The riots in France - they are right to revolt!

The ninth and tenth days of rioting in poor suburbs around Paris saw a spread of the riots to other cities around France. During the tenth night 1300 cars were burnt across the country, and 320 people arrested. Other targets of rioters during the night included police stations, unemployment offices, a factory, a McDonalds restaurant and two primary schools.

The  incident which sparked the first riots ten days ago was the death of two young boys who tried to hide in an electrical transformer while running from the police. Young people understand that fear, and are used to being treated like animals by the police. The mobs of police sent into the estates in the following days just stoked up further riots. Two days later a police tear gas canister was fired into a mosque during Friday prayers. The message of contempt was clear.

In any case many of  the housing estates were just powder kegs waiting to explode. Very high rates of unemployment among young people, more and more cuts in public services, no money for decent transport services to poorer towns, and an interior minister who makes a habit of calling for “a crackdown on the scum” and making other similarly inflammatory declarations.

The thousands of young people in revolt come, for many of them, from a new generation of children of immigrants who  are concluding that there is little hope for them. Over recent years they have seen rising electoral support for the fascist Le Pen, racist laws against muslims, and in the last few weeks vicious police round-ups in different parts of town under the excuse of clearing out clandestine immigrants. This summer a series of fires in unsafe housing for poor Africans in Paris where dozens were killed underlined how low down a priority poor people, and particularly non-white poor people, are for this government.

There is also a general political background to the riots. The right wing government is highly unpopular. After the governing party’s disastrous results in regional elections last year, and  the victory for the Left in the referendum on the European  Constitution six months ago; the government appears as absolutely illegitimate. The Prime Minister De Villepin is so distant from ordinary people he has never even been elected MP, but was appointed by the president. President Chirac is generally known to have been involved in a whole series of shady business deals, and only his presidential privilege is keeping him out of the courts.

Despite its unpopularity, the Right wing government has continued vicious attacks on social justice. Taxes on the rich have been slashed, and new labour laws make sacking workers much easier. The interior minister - debonaire Mr Sarkozy, who has his eyes on becoming in 2007 the youngest French president for many decades - has been hoping to attract a couple of million fascist votes to his party by strong “law and order” talk.

High levels of cynicism among poorer young people are only to be expected. The hopelessness has led to violent reactions, sometimes against the police, often against other young people or ordinary workers. Last year, the school students demonstrations were attacked by disaffected young people, causing tremendous problems and eventually making it impossible to organize further demonstrations. And if the target of the present riots is often the police, it is also ordinary people’s cars and schools which are being destroyed, and firemen trying to intervene have been stoned by rioters. Among workers in general, the riots can be interpreted in many ways - people are talking of little else - and the capacity of the Left to offer explanations different from the repressive and often racist arguments of the Right is crucial. The government, already unsteady is in deep crisis. The Interior minister’s talk of harsh repression can actually gain him some popularity among the general population. It is vitally important that the Left have something to say too. But the main opposition party, the Socialist party, has been generally supportive of the government.

The Communist Party has called for a rally in front of the Prime Minister’s residence. The demands are more money for housing, cultural resources in poorer towns, the right to vote for immigrants, but also a “more democratic control” of the police. “The government has shown itself incapable of keeping order” claims the CP communiqué.

The LCR, a revolutionary organization of a few thousand but with, for the moment, an influence far beyond its ranks (recently the Socialist Party leader was accused by journalists of wanting to form a government with the LCR!) organized a meeting of Left organizations with the aim of organizing a demonstration in the poorer suburbs of Paris. The march would be to demand the resignation of Sarkozy and bigger budgets for these areas. It is not yet clear what will come out of this initiative. On the 9th November there will be “meetings to demand respect” around the country.

Lutte Ouvrière, the other revolutionary organization who almost always prefers to stay outside broader single issue alliances, has denounced Sarkozy’s provocative police presence, and the degradation of living conditions for the poor, and called for more community policing

The combination of absolutely justified revolt against government contempt and police violence and racism on the one hand, and cynical despairing violence against our own people on the other, makes for a difficult debate on the Left about what to do and what to say. But the radical Left is bigger and more influential than it has been for twenty years, boosted by the referendum victory earlier in the year. The terrain will not be left to the Right wing this time. The riots could help bring down this government, providing they go further and find some sort of link with a political discourse that another France is possible. Many towns are seeing this weekend leaflets, meetings and posters trying to move in this direction. Regional trade union federations are organizing to join this kind of initiative.
 

A few quotations

Guy Tresallet. Regional secretary of the FSU teachers union and teacher in a technical college in a poorer suburb of Paris :

“Respecting young people doesn’t mean that anything goes - burning cars and schools is unacceptable. But when my students, young women who are twenty years old, tell me that when they see a policeman they run off as fast as they can, there is a real problem.”

Sophie Juste, primary school teacher in a remedial class at La Courneuve
“I think Nicolas Sarkozy is very much responsible for the development of this violence, because every time he comes to the poor suburbs, it’s to insult the people and sho what contempt he has for us. I’m not surprized people threw stones at hime when he turned up at Argentueil. What was he there for, at night in Argenteuil, surrounde dby TV cameras. ... I’m against the escalation of the riots of course. Last night there were fires and real bullets at the Balzac estate ... all the drugdealers must have jumped at the chance to show they were still boss. But the kids really need us teachers to be around. We want them to be able to succeed, have thesame opportunities as the rest of the population.”

Marie-Rose Moro, child psychiatrist
“What I see in this violence is two sides of the same thing. I see every day the suffering of these young people, who hurt themselves, who destroy themselves. ... over the last few days, this destructiveness is turned outwards. But it’s the same teenagers, whether the violence is turned inwards or outwards. No one understands the need to put much more resources into these young people.”
 

John Mullen (Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, Montreuil)
 

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