenomena but also take into account the social, economic and political dimensions.
« Palestinians and Armenians / Testify from the depths of their graves /
That genocide is masculine / Like an SS, a bullfighter ».
And since a tragi-comedy never happens alone, « who dedicated a nasty song to Margaret Thatcher in 1985, has given way to the « who has other options:in 2016, he said of the French heir to the Iron Lady, the ultra-reactive François Fillon, that he is « a perfect honest man, a true Republican« and even admits he is ready to vote for him in the presidential election in case of a second round against Marine Le Pen… Before retracting, declaring that he would abstain in such a scenario (in the meantime, the scandal of the fictitious jobs of the Fillon family had broken)… then succumbing to the « useful vote » and signing a call to « to block » the National Front. After regretting the non-candidature of « ( the ecologist Nicolas Hulot), then announced that he would not support « the Socialist Party because of its conversion to the market economy and for having « pond[u] the Labor law that even the right would not have dared to vote », here is Renaud calling to vote for… Emmanuel Macron. The former investment banker who told François Hollande (« this social traitor« The former minister who inspired the worst provisions of the Labour Law, the arrogant young wolf gathering the cream of the oligarchy and the media behind his promises to govern by means of ordinances to further unravel labour law and « control » the unemployed, the candidate of the employers and the wealthy has become, in the eyes of Renaud « the only one who [lui] seems to have integrity, the only one without a party, the only one without a pot to piss in »!
Singular vision of the « useful vote », for a « man of the left ».This is the same as calling for a vote for Macron in the first round of the election, at the very moment when Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whatever one thinks of him, was deploying a great deal of energy to mobilize the working classes around rather emancipatory ideas, and was in the lead in voting intentions in the first round — to the point that he almost qualified for the second round. Thus, the Parisian elite (Renaud, Patrick Bruel, Stéphane Bern, Bernard Henri-Lévy, Line Renaud…) who called to vote for Macron in the first round did not contribute so much to « In this way, they favored the candidate who promised to abolish the tax on wealth instead of the one who wanted to tax high incomes more. Shouldn’t we see it as a true choice of the heart, Renaud ending his call to vote Macron with a disconcerting « Long live En Marche »?
One thing is sure: no one had asked him for a voting instruction, and a large part of his audience would have preferred not to hear such remarks from him…
« And to think that every time we voted for them /
We silenced the cry: « Neither god nor master!
Which they laugh at now since they have made themselves gods /
And that once again, we were put on. »
NO HATE, NO WEAPONS, NO VIOLENCE
Can fortune, fame and pastis abuse explain everything? Is it necessary to have fallen asleep in the formaldehyde, to have lost all political lucidity or all contact with social realities to produce such nonsense? So does Renaud deny his teenage oaths (one thinks of « Société tu m’auras pas »), but also some of the ideals and values that have been part of his career and his repertoire? Should we see this change of heart, if it is indeed a change of heart, as a symptom of the right-wing trend, apparently inexorable over the last 20 years? A consequence of the steamroller of French secularism that leaves little room for nuance and critical thinking in the post-attack context of 2015?
I, who had recognized myself, as a young teenager, in the words of Frédéric Dard declaring to Renaud that he had « for friends all the young people of the earth, the real ones, those who will never become old », I was sad. Dismayed. Angry.
My childhood took a big hit. Thus I wanted to dip my pen in the vitriol to shoot Renaud a text as he contributed to make me love them: ferocious. But also tender, because like so many other « fans » (a word to be taken with a pinch of salt) I feel respect and gratitude for the legacy he left us. In spite of his reversals, his wanderings, his sometimes derisory or pathetic transfiguration, Renaud deserves neither my indifference nor my contempt.
« After me who will come? /
After me it’s not over ».
Maybe I’m naive, but I’d like to point out to him that, like his cavernous voice, he now sounds more like a defrosting Hibernatus than a phoenix rising from the ashes. Suggest that she regain some detachment and humility. To alert him to the danger of surrounding himself with people who, by being too gentle with him, show an unhealthy complacency — just like those unconditional fans who religiously forgive everything to their idol, not tolerating any criticism of him, not admitting any parody of his work.
I would like to open his eyes to the sinister lesson of life that he feeds for the moment: the one that tells us that integrity is an empty word, that you can sing one thing while thinking its opposite, that when you get old you become an idiot, « smothered in turkey with chestnuts »…
I’d like to shake him so that he’ll stop screwing up his health, betraying what he used to be, and at the same time taking away the desire to listen to his old songs without crying.
I would like to hug him. To say thank you. Long live life, even if it’s too short. Long live the revolution. Down with the settlers. To hell with the money. And fuck Macron!
*Long versionof the text that appeared in Kairos #29, April-May 2017