The fires of the rioters polarize France

The images of the revolt in the poor suburbs of France hit the front pages of newspapers across the world in November. Not since May 1968 has such a level of revolt been seen here.  Ten thousand burnt cars, 3 000 arrests (half of them under eighteens) 600 or so sentenced to prison terms. Also burning police stations, schools, supermarkets and warehouses. Now calm has been temporarily restored, we need to understand the nature of this revolt and the work the radical Left must undertake to give a political perspective to those who identify with this explosion of justified anger.

So what is the situation some weeks after the riots ? The right wing government of Dominique de Villepin has been able to take advantage of the situation to declare a three-month state of emergency, using a law passed during the colonial war with Algeria. This allows them to go one step further on the road to increasing the acceptability of hardline repression. Meanwhile, the Left has been put to the test and is deeply divided. The main opposition party, the Socialist party, has supported the state of emergency. The still powerful Communist party is split, but a section of it, along with some more radical parts of the left (including my organization, the Revolutionary Communist League) and local community groups, continue to organize demonstrations in the poor suburbs against government repression. There is clearly a lot to play for.

The cause of the riots go back a long way. The revolt was sparked by the death of two young men fleeing from the police, and was stoked by the repressive and racist policing stepped up over the last two years. The right wing interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, famously declared that the problem in the suburbs was “scum” who needed to be “sandblasted out of there”. The right wing government abolished community policing in 2002 and sent ever more violent armed police in to harass young people. They also reduced defendants’ rights in police stations and at trials and organized a major campaign to expel larger numbers of illegal immigrants. In recent months police have barricaded off streets in Paris to make mass arrests of illegal immigrants. In all these ways they hope to grab votes from the fascist far-right (who got nearly 17% of the vote in the first round of the presidential elections of 2002).

These repressive policies have been run in parallel with an aggressive campaign of tax cuts for the rich, and reductions in staff in schools, hospitals, and other public services, as well as reductions in workers’ pensions, even though simmering levels of strike action have frightened the government into increasing the minimum wage.

Activists in the poor suburbs had been expecting an explosion for several years - high unemployment, poor and ever more expensive housing, deteriorating public services, and systematic racist discrimination are the basic ingredients. In poorer neighborhoods youth unemployment can reach forty percent. In the Paris region, my black and arab neighbours have their papers checked in the subway stations by the police several times a week. In twenty years here I have never seen a white person checked. Marauding police in the suburbs deliberately check papers several times a day of the same young people, adding insults and sometimes physical violence against anyone who objects. Meanwhile, being called “Mohammed” or “Samia” multiplies your chances of being rejected when applying for jobs, employers preferring candidates named “Sophie” or “Jean-Paul”.

The situation is contradictory. The revolt has put even more pressure on the vicious but weakened right wing government. They had already suffered a crushing defeat at the referendum last May and severe losses in regional elections in 2004. Several major strikes and a school students’ movement have added to their troubles in 2005.

Rioting can help
Conventional liberal wisdom says rioting solves nothing. And  it is true that the cars and schools burning are not the best targets for our anger. Yet this revolt has propelled to the centre of the political stage the problems of the mostly non-white residents of the poor suburbs. Big cuts in the government funding of non-profit organizations around the suburbs have been restored since the revolt. Finance for government housing and student grants has been released. The president himself has threatened to take action to oblige city councils to build more social housing (by law every town must have twenty per cent social housing but this is widely ignored). And on the TV and in the papers now we see detailed reports on discrimination. The truth is now coming out that the companies encouraged by state subsidies to establish themselves in poor towns refuse to employ locals. Documentary programmes have set up tests to see what happens when a white person and an arab having the same qualifications apply for the same job... Not bad results for a couple of weeks’ rioting.

As the muslim intellectual, Tarik Ramadan, commented at the end of November “Over the last few weeks I have spent a lot of time listening to women and men who live in the poor suburbs. The vast majority told me they knew that violence was not the solution, then added ‘but it’s the only way anyone will listen to us in this country’.”

Building a dynamic radical Left

It is essential for the Left to affirm that the revolt was justified. In the new situation, there is the potential for an acceleration of the rise of the radical left, and the making of much more solid links between on the ground groups and the established organizations. That is provided the radical Left, largely white, is prepared to put the work in. There are hundreds of local community groups, some non-religious, some muslim, working in the poor suburbs, often organizing homework help and social activities, but increasingly, especially since the revolt, organizing political debates. These groups are suspicious (often for good reasons) of the established left and revolutionary left organizations. At local elections these non-party groups sometimes have significant support, and deep roots in the community.

Sectarianism on all sides will have to be given up for alliances to work. In particular, the dreadful prejudices existing on the Left, even the revolutionary left, against working with muslim groups or with other groups organized on an “anti-colonialist” perspective, is a major braking force. Last year’s refusal by 95 % of the radical Left to mobilize against the racist headscarf ban in schools is a sign of how serious these prejudices are. They are often defended by the use of ludicrous caricatures of  muslims, which play into the hands of racists.

Although there have been demonstrations against the state of emergency, there is a lot which is not being done. Despite the vicious ‘exemplary’ sentencing of young people caught during the riots to long spells in prison, and the threat of expelling from the country any of the arrested who are not of French nationality (even if they have always lived here), no major initiative has been organized on these issues.

The revolutionary Left is giving a patchy response. Of the two main organizations, Lutte Ouvrière has concentrated on denouncing “small-time criminals” and as well as calling for better housing, has called for community policing. The LCR has much better positions, and is one of the main organizing forces for resistance to the state of emergency, but is very variable from one region to another and can be depressingly sleepy or sectarian in some towns.

Interestingly, in a number of towns parents and older people from local voluntary organizations tried to calm the rioters, and sometimes occupied schools so that they would not be burned down; but these people were not interested in helping the police arrest the youngsters, just in defending their schools, and moving from a spontaneous revolt of burning cars to a more political revolt. As one local organization in the Paris suburbs put it “Let’s put out the fire in the cars and light the fire of real debate ... We will always be second class citizens until we have the same access that rich towns do to culture and lesiure, to education and jobs.”

The future

A lot of nonsense is written in the press around the world about ‘France moving to the right’. What is actually happening is a polarization. Sarkozy is aiming to make the maximum political capital out of his hardline cowboy stance and the racist right are managing to some extent to cash in on the crisis. The popular Conservative paper Le Figaro talks of “the cancer we have discovered”, and proposes punishing the parents of the young arrested, reducing their social benefits or putting them in prison. The fascist leader Le Pen has declared that immigration is the main cause of the riots. Other leading right wing figures have joined the competition to spout more racist filth than the next man. One blamed rap music, a famous philosopher blamed Islam, while one minister and the president of  the main right wing party, the UMP,  have declared that one of the causes of the riots was... polygamy among African immigrants. The popularity of Sarkozy  has risen by several percentage points and he is hoping to end up president in 2007.

And in general the Right are playing hard to win the maximum out of the crisis. The government is talking of reducing the school leaving age for pupils with difficulty, sending them to work as apprentices at fourteen years old. New laws have just been announced making it harder for foreign residents married to French citizens to get French nationality.  Le Figaro  is attacking riots and strikes, two signs of “the violence existing in the whole of our society”.

But there is everything still to play for. The radical Left is stronger every year, and if some of the desires for united action come to fruition, this crisis could lead on to a much more serious, much more organized threat to the establishment.

John Mullen Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, Montreuil, France

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