France has been shocked by three weeks of violence. Nightly riots started on the streets of the poor estates of Paris’s outer edges and spread to more than 300 cities. A total of 8,973 vehicles have been set afire since the violence erupted on 27 October. At the height of the unrest, youths burned 1,408 vehicles across France in one night (6 November). The disturbances have been described as the largest civil unrest hitting France since the riots in May 1968, then the prologue to the general strikes and occupation of factories in which millions of workers participated.
Today, however, the leaders of the trade unions, let alone the leaders of the Communist Party, have not lifted one finger to provide an alternative to the growing malaise in French society. The repeated attacks on workers’ rights, the driving down of living standards and the worsening social and economical situation are the direct results of the neo-liberal policies of the government. The French bourgeoisie is hanging on the ropes, it cannot compete against its international opponents and seeks to gain an advantage by attacking its own working class and poor. Despite determined struggle of the working class on issues like education, pension ‘reform’ and privatisation, it is the failure of the leadership of organised labour to fight for a consistent alternative, to unite behind its banner all the exploited, has led to the feeling amongst disaffected youth that rioting is the only possible way to make their voices heard.
Interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy is at the centre of the controversy as the most verbal representative of the neo-liberal right wing. Sarkozy, a rival of the current Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin in the race to become the candidate for the rightwing in the 2007 presidential elections, likes to grandstand on law and order issues. Any kind of security emergency and you can bet your bottom dollar that ‘Sarko’, as he is known in the media, will show up and make a statement for the cameras. Two days before the rioting started he visited the Parisian suburb of Argenteuil and described local youth who came out in protest as "racaille", rabble or scum. He called for "crime-ridden neighbourhoods to be cleaned out with a Kärcher", a high-powered industrial hose.
Then on the night of 27 October, police hunted down three teenagers in Clichy-sous-Bois. The boys were coming back from a football game and wanted to avoid a police identity check. They climbed over the wall of an electricity substation where two of them got stuck in the generator and died. Sarkozy was quick off the mark to declare the next morning that the two who had died were involved in a burglary and the police could not be held responsible. The deaths sparked a day of rioting in Clichy which was followed by several more days of violence in the area. Then on Sunday 30 October the CRS (riot police), deployed in the poor areas, went into another borough in Clichy, previously untouched by violence, and fired tear gas canisters in the direction of the local mosque during a prayer service. One of the canisters exploded inside the mosque.
These incidents led to the rapid spreading of the rioting to cities like Lille, Evreux, Rouen, Strasbourg, Rennes, Nantes, Toulouse, Marseille, Cannes and Nice. The areas touched by these events have much in common. Their poor boroughs are modern day ghettos, where half of the inhabitants are under 20 years old, unemployment is above 40% and identity checks and police harassment occur daily.
These are places into which the ‘poorest subjects of the republic’ are crowded and suffer unemployment, racism, poverty and dependence on government grants and family benefits. The authorities try to hold the residents of these areas in check using the strong arm of the CRS. The latter was again exposed as a brutal and racist force when two officers where caught on film beating up a young man in the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, with six of their colleagues looking on
More embarrassment came on the day the French president, Jacques Chirac, praised the "professionalism and sang-froid" of the French police when the TF1 channel filmed an officer taunting an Arab youth in a suburb of Lyon about the electrocution of the two teenagers. The officer was heard to address a youth: "Do you want me to take you to an electricity substation?" The threat was repeated by a second policeman on the scene: "So you want to go and fry with your mates? You want to go into the transformer?" When the boy responded by saying that this was not the way to calm down the estate a third officer replied: "We don’t give a shit if the estate calms down or not. Actually, the more it gets fucked up the happier we are".
The reaction of these officers is a flawless translation of the orders they received from their political masters. Bernard Accoyer, leader of the UMP, in the lower house of parliament declared that "amongst the youths involved in crime there is an overrepresentation of children who come from polygamous families". His comments were repeated by several other UMP leaders and government representatives, such as employment minister, Gerard Larcher. These comments are a repetition of the racist filth peddled by the Front National and its leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. The Front National has a long-running campaign trying to create the myth that France is rife with polygamous families of African descent and argues that immigrants abuse the French social security system. Sarkozy is seeking to surf on this wave of racism by calling for the expulsion from France of all foreigners caught rioting and has suggested that even French nationals, if involved in rioting, could see changes to their status in the future.
The reaction of the government to the riots has made clear that de Villepin, Chirac and the rest of the political elite have united on the issue with Sarkozy to confront the disturbances with increased repression in the short term and more neo-liberal measures in the long term.
Vague promises of urban regeneration aside, the main measure that has been taken was the revival of a law that makes it possible for regional representatives of the government, the prefects, to implement curfews and declare a state of emergency wherever they deem them necessary. This law was last used by General de Gaulle in 1961 to suppress the national liberation struggle of the Algerian people against the French colonial masters. It was used on Algerian soil as well as in Paris, where up to 200 French Algerians were killed or drowned by the police.
The French parliament voted to prolong the state of emergency to three months and the law has been used to impose curfews in 30 districts.
Across the country, 11,500 police have been deployed, 2,700 people have been arrested, over 350 adults and 68 juveniles have received prison sentences. The police have charged five parents for failing to control the behaviour of their children and have gone as far as arresting teenagers for posting messages on the internet.
While most of the international press have poured scorn on Sarkozy for using abusive language and inflaming the situation, he is gaining widespread support from the same bourgeois commentators for his neo-liberal programme. According to a Financial Times editorial (8 November), the urgent measures that need to be taken to further the integration of what they call, "the latter day sans culottes at the margins of the French economy" are "to cut the minimum wage and payroll taxes… reduce the job protection rights of those in work to create a more level playing field for those without".
So, the logic of capitalism is to create integration by making the majority of working-class people as poor and vulnerable as those who have nothing to lose. The measures announced by de Villepin go in the same direction. The job creation schemes for the poor estates are not based on providing any real jobs for the inhabitants but on apprenticeships, apprenticeships and more apprenticeships. This is reheating existing government policy to open the possibility for young people to quit school at 14 and start working in an apprenticeship with almost no wages and without any real protection. What the government wants to do is to turn a whole generation of young people over to employers, without any real protection or rights and use them as a lever to push down the working and living conditions of French workers as a whole. The government has recently brought in a new contract for first time recruits to the labour market. The CNE (contract nouvelle embauche) will allow employers to make workers redundant by simply sending them a letter during the first two years of their employment. Employers will have no obligation to state the reasons why someone is made redundant nor will the workers have any rights to fight the redundancy.
The de Villepin government is determined neither to bend under the recent workers’ mobilisations and action, including strikes in the national railway company against ‘rampant privatisation’, nor under the pressure of violence from the most downtrodden sections of French society. It will try its utmost to push on with its programme of cutting government spending, privatising public services and promoting ‘flexibility’ in the labour market.
Of course, it is not through rioting that the government’s policies will be stopped. On the contrary, the French political elite has used the riots to impose even more draconian repression and whip up racism and division.
In the events of the last month it has been the leaders of the organised working class, the trade union leaders with a mobilising power of hundreds of thousands at their finger tips, who have been found most wanting. They could have stepped in with mobilisations, fighting for a socialist programme against the government and forged unity between the inhabitants of the poor estates and the working class at large. Such a struggle could have cut across the racist lies of the right wing, exposed the government policies for what they are and forced the hated CRS police off the estates.
This article will be published in the December issue of Socialism Today. www.socialismtoday.org