The Context and Rebellion Behind The Headlines

I have a few friends who don’t have access to the internet, and I was thinking of writing something for them about the rebellion in France, a kind of synopsis of what I have been reading and translating. Having written it, I am not sure how coherent it is, but I figure if that’s not an example of something Sketchy then I don’t know what is…… and so here it is uploaded – please let me know how you think I can improve it!

Race & Class
Racism and class oppression form the obvious – and easy to guess at – backdrop to the riots in France. The rebellion started when three young people from immigrant families were electrocuted as they hid from police in an electrical substation. They had not been involved in any criminal activities – they had been playing soccer, and were on their way home to have their evening meal (this occurred during Ramadan) when the police started asking people for their i.d. papers. They ran.

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Such “identity checks” are legal in France, and very common, especially if you are in a working class area or if you don’t look like white. They often involve being insulted and threatened by the police, and not infrequently degenerate into police violence, with the unlucky victim then accused out “outrage and public rebellion.” (which seems to be he French equivalent of “disturbing the peace.”)

So already there is good reason for kids to flee from such i.d. checks. Add to this the fact that one of the three youths – Muhttin Altun, age 17, the only one to survive the electrocution – is a Turkish Kurd who did not have the necessary papers with him. So quite literally, these teenagers were electrocuted running from the racist and repressive policies of the French State. While Altun remains hospitalized, kept in a sterile plastic bubble to keep his wounds from getting infected, his two friends Zyed Benna (a 17 year old of Tunisian descent) and Bouna Traore (a 15 year old of Malian decent) were both killed.

As the news came out that three kids had been running from police, and two were dead as a result, Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy made a public statement that (1) the teenagers were thieves who had been caught stealing and (2) that the police were not in fact chasing them. Both of these assertions have since been revealed to be lies, obviously so as they tended to contradict each other (if the teenagers were thieves, wouldn’t the police chase them? If the police were not chasing them, isn’t that a sign that they were not known to be thieves?) Before long the local authorities had to admit that there was in fact no theft and the teenagers were not suspected of any wrongdoing.

While there was no immediate response from any kind of left-wing, or Muslim, or immigrant association or organization (as there rarely is in France or in North America within mere hours of an incident), and while the media and politicians were still spreading their disinformation, neighbourhood youths almost immediately started setting fire to cars and garbage cans. This unrest spread, ans soon police stations, shopping centres, schools, buses, stores and government buildings were being burnt dwn. Night after night the rebellion spread from one immigrant area to another, all the while becoming more and more intense.

Consistently, those rioting have mainly been teenagers from the working class housing projects. These projects are concentrated on the outskirts of large cities, so that in France the equivalent of the stereotypical U.S. inner city – non-white, working class, “dangerous” – is the French suburb.

These suburbs are officially designated “sensitive urban zones” by the government. There are 751 such zones; within them unemployment stands at 19.6 percent – double the national average – and at more than 30 percent among 21- to 29- year-olds, according to official figures. Incomes are 75 percent below the average. [Deep Roots of Paris Riots, Christian Science Monitor Nov. 4 2005]. More, precisely, in regards to immigrants from Northern Africa, one study on “juvenile delinquency” has found that:

“According to the 1990 census, 66,5% of foreigners from the Maghreb are labourers, 15,8% are employees an 4,2% are unemployed and have never had a job (INSEE, 1994). The total of these three categories is 86,5%, to which can be added 5,2% who are small businesspeople (grocery store or restaurant owners) who are rarely well-to-do. In sum, we can estimate that roughly 90% of them belong to the popular classes (as opposed to 60% to 65% in the total French population). Furthermore, foreigners are overrepresented in the worst and most unskilled jobs. They are overrepresented amongst temporary workers and fixed contract workers. They are much more likely to be unemployed. In INSEE’s ‘Emploi’ inquiry in 1992, the unemployment rate amongst French citizens was 9,5%, amongst foreigners it was 18,6%, and amongst those from North Africa it was 29,6%; amongst hose from North Africa between the ages of 15 and 24 it was 50,6% (INSEE,1994). The same inquiry made in March 2000 showed that these ratios had not changed. The unemployment rate of foreigners (20%) is double the global rate (10%) and triple (30%) if immigrants from the European Union are not taken into account. […]

“As for the inquiry into fiscal revenue carried out by the INSEE (1997), it showed that 7% of households in France live below the poverty rate, but this figure grows to 25% for households whose head has Algerian, Moroccan or Tunisian citizenship (Hourriez et al., 2001). Furthermore, this situation is only getting worst. In the Paris region (Île-de-France), were roughly 12% of foreigners live, they accounted for 18% of the poorest households in 1978. In 1996 this proportion had grown to 32% (Observatoire national
de la pauvreté et de l’exclusion sociale, 2002 : 80-81).

“Logically, this poor population is concentrated in neighbourhoods which are touched by city policies (Castellan et al., 1992). In 1992, slightly more than 500 neighbourhoods with slightly more than 3 million residents were the object of city contracts. Their main demographic characteristics were the overrepresentation of foreigners (18%, that is to say three times more that on the entire metropolitan territory), young people under 20 years of age (7,5%, as opposed to 3,2% on he entire metropolitan territory). More noteworthy, in these neighbourhoods 21,6% of young people under the age of 15 were foreigners (as opposed t 7% in the entire metropolitan territory). Almost 4.5 million people live in the “sensitive urban zones” created by the Urban Renewal Pact (1996), with basically similar characteristics, with the notable exception of youth unemployment, which has grown significantly in the 1990s (Le Toqueux et Moreau, 2002).”

[source: Délinquance et immigration en France: un regard sociologique, Laurent Mucchielli, Criminologie vol. 36 #2 (2003)]

Following World War II, France encouraged permanent immigration as a way to import cheap labour on terms favorable to capitalists. In 1973, as a result of the oil crisis, the government changed tack and adopted measures to discourage immigration, and make life more miserable for those who had already immigrated, in the hopes that they might leave. So according to the right-wing American Brookings Institute “one quarter of the foreigners who have entered France since 1990 have since left the country (220,000 out of 850,000 entries since 1990).”

All of this is to give the details as to how – as in the United States and Canada – when the newspapers talk about things having a “racial” dimension, or being the work of “foreigners,” this implies a certain class make-up. The riots were a rebellion against the structural racism of French society – they were a class rebellion, representing that section of the working class that suffers exploitation intensified by racism.

Political Background
A significant and disastrous phenomenon in French government politics over the past twenty years has been to use the National Front – indeed, to use the whole “fascist threat” – as something of a political football. Former Socialist Prime Minister Francois Mitterand is blamed by many for the success of Jean-Marie Le Pen and his National Front, for the existence of a far-right siphoned off voted from the RPR, long the Socialists’ prime rivals. Keeping the National Front alive was a way of splitting the right-wing vote.

Meanwhile, on the right as well as the left, there has been a long-term process of trying to “win back” or “win over” voters from the far-right by aping the “law and order” and anti-immigrant discourses of Le Pen. Throughout the early 1990s, for example, both left and right-wing politicians called for a “Zero Immigration” policy. This has been referred to by anti-fascists as the “lepenization of the mind,” meaning that racist and authoritarian ideas initially confined to the far-right become accepted and then championed by the “more mainstream” political parties.

Both of these ways in which the threat of fascism is exploited instead of being fought account for the fierce hostility that many militant anti-fascists in France feel not only for the right but also for the electoral left, as well as for “anti-racist” and “anti-fascist” groups associated with the Socialist Party.

In April 2002 most people were surprised when Le Pen came in second place in the “First Round” of the presidential elections, beating the Socialist Party candidate [and acting president] Lionel Jospin. France has a run-off election system, with two votes taking place: in the “First Round” all kinds of parties from the far-left to the far-right present themselves, and then the two front-runners square off in the “Second Round”. This was the first time that a far-right candidate like Le Pen managed to be the runner-up for president; his only opponent was Jacques Chirac (from the right-wing Rally for the Republic, or RPR political party).

The fact that the second round was now between Chirac and Le Pen caused most of the left to freak out, for fascism was suddenly just an election away.

On April 24th 2002 – 3 days after the First Round – 60,000 people took to the streets in anti-fascist demonstrations. On April 25th 250,000 people did so, and on April 27th 200,000 demonstrated against Le Pen (40,000 in Paris alone). Finally, on May 1st 1,300,000 people took part in Mayday demonstrations which were organized as anti-Le Pen protests.

When it came time to vote in the second round on May 5th, even the vast majority of leftists ended up voting for Chirac. Not without reservations – [according to Wikipedia] some people suggested going to the urns with a clothespin on the nose, to express disgust for the vote they were casting. A poster become popular, showing Chirac with the slogan “Vote for a Crook, not a Fascist.” Anything – even a right-wing government with a corrupt president – was felt by many to be better than the National Front. This went not only for social-democrats and socialists, but also for members of the Communist Party, Trotskyists, and many anarchists.

In this way, although the vast majority of the French left did vote for Chirac in 2002, this did not stop the RPR candidate from campaigning on a “get tough on crime” (especially “immigrant crime”) platform. Support from the center-right and left being guaranteed, the RPR candidate had nothing to lose by fishing for votes from Le Pen’s ranks. Further compounding the rightwards rift, the electoral left chose to join the right in this repressive discourse.

Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy
The single demand that almost everybody – from rioters to concerned community members to the Socialist Party and community groups – has made is that Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy should resign. This is not a very radical demand, but it should be understood as being symbolic, for Sarkozy has made himself the champion of “law abiding France.”

Described by many as an “American-style” politician, Sarkozy is a slick sloganeer and clever opportunist. A right-wing personal rival to Chirac (he is expected to run in the 2007 presidential elections), he can be counted on to play to the crowd. Since becoming Minister of the Interior he has made one outrageous statement after another – calling young people from the suburbs “trash” and claiming that he would clean them out of their neighbourhoods “with Karcher” (a pressurized water machine used for removing dirt from the pavements). Since the rioting started Sarkozy has repeatedly stated that he would not back down, that the rioters were all thugs working for crime lords, that “75-80%” of them were already known to the authorities (out of roughly 2,000 arrested!), that the police were doing a wonderful job, etc.

More ominously, he has also announced that he intends to deport “foreigners” – even those with residency papers – who are convicted of participating in the riots. This would be purely vengeful repression, especially when one considers that most of those arrested seem to have been randomly swept up by police for being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

These statements have been condemned as “irresponsible” and “foolish” – at one point a police union even complained that Sarkozy was putting them in danger by fanning the flames in the suburbs (imagine: the cops complaining that a politician was too right wing!) – and Chirac is widely understood to have allowed the rebellion to continue unchecked for so long in the hopes that Sarkozy would suffer the political consequences. However, in my opinion Sarkozy’s statements have to be seen as more populist opportunism, for while they may do nothing to endear him to the rioters or their communities, they have made him ever more popular amongst the population at large. So much so that a poll printed in the Journal du Dimanche (November 13 2005) revealed that 53% of people surveyed thought Sarkozy was able to “deal with he problems in the suburbs,” as opposed to 29% who felt this way about Chirac (24% felt this way about Jean-Marie Le Pen). Three days later an Ipsos-Le Point poll found that an incredible 68% of those surveyed approved of how Nicolas Sarkozy had handled the riots well.

Chirac and Sarkozy have played political football with the riots. This is not to say that the riots were not a salutary rebellion, that we should not support them, but regardless of how widespread they were – with over 7,000 cars set on fire, sixteen nights of street-fighting, police stations and schools burnt down, etc. – they did not pose a military or political threat to France itself, or to capitalism. The different political players felt they could afford to try and manipulate them to their own ends, and Sarkozy clearly has come out ahead.

This said, the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist) has correctly observed that the focus on Sarkozy can easily become an alibi for the system, as the entire question of racism and class oppression gets replaced by opposing “this bad man.”

As the CP(MLM) correctly point out: “People’s power is not a matter of getting rid of Sarkozy the Minister of the Interior, but rather of getting rid of the entire State.”

A Rebellion To Clear a Path
The rebellion of immigrant youth throughout France must be understood in this way: a population of very young people who realistically cannot expect anything good in their future have risen up against an intolerable existence. In their case, democracy’s trump card of offering some kind of mediation or way out, just was not played. Already, as teenagers from immigrant communities, they experience regular and blatantly unfair police harassment and violence. The State does not even pretend to offer them any realistic way to a better life. The left has little or nothing to offer them, indeed the electoral (or “realistic”) left has long been openly complicit in the worst racism. Furthermore, one has the impression that the radical white left is stymied in its attempts to set down roots amongst these most oppressed sections of the population, in part because of an incoherent approach to the entire question of integration/assimilation.

At the same time that there is no way out, the actual situation is getting worst, for the racist and authoritarian attitudes and policies of government and French electorate seem to become more and more pronounced all the time.

Furthermore, despite ridiculous assertions in the media about Al Qaeda and “immigrant cultures,” neither the religious authorities nor the rioters’ parents have encouraged or participated in this rebellion. There have been many reports – certainly exaggerated, it is true – of parents holding vigils and patrolling trying to keep their children from participating in the rebellion. And within a few days of the first clashes, the Union of Islamic Organizations of France issued a religious decree (a fatwa) formally forbidding Moslems “from taking part in an action that blindly strikes at private or public property or could harm others.”

So, clichéd as it may sound, this rebellion has no leaders, nor even any superstars.

The State of Emergency
For the first two weeks, every night brought with it more intense attacks in more and more cities. While the violence was always mainly confined to the heavily-immigrant and working class suburbs, other areas were also effected, and certainly other people joined in the rioting. Rioting spread not only outside of the Paris suburban ring, but even outside of France: in Belgium, Portugal, Germany and Denmark there were reports of cars being set on fire at night, and Molotov cocktails were thrown at some particularly detestable institutions.

Finally, on November 9th, after being widely criticized for “allowing” things to go on so long, president Chirac declared a State of Emergency, based on a law from 1954. As the militant anti-fascist No Pasaran network writes, the State of Emergency is “part of a process of racializing social relationships. A process that has been playing out on a global level for many years now, and which in France is basing itself on colonial ideas that some wish to bring back. This decree has only been used twice before: in Algeria and New Caledonia. Using it now is a way of presenting the present situation as one of warfare, of cultural and ethnic minorities breaking up the country (like the ‘lost territories of the Republic’ that all kinds of patriots moan about). This is a clear message: if not legally so, then the suburbs are at least de facto colonies, due to their ‘ethnic makeup’ which supposedly makes them unable to be integrated into French society.”

As the Federation Anarchiste notes, the State of Emergency is a “fundamental threat to public freedoms. The law allows prefects to simply decide whether or not to impose a curfew; it sanctions police raids by night or by day, forbids people deemed threatening from visiting the area or forbids them to leave their home, allows them to ban public assemblies, close cinemas, theatres, coffeehouses, meeting places, and also control the media – including the press, the radio, television or the internet.”

(France is divided into 100 “Departments,” each of which has its own prefect in charge of applying the government’s decisions, maintaining public order, holding elections, managing drivers permits, etc. Prefects can be dismissed and replaced by the president at any time.)

Once the State of Emergency came into effect prefects in several departments imposed curfews of minors, as well as banned the sale of gasoline in containers. In Paris on the weekend of h 12th-13th the prefect banned all public demonstrations deemed likely to trouble the peace.

The 1954 law allowed the State of Emergency to be imposed for three days, but on November 16th the senate approved an amendment extending it for three months. This despite the fact that the government and police were insisting that the violence had largely abated.

The State of Emergency is something of a lightning rod for all manner of progressive organizations, not only revolutionaries. It is widely felt that this is a decisive infringement on political freedoms. It has been pointed out, though, that young working class kids in the suburbs were already having their “political freedoms” violated to such an extent that in and of itself this is not going to mean a big change for them.

Nevertheless, three months is a long time, and what the State of Emergency will mean, and how it will be applied, will depend on many different factors.

The Revolutionary Left
While some stupid hypocrites on the left (sorry, some might prefer words like “reformist” or “revisionist” which i think are too inexact) claimed that the rioting was “apolitical” or “irrational,” it was in fact selective (symbols of the State, businesses, and cars being the main things set on fire) and understood by everyone who cared to open their eyes to be a rebellion against the miserable living conditions in the suburbs.

This does not mean that every act that anybody committed during the first two weeks of November should automatically be granted a revolutionary seal of approval. There is nothing laudatory about the case of the disabled woman who was severely burnt when she could not escape a bus that rioters had set on fire, or the retired autoworker who was killed when he tried to put out fires rioters had set. Such attacks have no progressive content, but to condemn them without noting that horrible anti-social violence like that also occurs when nobody is rioting is to risk seriously distorting their meaning. That only a handful of violent attacks against bystanders have made the news during almost three weeks of violent rebellion involving tens if not hundreds of thousands of people is what is actually remarkable.

Yet even when it was sympathetic, the left was slow to respond to events. From what I have seen, the two main Trotskyist organizations (Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire and Lutte Ouvriere) were not only slow to respond, but also failed to appreciate that the riots might be something more than a random and dumb revolt.

Not that many anarchists or socialists seemed to know what to make of the largest rebellion in decades either. Notable exceptions were the CNT-AIT, CNT-F and Alternative Libertaire (amongst the anarchists) and the tiny Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist). But even amongst these, only the CP(MLM) seemed to initially grasp the import of the events as they transpired. And apart from issuing communiqués, there is no news of practical solidarity being extended on anything but an ad hoc or personal basis. People who have shown up at courthouses to extend solidarity to the rioters have noted that most of the “regulars” at such solidarity appearances are nowhere to be seen.

Anarchist responses seem to run the gamut from “Long live riots!” (many individual postings on the Indymedia sites) to a circle-a echo of the social democrats, decrying the irrationality of the riots while acknowledging that they are the byproduct of real suffering.

With the exception of the CP(MLM), i have not read anything by an groups in France that actually consider the rioters to be the vanguard or the most important agent of revolutionary change in the current context. Most merely suggest that the rioters should ally with or join up with radical trade unionists or other established (and predominantly “French”!) left-wing sectors.

Future Perspective
The Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist), a small group with fairly good politics, has stated that the riots represent “the beginning of the long march to revolution.”

This is great news if true, and one does not want to piss on anyone’s parade – especially given the recent spectacle of the entire left being caught completely off guard – but this “first step to revolution” seems unlikely, except perhaps in a symbolic sense. (In which case any major offensive of the part of the oppressed can be described as such a “first step.”)

At the same time the CP(MLM) claim that the State of Emergency represents a decisive “step towards fascism.” Again, certainly an exaggeration – fascism is more than martial law, and the State of Emergency is definitely less than that – but taken together, these predictions mean that they see the riots as polarizing the country.

In this I believe they are definitely correct.

On the side of the State, there are already a number of worrisome developments, apart from the State of Emergency. As already noted, the Minister of the Interior has already announced that “foreigners” will face deportation if they are found to have participated in the riots. He has also announced that there will be a much heavier police presence in the suburbs. President Chirac has announced that a “voluntary” period of national service will be established, and there are already calls to make it mandatory. There have also been several calls to cut welfare payments to parents whose children are convicted of participating in the riots.

“On the side of the State” should be understood as widely as possible. Almost seven out of ten people in France fully approve of their cowboy Minister of the Interior. A majority approve of the State of Emergency. Barely reported, since the riots began there have been a number of attacks against mosques throughout France. Support for the far-right, represented electorally by Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front and Philippe de Villiers’ Movement for France, has grown, and this in a context where Le Pen had already pierced the Second Round in the 2002 elections. What we are really talking about is a lurch to the right.

If the right is capitalizing on this situation, it can be assumed that on the radical left the riots will lead some people to deepen their commitment and the level of their struggle. So a degree of polarization is likely, and this could be a good thing, though barring some new surprise it could also be a very bad thing.

Seeing as the left was taken completely by surprise, and has only the most unsatisfactory of relationships to the young people who set off this rebellion, there is some hesitation in maintaining my characteristic pessimism. One cannot deny the possibility of being caught off guard again – though one should also remember that not all surprises are good ones.

Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the decisive factor will certainly not be found in either the ranks of the left nor on the side of the State, but rather amongst the people who participated in the riots, and those who like them live and struggle in the suburbs.

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