‘Quand j’partirai ne venez pas pleurer sur ma tombe. Combien sont sincères?’
(When I’ve gone, don’t come and weep on my grave. How many are sincere?)
– La Fouine
Until the 1960s – when the new world turned resentfully on the old – the river-wrinkled region to the south of Paris was dotted with handsome country towns made modern by the railways.
Many of the brave stations and postal depots from that era have since fallen into decrepitude, but they still hold the memory of the erstwhile alchemy. Twin rails conducted industrial vigour into the most rustic of locales: the espresso (for it was the Italians who expressed it, collapsing caffeine and locomotives into one steam-powered word) of economic expansion and minute-precision time. Suddenly, provincial farmers could send perishable produce to Paris, where, a mere two hours out of the ground, it would sell for metropolitan prices in the crammed stalls of Les Halles. But they were simultaneously engulfed by the greater force of the city moving out to them: for industrialists, too, could propel products far afield on the railways, so why not manufacture them outside the capital, where land and labour were cheap?
There was the town of Arpajon, for instance, whose fruit and vegetables were so urgently needed in Les Halles that a thirty-seven-kilometre railway was built to link them door-to-door. But the town’s population was also swelling with the influx of new enterprises: breweries and tanneries, and especially the shoe factory, set up in 1859. All this created a new bourgeoisie who built large homes in a self-sufficiently regional style: coated with rough-hewn stone, colourfully painted on the lintels, stretching unnaturally thin and tall. There were parks laid out, and pretty streets of shops, and a grandiose city hall. The railway station – source of everything – was appropriately imposing.
The same rule is shown by its exceptions: take the nearby village of Grigny, which the railway lines did not touch, and which maintained, therefore, an older sense of time. It became bucolic: horse-drawn carts took Parisian day trippers from the nearest station to sit in Grigny’s tourist pavilions, where they could breathe invigorating country air and draw nourishment from the prospect of gently rolling hills. The pastoral eternity of this view was made poignant, all the same, by a modern frisson: sweeping past the distant peasants labouring in the grain fields was the stern line of the Vanne aqueduct – erected as part of Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s re-engineering of the capital in the 1860s – which filled greedy Parisian reservoirs with pure water captured 200 kilometres away.
Today, Grigny is a grimy assemblage of 1970s housing blocks. New facades on the schools fly the flags of France and the European Union, and are painted with edifying quotations from great white men, but they are masks for falling-down classrooms. Doctors do not want to work there, and the lone public medical centre is always on the brink of closure, even though Grigny plays host to some of France’s most florid health problems – a veritable epidemic of HIV-induced chronic diseases among women, for instance. Half the young are poor and have nothing to do, and the vacuum is often filled with drugs and petty crime. The cost of preventing theft recently drove away Grigny’s only supermarket, the great shell of which now lies empty; in other stores the shelves are roped off from customers, who must ask staff to fetch down toothpaste or shampoo. The only new venture in the town is the mosque, an angular thing of concrete and glass – which, since it is built with funds raised by local Muslims, has taken more than a decade to rise to its present near-completion. There is nothing the town evokes, overall, so much as an open-plan prison, since no space is wasted on pleasure or whim, and no amenities exist save those required to keep inmates docile and alive: the clinic, the sports centre, the fortified police station. If it is unclear what crime Grigny’s inhabitants are guilty of, the cynical truth is written up everywhere: in the condescending street paintings of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, and the buildings named after black actors, jazz musicians and sports stars. This is one of France’s designated Zones Urbaines Sensibles (Sensitive Urban Zones); and everyone knows what kind of bureaucratic euphemism ‘sensitive’ is.
Grigny has remained famous among the Paris suburbs, but it is no longer for idyllic reasons. It was one of the most violent centres of the suburban riots of 2005, when Grigny youths opened fire on the police and burned down two schools. Just last year, four policemen arriving in Grigny to inspect a vandalised security camera ended up fighting for their lives after a band of hooded teenagers smashed the windows of their cars to toss in Molotov cocktails. State authority is precarious, and the town is tediously accustomed to car burning, gun violence and the drug trade. Recently it hit the international press when it was revealed that Amedy Coulibaly grew up in one of Grigny’s housing blocks; a self-declared member of ISIS, he went on three separate shooting sprees in Paris the day after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in 2015 , ending up in a siege in a Jewish supermarket in Porte de Vincennes where he was shot dead by the police. But Grigny’s notoriety brings about no change and it remains one of the most depressed places in Western Europe: drug-blanched zombies totter in the streets and mothers dream of one thing for their children – getting them out. Impotent local authorities, meanwhile, try to persuade people to reconcile themselves to their lot; the 1970s ziggurats are currently getting a facelift and the town has a cheery new logo.
How did things get like this?
In the 1960s, bureaucrats eyed the small towns to the north and south of Paris with imperial relish, thinking to turn them into warehouses for the capital’s working class. Le Corbusier was still the animating spirit of French architecture and planners found in his gigantism a sense of purpose proportionate to their own importance. They commissioned architect intellectuals to build concrete blocks so vast and outlandish that, travelling past them on the suburban trains, one feels closer to Bucharest or Tirana than to Paris. Grigny’s blocks, planned in 1967 to house poor Parisians rendered homeless by the redevelopment of the 13th arrondissement, were designed by Émile Aillaud, whose poetic vision of the urban future had won him contracts to re-engineer several French towns after wartime bombs had conveniently removed their centres. Grigny’s developments were described as ‘utopian’, but light, air and modernist sculptures could not disguise the fact that they were, essentially, labour camps. As the old inhabitants drifted away, as the Parisian underclass became distinctly racialised, as the true turbulence stored up in ‘scientific housing’ became apparent – these camps became ever more determinedly sequestered. Today’s mosques – gleaming minarets, paid for, often, with money from Turkey, Algeria or Morocco, are right now springing up all over the suburbs – complete the sense of foreign, middle-income countries nestled in the heart of wealthy France. And given the current intensity of French anxieties about such things, it is not difficult to imagine how stigmatised these territories have become, or how policed their borders.
But as it happens, they are quite effectively quarantined by the Paris-region railway system, which was redesigned when the suburbs were built. The original railway map looked like a fishing net thrown over Paris: the spaces between the main lines were filled in by a dense system of local tracks and one-room stations, so that small towns were as connected to each other as they were to the capital. From the 1960s onwards, these vital capillaries were ripped out. While the lines connecting the capital to its satellite towns were used to forge a new suburban rail system – the Réseau Express Régional, or RER – the lines connecting those towns to each other were pulled up or left to grass. The new population dumps had only one purpose, evidently – to supply labour to Paris – and they were not supposed to communicate among themselves. Moreover, since the RER was a stand-alone system, separate from the national rail network, and since its suburban tentacles stretched only so far and then stopped, towns which had formerly been accessible from every direction were now left hanging at the end of a line. No one ever went unless they lived there, and – since visiting a town even five kilometres away could necessitate journeys into Paris and out again – there was a suffocating sense of isolation from everything around.
Where so many people are poor and without private transport, the RER is the only way to come and go – and it has acquired a lugubrious grip over all existence. (Young travellers have mastered a gymnastic substitute to buying tickets: supporting themselves with their hands on the steel barriers, they kick their legs up through the gap between the gates, which activates an emergency sensor on the other side, so the gates slide open.) It is an emblem of exclusion and confinement, as one can tell from the constant references in French rap, whose heartlands are the Parisian suburbs. It is difficult to comprehend how places so close to one of the earth’s most significant urban hubs can seem remote until one comes to depend on these maddeningly infrequent trains, which take up to an hour to reach the capital. Then the bleak and denuded landscape makes some sense – and one realises why the jet-setting Parisian elite which runs French business, politics and culture seems so infuriatingly smug and remote. The car burnings that have become such an emblem of suburban life are very precise, after all, in their symbolism: they are a revolt against the mobile mainstream – against everyone whose rhythms are not drummed out by the deadening stop–start of double-decker trains.
A mere twelve kilometres from Grigny, but a two-hour ordeal on the late-night RER, Arpajon is much diminished from its former self. Even though its population has doubled, there is rather little going on in the town any more: the shoe factory closed in the 1950s and was destroyed in a fire in 1979. The main commercial streets where, in richer towns, there would be clothes stores, bookstores and restaurants, are given over to businesses that produce no bustle: insurance firms, driving schools and, on every corner, real-estate companies – floor space costs not much more here, in fact, than in Bucharest or Tirana, so there is always money to be made.
Looking for morning coffee, I step into a rare open cafe. Like many such businesses around here, this one is run by a Chinese family. Its main commerce seems to not to be coffee or beer but lotteries and horse betting, for which ticket dispensers occupy an entire wall. Several men without drinks – and they are only men – are filling in these tickets, which offer, I suppose, some of the better odds that they will leave this kind of life behind. They are all young, and of North African or Middle Eastern origin. They greet each other with fist bumps and a hand to the heart.
The screen in the cafe is playing a music video by Zayn Malik, the half-Pakistani singer from Bradford, England, propelled to stardom by a TV talent show. The video begins with Malik gazing wearily at the baying paparazzi gathered to catch a shot of him as he emerges from his limousine on a rainy night and disappears into a luxury hotel. Celebrity produces no joy in him. Existence is ‘cruel’, he sings, as he trudges towards his hotel room. A photographer leaps out behind him, trying to catch another photo, and is summarily dealt with by a bodyguard – but Zayn is too preoccupied to notice, and walks on, hitting his chorus. Life is ‘in vain’. He doesn’t want to live forever.
Zayn has lost a girlfriend, sung by a ghostly Taylor Swift: this is a break-up song. But it strikes me, not for the first time, how often romantic loss has become just an unfelt convention in pop songs, persisting only as a necessary excuse – or a cover-up – for the real passion, which is not so seemly: that longing for self-annihilation which flows so darkly below the surface of contemporary culture.
I pay for my coffee. ‘Merci, monsieur,’ says the Chinese proprietor, ‘à la prochaine.’ I leave the cafe and walk up to the RER station where I wait for a while on the platform. I read the posted instructions about what to do in the event of a terrorist attack. Nearby is a flirting pair: white girl and black guy, both in their late teens, both heavily tattooed. The guy starts to kick the girl playfully on her backside. Both are giggling – but he is much bigger than she is and his kicks knock her off balance. She asks him to stop but he is enjoying the game too much. She raises her voice to make herself understood, but then the train approaches and the scene comes to a natural end.
Two hundred and fifty tonnes of red, white and blue train enter the station at 110 kilometres an hour and draw suddenly to a halt. Doors open with a pneumatic sigh and I get in.
We pull out of Arpajon, and I look out the window. Every surface facing the train is covered in graffiti. It is specific to the RER line, for there is not much graffiti in the town. People seem to have walked every last bit of this track, defacing it. We pass a trailer park. The buildings clear and the view opens up onto fields. We draw alongside the pretty River Orge.
I find myself wondering if there is a relationship between the graffiti and the tattoos. Teenagers here are extravagantly inked and they talk about it in a particular way. As a gesture of reclamation, as if their bodies were not theirs before. These are people, after all, on whom it has been impressed that their bodies are only lent to them by the state, which will rush to claim them back if they do not treat them as they should. Here as everywhere else, of course, their generation has had to shoulder the burden of escalating paranoia about children’s physical safety, and schools are fortified with high steel gates and wide-eyed cameras. But there are added dimensions in the Parisian suburbs: children are frequently taken away, for instance, from parents who threaten their physical security; parents also die young or move away – here, single-parent households represent a quarter of the total – so there are all kinds of occasions to observe how parents are only provisional custodians to a child. Also, in this place where drugs are everywhere, kids are endlessly instructed in the many uses to which they may not put their bodies, on pain of the authorities assuming remote control. The true proprietor of their physical frame is the humourless, preachy state; are tattoos, like the graffiti on the RER tracks, an attempt to deface – and so stake a claim to – public premises? An attempt to spite their own absentee landlords, who have proven so profoundly indifferent to their minds and souls?
In which case, suicide would be a form of destruction of public property.
We arrive in Égly and I get off the train. danger! says a sign on the platform. do not step onto the tracks.
Égly sits on the bank of the river and looks out on the gentle countryside which once made this region so popular. Relegated as it is to the far reaches of the RER line, however, there is a heavy feeling of asphyxiation. Nothing is open as I wander around and there are no people. A dog howls on a balcony where it has been tied up by an absent owner. The street signs speak of decay: the antiques shop, the cemetery, the funeral home, the social centre for the homeless. The regional garbage dump – which seems to be the only motive outsiders ever have for coming here.
There are modest blocks of apartments. Some of the windows allow glimpses of lace curtains of a touching intricacy, harking back to lands far to the east of France; but nearly all have white security shutters drawn down over their windows. The quiet town does not look as though it should be gripped by such anxiety, but everything is barricaded against assault.
I reach the church. Posted outside the door is the list of staff and clergy, who seem to come mostly from francophone Africa. Next to this is the same ubiquitous poster about how to react to a terrorist attack (take shelter behind a solid object, turn off the ringer on your phone). I wander down some narrow lanes. There are ancient, crumbling buildings from the old village days: country dwellings with haylofts and spaces for animals. I pass a shut-up cafe and reach the little police station, which is surrounded by signs saying, military installation: keep out. Access is through a steel cage. I enter the cage and ring the buzzer: the gate growls and I push on through.
Inside, the nature of local preoccupations is writ large upon the walls. are you a victim of conjugal violence? Or: stop jihadist radicalisation. Or: sexual violence: you are not alone. Or: jihadism: family and friends be vigilant! It is as if the police imagine their entire job to consist of holding the community back from its own will to auto-destruction. If people are not destroying their families, it seems, they are plotting to blow themselves up. The self-culling of a vilified population? To paraphrase La Fouine, the most famous rapper from the Paris suburbs, these towns are cemeteries anyway, even before anyone dies.
A policewoman attends to me, and I say I have a few questions about Égly. She asks me for my papers. I am carrying none. ‘This is France,’ she shrugs. ‘Everything works with papers.’
Océane lived in Égly. She had a twenty-hour-a-week contract working in an old people’s home.
‘I’ve seen people die,’ she said, during one of the online broadcasts she made just before her end. ‘Frankly that’s not what shocks you. I had a woman who came in and she lasted just two weeks. She arrived and she was fine, she had normal conversations. I have no idea what shit they gave her: the nurses shot her full of medication. By the end you couldn’t understand what she said any more, she was mostly dribbling, even though she’d been perfect when she arrived. I remember she said to me, I’m going to die, I’m going to die. So I told her, Don’t worry, everything will be OK, I’m here for you, if you want I’ll come and see you in your room. The next day I turned up at 8 a.m. and she was dead. And what annoyed me the most was they left her the entire day in the room and you had these trainees, these old girls who were like, Let’s go see her, let’s go see her! And I said, The dead aren’t a spectacle for your entertainment. Then the guy turned up from the morgue and I helped him carry her out.’
Océane was oppressed by the trite and uncaring relations she observed between human beings. She poured scorn on the empty flirtation of social media, the desperate popularity theatre. She had no interest in the artificial animation of alcohol or drugs (though she smoked cigarettes constantly). The dulled existence of the Parisian suburbs, where no one seemed able to engage with anything consequential, depressed her (on the wall behind her as she made her last speech, hung a poster with the words new york paris london hong kong). ‘I’m half Turkish and half Polish,’ she said, in answer to one of the questions posed by her online spectators. ‘And no I don’t speak Turkish. I don’t understand this mania of always asking people’s nationality. People are always asking: How old are you? What’s your name? Where do you live? What are your origins? People are very very very very stupid around here.’
Her relationship with her dispersed family was uneasy, so she did not have the luxury of indifference to this unsatisfying world. If you were a real Turk your parents wouldn’t let you go out with those piercings in your mouth, said one spectator. ‘My father’s Turkish,’ she replied, ‘but I don’t speak to him any more. He’s an asshole.’ Océane’s father was a powerful, sensuous individual who took out his moods on the judo floor and the punchbag; his own extensive online life indicates a man prosaically impatient with things intangible or far away. He had daughters from two relationships – the women were not close to each other – but he lived alone and worried frequently about his fading good looks. He ran a popular nightclub just outside Grigny where, in addition to the usual DJ fare, he featured acts like American Borderline, a frat-boy-cheerleader extravaganza including – as his flyer promised – sex toys, strippers, naked teenagers in jacuzzis, strobe showers and many other such marvels, all of it filmed for the American adult media company YouPorn.
In response, perhaps, to such fantasies of youth, eighteen-year-old Océane was committed to an authentic version of her own. She had always found something real in the basic act of care; she had completed a diploma in rescue and safety while still in high school, and perhaps her only moment of genuine élan during the two hours of her broadcasts came when she described her work in the old people’s home, which she found ‘hyper cool’. (The bathos of the social media network instantly stole her enthusiasm away again. ‘No I don’t clean the toilets,’ she said. ‘I’ve no idea why you’re talking about that.’) She kept a cat, too, which found its way now and then into those videos, rubbing itself against her and purring loudly into her microphone. (You have a big pussy, writes one wag, as the cat appears in the frame. Look out we can see your pussy! chimes another. By this time, her suicide is only ten minutes away and Océane has fallen silent before the dismal stream of commentary.)
She found evident pleasure, also, in taking care of herself – renting a bright studio apartment just two kilometres from where she had grown up in Arpajon. Even on the day of her death, her mass of dark hair was freshly washed, her make-up detailed and immaculate. There were also her tattoos, which she spoke of as a sort of self-care, writing on her body as if she were moving into it – rather as office workers put up photographs and meaningful quotations to personalise an anonymous cubicle.
France is the country which invented for the West the idea of that transcendental romantic love which would ultimately take over every other kind of soul ambition. This French teenager was far from alone in hoping that the spiritual plenitude the world could not give might be recovered in romance, and indeed she had been in a relationship for the past three years. But she felt unloved by her boyfriend and unable to find any echo of her deeper world in him. The situation diminished her. She left him, hoping to take her life back. Shortly after that – as she described in her ultimate video address – she met him again, and he subjected her to violent physical abuse. The thin thread that tied her to the universe had broken. She entered a living death.
‘What would make me happy?’ she said, in one of her few protracted outbursts. ‘Nothing, that’s the point. I’ve got to the stage where nothing can make me happy any more. I can’t even find the energy to get out of bed in the morning. You realise that one person can completely poison your life. Our relationship completely destroyed me but he can’t understand that because he’s a person with no empathy, I mean the suffering of others doesn’t touch him. You try and do something to improve the situation, to get people to hear you, but it doesn’t work, so . . . With the message I’m going to send out this afternoon I hope he’ll finally get it. In this world, unless you shock people, they don’t notice, and it has no effect on anything.’
She spoke unsentimentally of her nineteenth birthday, which was to arrive three days after her death: ‘I was supposed to do something this weekend for my birthday, I was supposed to go away. But in the end it’s not happening, I mean I can’t go – because of this thing.’ Passing erotic propositions produced wry laughter in her – ‘A drink at your place? Forget about it. No actually it’s not very flattering.’
In the silences, she sighed often, ‘Je suis trop blasée.’ The French word has no implication of superiority: it is only empty, numb, indifferent.
The enterprise of ‘sending out a message’ seems to have given her a renewed sense of energy and purpose. She made a detailed plan and one that was, as events would show, well conceived. She made it known online that she would broadcast some unspecified and sensational event at 4.30 p.m. on 10 May 2016 – using Periscope, a popular social media app which allowed users to stream live video to their followers, who could simultaneously write comments alongside the moving image. She said that she would address her followers in two prior sessions on that same day, also via Periscope, also at prearranged times. Before any of this, she conducted two test sessions to ensure there was nothing she had not thought of.
Suicide then became a technical project, whose organisational demands gave her sudden energy and purpose. She spoke during the sessions about her strategic decisions: ‘The advantage of Periscope is that everyone can see it and your broadcast is archived for twenty-four hours.’ She gave people detailed instructions about how they could access the feed, and what they could do if they missed it. She kept reiterating her plan: ‘Come back at 4 p.m. and I’ll tell you all the things I have to say, and you’ll see everything that follows. Yes I’ll definitely be here at 4 p.m. I can’t back out now – you’ll see why.’ Though people got her talking about lots of different things, Océane was all the time conscious of the job she had to do. ‘What time is it? I have three hours left.’ Why can’t it happen earlier? people asked, impatient because nothing much was going on. ‘Because there’s a schedule. You’re all very impatient but you’ll find out later on it might have been better not to be.’
‘The video I’m going to make,’ she said, trying to differentiate herself from social media’s general culture of self-promotion, ‘isn’t designed to faire le buzz. It’s supposed to make people wake up, to open their minds. I want to communicate a message, and I want it to be passed around, even if it’s very shocking.’ Her tactic, ironically, was classic social media princess: schedule a big sensation and say nothing about what it will be. But she was hopeful that shock could also produce some return to reality. ‘It’s the only way to communicate a message. The only way left to ensure the message is taken up . . . Until you provoke people, they don’t understand.’ (Her French has extra, untranslatable, levels of slangy verve: ‘Tant que tu ne tapes pas dans la provoc, les gens ne comprennent pas.’) ‘But it’s really going to be very, very shocking so honestly I’m telling you that any children watching – and it’s got nothing to do with sex – please leave.’
Océane broadcast for fifty-eight minutes in the morning and thirty-seven at lunchtime. For most of that time, she sat on her red couch, speaking into the camera, her face more solemn than overwrought – though she rolled cigarettes and smoked them ceaselessly. At one point she walked out of the house to get her mail from the mailbox (a parcel of make-up, whose contents had been stolen: she showed the eviscerated package to the camera) but otherwise the image did not change. In neither of these sessions did she say what was going to happen, or why; she seemed very much in control of events, and what now looks like apprehension in those videos (‘It’s so cold in this apartment. I’m so cold’) did not seem like it at the time.
At 4 p.m. she came online for her third broadcast. She had said she had something to say, and now she said it. She told people that, a few months before, her ex-boyfriend had raped her and beaten her. Not only this, but he had taken a video of the episode, which he had distributed on Snapchat. Océane gave details of who he was and how he could be contacted. While this was happening, the session started to become chaotic: hundreds of people were joining the feed to see what was going on. Everyone had a point of view: some found her poignant (The splendour of the world begins with the fragility of a lone woman), while others took the opportunity to give her spiritual advice (Convert to Islam and you’ll see everything is gonna be great. Allahu akbar!). Océane fell silent, reading the comments and occasionally rolling her eyes. More than a thousand were now watching and the mood was raucous; people joked about her appearance and expressed lewd anticipation about what she might do, even as others begged them to stop the stream of comments in the hope she might finish what she was saying. Others tried to rouse her from her silence in other ways: Go on, speak, retard, or Show us your tits, or I’ve found my dream, a woman who keeps her mouth shut. Will you marry me? Someone else proposed a game: The first one to make her laugh, I’ll buy them a Greek – the promise taken from a rap song by La Fouine, which referred to the assiette grec on sale in the Turkish kebab places all over the suburbs.
Océane had retreated behind a persistent smile. The sardonic smile, certainly, of world despair vindicated by dismal evidence. But it also had a dash of real adolescent triumph: You’re going to regret you ever said those things.
Just before 4.30 p.m., she took her phone, still broadcasting, went out of the house – leaving her cat for the last time – and walked to Égly station, which took just a few seconds. As she got close, the mood among her followers began to change:
This girl has no life, why is she coming to tell her life on Periscope?
She’s a whore.
She’s going to commit suicide, you’ll see.
Guys you’re really horrible to say such things. She’s a human being. Your mother or sister could have gone through what she went through.
The idiot’s going to harm herself.
Where are you in Égly?
Where is she going?
Stop her, she’s going to commit suicide.
Stop that girl.
This is going to finish badly.
This feels bad frankly.
Fuck I think she’s going to jump.
Yes she’s scaring me!
Guys can you see the location on her Peri, call the police.
She’s in despair this chick she’s going to do some bad shit.
Don’t kill yourself for a guy.
There’s a train fuck.
She jumped under a train.
The train hit her at 4.29 p.m., right on schedule. After the event, people remembered hearing her cry out, but that may just have been retrospective fancy. Her phone landed lens down and showed only black, though the microphone was still recording. Was she dead? Was it a hoax? Minutes went by, and they tried to work out the situation from the murmurs in the background.
I can hear the firemen.
She’s not dead.
I HOPE SHE’S ALIVE.
Oh fuck this is horrible.
Let’s pray for her.
She’s gone too far.
She gave the number, the address and the FB of her ex.
They’re gonna cut the feed now otherwise this is gonna blow up.
It was obvious she was possessed everyone was telling her.
They’ve found her guys.
Show your head dirty whore are you scared?
At that point the phone was recovered. In the last frame of the feed, a paramedic peered into the screen and pressed the stop button. It was a startling reality effect. But for all those who still believed it was all a hoax, social media users started circulating photographs of the information screens in other RER stations, which announced train delays due to a death on the line.
Periscope has its roots, as Océane did, in Turkey. Travelling to Istanbul in 2013, the two founders had found themselves caught up in the mass demonstrations in Taksim Square, where 100,000 people had gathered to protest against the government’s curtailment of social freedoms and the progressive Islamicisation of society. These people were mostly young, and thousands were tweeting from the square; but how much more sensational, thought the Americans, if they could stream live video from their phones. They built Periscope so that people could reveal the injustices they lived with and the world would become a better place. Two years later, Twitter bought Periscope, so rumours went, for 486 million. It is Twitter, therefore, who owns the video files Océane made.
Immediately after her death, the company cut out several key sections from them, leaving only the censored files online. These files were subsequently downloaded by several people and uploaded to YouTube, where they are still readily available. The expurgated sections, however, remain locked up in a Twitter server in California.
Thirty seconds before she threw herself off the platform, one of the spectators watching the live broadcast remarked, Up close, she looks like Nabilla.
Since the video images of those moments have been wiped, it is impossible now to see what it was in her death mien that would make people think of Nabilla Benattia, France’s kittenish reality-TV superstar. But given her stony demeanour over the preceding few hours – the record of which persists – the resemblance seems forced. Indeed, many of the young people congregated for her last addresses found her anything but telegenic. You’re kinda ugly, they commented. Your piercings are gross. Dirty whore. And even – because they were impatient with all the talk and wanted something to happen – kill yourself. Throw yourself out of the window.
(As yet, they cannot know how close they aim; indeed she diverts them with false reassurance. ‘Don’t worry,’ she says, still safely installed on her couch, ‘I live on the ground floor. What am I going to do? Jump into the street?’)
So why, right at the end, did someone glimpse Nabilla in her? Her broadcasts had gone on for more than two hours by then, during which time people had seen her as she was. Avid for specific detail: How tall are you? What piercings do you have? Show us your tattoos. (A heart on her thumb, a red rose on her forearm, which she designed herself. ‘The tattoos on my stomach I don’t show.’) Why did they stop seeing her and see someone else in her place?
In the last seconds, spectators had the sense of something foreign and unnerving rising up in her. I’m starting to feel her magic inside me, they said, and it was not quite a joke. She’s going to put a spell on us. Some alien spirit had begun to emanate from her – and perhaps it was this new presence, rather than the eighteen-year-old herself, that reminded someone of Nabilla. Moments from her death, looking into her phone on the platform of Égly station, she aroused a sudden anxiety in her audience – until then so exquisitely blasé. Can’t you see she’s not fucking human? She’s a ghost. She’s an extraterrestrial. She’s a sorceress!
What was this occult shadow they saw late-blooming in the young woman’s face? Was it that curious modern necromancy that had never visited her in life, but which briefly crowned her death, and which – for the very few days her suicide profited the media – she shared with Nabilla Benattia? That high-tech spirit possession we call, for want of a better word, celebrity?
For a generation so fully embedded in social media, celebrity was not remote or atypical. It was latent in everyone. Schoolgirls debated with each other how they would deal with its burdens – paparazzi, extreme wealth, film-star boyfriends – when they grew up. And this was not surprising. Social media, after all, supplied a publicity machinery with a reach and power previously available only to truly famous people, and now the condition of the celebrity was everyone’s condition. Suddenly everyone was broadcasting their life to the world, and measuring their worth on the basis of the libidinal pulses that came back – as only celebrities had before. Suddenly everyone was modifying their human system – their face, their speech, their thoughts – in order that it might interface better with a global technological extension. Suddenly, the celebrity’s grief over privacy was everyone’s, and everyone was afflicted by her insecurity: Do people realise there’s nothing behind it all except my own frail and disappointing humanity?
Océane was wired like everyone else. Like many other teenagers, she had often tried to make her image conform to that of the triumphal media funster: there were images of her V-signing in a short skirt and sunglasses on a rooftop in LA, the Hollywood sign glowing in the distance (You’re a real film star, her friends commented, obligingly). This did not stop her being acutely conscious of – and judgemental about – everybody else’s online affectations, but that, of course, was the common paradox. Surveying the great online pageant of self-promotion and superficiality, people were led to believe they were the only ones in the world to have authentic feelings and opinions. ‘Fakes’ was another English word imported by Océane’s French generation, which they used to describe, essentially, everyone other than themselves. There are only fakes on Facebook. Instagram. Periscope. But people knew, also, that these platforms had become the custodians of teenage social reality, and there was no question of opting out. Océane was very much in – she had several Twitter accounts, for instance – and even as she railed against what happened on social media, it was on social media that she chose to do it. The only true significance came from mediatisation, and even discontent, if it was to have any meaning, had to be liked and shared.
The problem was that, for the most part, it did not matter how widely broadcast your discontent was: no one cared. The great majority of celebrities – in this new world where even nobodies were celebrities – were lacking in that basic attribute of the celebrity, which was fame. They were half-creatures – unfamous celebrities, anonymous superstars, VIPs like the entire rest of the world – and unlike their fully formed counterparts, the world did not gasp when they expressed their thoughts and feelings. Everything was lost, in fact, in the infinite cacophony. This was why there was a constant inflation of strategy and contrivance in the social media world; for even those whose message was Authenticity! – those who were sickened by the sensational stunts pulled by everyone else – found themselves inventing such stunts of their own in order for this message to be heard.
Since the events that had happened with her boyfriend, Océane’s intimate realm was poisoned. There is no sign that she confided her state of mind to anyone she knew. It was to the broad, anonymous online mass that she decided to unburden herself. But in order for it to mean something, some extraordinary explosion of reality was required. It would have to be of the order of terrorism, which also produced spectacular media effects, and it would probably take her along with it. And so: the macabre theatre of her plan, which transformed her, albeit briefly, into a fully realised celebrity, whose troubled soul was explored in the mainstream news.
Was it this transformation her spectators saw in the last seconds of her life?
There are reasons why the angel of celebrity might float out from her moribund figure in Nabilla’s particular guise. Nabilla, after all, was celebrity itself: celebrity in its pure state, uncontaminated by achievement. Five years older than Océane, she had come to prominence on a show called Reality TV Angels, where, floating on post-production seraph wings, she revealed herself to be the kind of being that seems designed for one thing: to create electronic waves or, as the French put it, faire le buzz. She had a talent for producing deliciously inane aphorisms which so inflamed the network that one had to acknowledge in her a certain kind of contemporary genius. Her legendary catchphrases, from which every other purpose of speech was driven away by the final triumph of narcissism, were shared and quoted and parodied with an almost apocalyptic kind of glee. She seemed made for the end times, in fact – those disoriented times following the death of ideas – for her blithe self-involvement joyfully embraced the emancipation from truth and logic. ‘Oh my God,’ she said, describing the brutality of a catfight in her reality-TV home, ‘it was like the world war of 1978.’
Playing the idiot was a strategy. Nabilla presented herself as pure oblivious physicality, and she proposed that kind of visceral sufficiency that even presidents may depend on today: when everything has become meaningless, there is a reassuring authenticity to bodily impulses, even when they are obscene. And so, when Nabilla’s own impulses blew up, causing her to repeatedly stab and nearly kill her fellow reality-TV-star boyfriend, it only inflated her fame (which, as is often the case today, already had contempt as its greater part). Nine days after the suicide in Égly station, and six since journalists had run out of things to say about it, the media turned gratefully to more sustainable fare: Nabilla Benattia condemned to six months in prison for attempted murder. Though, since she had already spent some weeks in preventive detention, she was considered to have already paid her dues and was allowed to go free.
Of course, one did not need journalists to learn this, since Nabilla was delivering it herself, just as she delivered everything else she lived. No Frenchwoman had more Twitter followers than her, who treated absolutely anything as a ruse for self-promotion – including episodes which might have been a source, in ordinary lives, of shame or humiliation – and who was an effortless exponent of coquettish Twitter-ese: ‘Announcing something really big soon! Can’t say what it is yet! Kisses!’ But the channel which really kept her close to her followers was Snapchat, on which she broadcast continually, using its proprietary filters to morph the face atop her bikini-model body into that of an animal: cat, dog or manga bunny.
It was a voodoo-like transformation which carried the frisson of truth. For that condition which Nabilla pursued so savagely, and which we call celebrity, is an irruption of the inhuman into the human. It is the merging of a human core with a far vaster inhuman prosthesis, which then begins to disfigure and consume the original human component – which is why we are constantly seeing the self-destruction of people who apparently have everything; and why suicide, not contentment, is the natural culmination of fame. Perhaps it is for this reason that the Snapchat puppy nose and whiskers deforming Nabilla’s face as she walked around in a bath towel gushing about teeth whiteners or shampoo seemed not so much a disguise as an unveiling. Human things had long since been put away from her life. Her impulses were supplied by big data, her tastes were product placement. Her relationship with her boyfriend, which was essential to the marketing fairy tale, carried on: whatever the two felt ‘in reality’ was suppressed by the relentless electronic reality show. Like ancient Egypt’s jackal-headed Anubis, Nabilla’s dog-headed figure was a visitation from the underworld: it proclaimed the terror of the infernal machine, which offered human beings a new kind of existence, as long as they were willing to have their life energy sucked out in return.
Is it possible, therefore, that there was a more precise kind of revelation behind that remark: Up close, she looks like Nabilla? That it was not just celebrity that was seen unfurling in Océane, but that hidden core of celebrity, which is always about to die? For, as her infamous outbursts of rage might indicate, Nabilla’s reality was not simply the abundance of youth and vitality that her sponsors wanted her to project. Far from it. There was some still-breathing human core even to Nabilla, and this was under assault from the stern, inhuman system which she naively imagined – just as, in a different way, Océane did – she could turn to her own advantage without being consumed herself. ‘I’m not doing well,’ she wrote to a friend during her trial. ‘I’ve had to give up on certain hopes and I’ve tried to kill myself . . . Our lives are only passing. I’m weary of it all. I don’t know what to do. I’m at the end.’
In the world of social media, where everyone becomes a celebrity, they do not inherit merely the life force of stardom – its beauty, achievement and sex. What is transmitted also to these faceless ranks of superstars is the inner knowledge of death. For, as all true celebrities discover, the media image feeds parasitically on human energy, starving them and removing them, slowly, from the realm of the living. As another animal-headed celebrity once put it – for Michael Jackson too grew a whiskery dog head in his most famous video – a ‘mere mortal’ is unable to withstand the arcane power of the ‘thriller’. His world-domination bargain with the underworld was paid for, of course, with the gradual dissolving of his human form.
Up close, she looks like Nabilla. Days after Océane’s death, a number of people who were affected by the story took down their own social media portraits and put up an image of Océane instead. The image was taken from Snapchat and showed her body surmounted with an altered-reality dog head. Her resemblance to Nabilla had become total.
Ten seconds before Océane threw herself off the platform, someone wrote, She’s strapped herself with explosives, call the police.
It is not surprising that some people, told to expect a sensational event, expected that. The fatal exploits of Grigny boy Amedy Coulibaly were only eighteen months in the past. It was just six months since the dark night of shootings and suicide bombings that killed 130 people in Paris – including eighty-nine young people attending a rock concert in the Bataclan theatre.
But perhaps there were analogies, anyway, between all these happenings. Océane’s death was also intended as a kind of detonation, which would ‘take out’ others apart from herself. On their side, the perpetrators of the Paris attacks were also, let us not forget, bent on their own destruction: they too were suicidal. All these people were young, and nearly all of them had grown up in the racialised ghettos of Paris and Brussels. All of them felt some kind of despair about the reality they lived in Europe, and all of them, crucially, decided that the only significant asset they had, in their negotiation with it, was their own existence.
Though we are familiar with the statistics of our monopolistic era, we are far less conversant with its spiritual effects. If mid-twentieth-century Western societies achieved a startling level of consensus, it was due to their extraordinary expansion of the share in the social surplus – to which the destruction (by war) of previous wealth concentrations, and the transformation of ‘labour’ into ‘jobs’, were essential. Today, as Western societies reverse those advances and drift back towards nineteenth-century arrangements, it should not be surprising that the malaise, too, is returning from that era. This malaise is felt most keenly by the young, who have seen nothing during their lifetimes save the progressive re-exclusion of the majority from society’s wealth, and who embark on adulthood with very little hope that they will be able to ‘make it’ as their parents and grandparents did. They have a strong sense, in fact, that now-ageing generations have taken everything for themselves, leaving behind only a sterile world – the dwindling species of the earth, the exhausted air and soil – and bequeathing to the young only the burden of their own sins. It is a gruelling inheritance, and one that causes young people, who have the longest futures, to wonder about their endurance.
Malaise takes on particularly acute forms in places like the Parisian suburbs, where work has been informalised and automated almost into nothing: in the most depressed areas, a quarter of young women and nearly half of young men are without jobs. But there too, unemployment is only a symptom of the wider casting out from French society, whose would-be universalism disguises one of the most consolidated systems of power in the Western world. It is no surprise that the pious messages pasted up around these neighbourhoods, which promote the good life of hard work, clean living and happy family – along with the old revolutionary slogan liberté–égalité–fraternité – are routinely defaced. All that is demonstrated by such platitudes, yet again, is the obliviousness of those in charge, and the inability of the contemporary nation to inspire any kind of allegiance. For many, France has become disgusting, and the impediment to any honourable form of life. As one rap group from Océane’s neighbourhood put it, ‘Dur de rester halal quand des porcs gouvernent’ (‘Hard to stay halal when the country’s run by pigs’).
This is why the allure of exit haunts dispossessed French youth today. The spread of radical Islam is of course one dramatic expression of this: more than 900 young people have left France to go and fight for ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and thousands more have joined jihadist networks at home. But militant Islam is spreading among French youth not just through the radicalisation of existing Muslims, but also through the conversion of non-Muslims who wish to acquire for themselves the activist power it supplies. Those who have turned to Islam in jails, ghettos and gangs represent a significant fraction of France’s 200,000 converts to the faith, and a full quarter of those French volunteers to ISIS were also drawn from these same ranks. It was not, in other words, that they were Muslim and therefore wanted to destroy reality and themselves; it was rather that they wanted to destroy reality and themselves – and to rediscover, in the process, some sense of chivalry and nobility – and therefore they embraced the trenchant power of radical Islam.
There are many moments in history when young people have dreamed of glamorous self-destruction rather than embarking, drearily, on adulthood. But in all these epochs, those who actually die are the exceptions. Far greater numbers are touched by the same current of despair, but are nevertheless held back from the ultimate act by life’s natural defences. These survivors are not left unscathed, however. They live astride the line between life and death, harbouring a kind of sentimental envy for those who have gone. Theirs is a suicide culture, and they lose some of the ability to identify with those who are simply, and unquestioningly, alive.
In the days and weeks after Océane’s death, a number of rap ‘homages’ began to appear online. The rappers were often young men whose unemployment and casual jobs were redeemed by a heroic alter ego: gangster, truth teller and troubadour – even though, in most cases, their ‘celebrity’ happened in a bedroom, and was known only to themselves. None of them had met the dead girl, but the story of her suicide spoke directly and powerfully to them. Though their rap voices were gruff with urban aggression, the music videos they made were full of starry skies, red roses and slow-motion flapping doves – cut in with the old picture of Océane posing in front of the Hollywood sign – and their words were heartfelt and sentimental. ‘My dearest Océane, these verses are dedicated to you / You’ve gone to be with the angels, what will I do without you?’ said one. They wrote about themselves as the tender lovers she never had, and fantasised about having been there to save her. ‘I would certainly have been able / To bring you happiness . . . I would have listened to you / So you wouldn’t have had to end things.’
But there was something dubious about these offers of help made retrospectively to the living Océane. Perhaps it was because, in general, the singers seemed to have little affection for living people. Even the idea of Océane alive could produce only empty repetition – ‘Océane, Océane you were so beautiful / Océane, Océane you were always beautiful’ – or lurid banality: ‘Little angel who left us too soon / All that will remain is a few photos / A simple life with a childlike smile / A face that ended up covered in blood.’ But other living people were spoken of only with hatred and contempt. The greatest opprobrium was directed, of course, at Océane’s ex-boyfriend who was a figure of such universal depravity that rappers could speak confidently about ‘paedophilia’ and ‘incest’ as well as rape: ‘Because of your ex, you went away too soon / He made you suffer incest, my hatred has no words.’ But everyone else was implicated too. The people who watched Océane’s broadcasts, for instance, were entirely morally corrupt. ‘Most of them are whores in fact, and that’s the truth,’ opined one rapper, demonstrating that Océane’s story of male abuse had not persuaded him to alter the way he thought or spoke about women. Women were despicable, just as men were; all were part of the universal corruption. ‘People have changed,’ wrote one of these same rappers in another song, ‘I’m already scared of the future . . . If I’d known human hands were so dirty / I swear I’d have shared my life with an animal.’ The living human world was unendingly, incurably degenerate.
Which leads us to the point: that Océane’s main merit for these rappers – and the reason why she could be spoken of in such sacred terms – was that she was dead. They were not fascinated by the person she had been, nor were they motivated by a general protectiveness towards life. No: they were inspired by the fact that she had made the spectacular decision to leave behind an irredeemable world. In killing herself, she had realised a part of their own fantasy life which they, for their part, could never fulfil – and often they tried to ‘borrow’ her suicide for themselves, to suggest that they had come very close to that act themselves, and so to include themselves in its glamour: ‘I’ve had those moments / When you feel totally alone / Consumed with torment / I’ve finished in an armchair.’
Were these just sad loners, expressing extreme, but ultimately anomalous, feelings? Possibly. But it is also the case that they were amateur rappers who copied their styles from more famous figures, and their moods, too, were unoriginal. They were not just expressing their own angst; they were parroting a world despair and a death fascination that was at the heart of contemporary French rap. The world’s putrefaction, the unviability of life, the war of the end times: these were the constant themes of rappers from the Paris suburbs, and in several cases the only poetic resolution was that of exit. La Fouine had choreographed his end in a song called ‘Quand je partirai’ (When I’m gone) – for how satisfying it was to imagine the world, contrite, at one’s graveside: ‘The day I die, certain bastards will offer their condolences / Where were they when the unpaid bills arrived?’ Orelsan, meanwhile, a white rapper – and France’s richest – offered a straight-out suicide note: ‘Today will be the last day of my existence / The last day I close my eyes, my last silence. / For a long time I’ve looked for a solution to these irritations / Now it comes to me, and it’s so obvious.’
But if we zoom out from French rap, we realise that teenage culture is touched by the fantasy of exit at a much more universal level. As if to prove, in fact, that such thoughts were not merely their own, many of Océane’s obituarists mixed their verses with refrains from well-known pop songs, so endorsing their solitary gloom with the stamp of global celebrity. Several of them borrowed extracts from a hit by the French pop star Caroline Costa (someone else who had become famous from a TV talent show); the song is about someone who is no longer there – for an unstated reason – but once again its power comes from its expression, not of love or longing, but of the emptiness of existence. Hope has become a tomb; happiness is buried; all the petals of life have withered. But if there was one song that showed how far the dream of suicide had risen to compete with romantic love as the dominant feeling in contemporary teenage culture, it was ‘If I Die Young’ by The Band Perry, a platinum hit six times over in the US which was later featured on the blockbuster high school TV series Glee. One of the rappers who recorded a tribute to Océane mixed his words with ‘If I Die Young’, which was in many ways eerily appropriate to her case, since it spoke of how people only really listen to you after you die. It was a lovely song – a tender love song, in fact, to one’s own death – and its particular poignancy is a central one in global youth culture today; the poignancy of the world without me, and the eventual significance and savour of my life when it is viewed by those left behind. How beautiful it would be if I just left. You could lie me down on roses and send me away with a love song.
Océane was the first person to broadcast a live suicide on today’s social media platforms. During the hours I spent watching her online videos, however, I never got the feeling that she was, in other respects, unusual. I saw traits in her common to a lot of people these days – and possibly to myself, even if they are most pronounced in the young: she was subdued, serious, intermittently funny, distracted by constant electronic tics, slightly unavailable to herself. She reminded me of a phrase from a recent manifesto written by young French activists, in which they described the condition of contemporary youth: ‘expropriated from our own language by education, from our songs by reality-TV contests, from our flesh by mass pornography, from our city by the police, and from our friends by wage labour’. In so many respects, Océane seemed entirely normal, and I sensed that her online exploit, too, would become more customary over time.
During the build-up to her otherwise meticulously executed suicide, she seems to have made one, uncharacteristically careless, omission. In announcing her final broadcast she made it clear that she would block all commentary by followers on the page. She said it several times: ‘Later on, when I explain everything to you, I’m going to block comments, which means that I’ll talk and you won’t be able to write back. And you’ll understand why, this afternoon . . . I want you to know that the broadcast I’m going to make, when I’ll shut down all the conversations, I want to make it clear in advance that I’m not making it to faire le buzz. I’m making it because it’s the only way to get my message through.’
But it seems that Océane did not block those conversations, as we have seen. Her last broadcast was engulfed by tides of commentary, and she did not die alone.
How could she make a mistake like that, when everything else was executed with such striking precision? It makes me think of another detail she mentioned in her broadcasts – and one holds on to such details, because she says so little, really, by which one might know her. Recently she had often failed to replace the receiver properly on her intercom, which meant that visitors could not reach her with the buzzer. The postman had to come around and knock on her window – they would chat, and she would not be alone.
Small end-of-life slips.
If Océane was so afflicted by the lack of significance given to human life, it was certainly because she had doubts about her own significance. But that was not the whole of it. She was a sensitive observer, and attuned to the ways in which the scaffolding of human value was collapsing more generally – and, with it, the constraints on people’s violation of each other. This was the thrust of her geography, her technology, her generation.
And then, suddenly, she was subjected to the full terror of it: a frenzy of annihilation erupting out of someone she thought she knew well.
After that, she was already pitched into death, and her persisting physical frame was just a kind of after-image. It looked as though she should still possess all the power of the living, but in fact that power was shot through with fatal perforations. The channels of communication between her and the world now opened and shut of their own accord, indifferent to her intent.
In the months after Océane’s death, a Turkish man shot himself on Facebook Live. The next month a pair of Russian teenage lovers live-streamed their last hours on Periscope before shooting themselves dead. Then, in quick succession, three Americans, two of them teenage girls, broadcast their suicides on Facebook.
Feature image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Anubis, Egyptian god of the dead, mummification, and the afterlife, c. 330 bce