france: eleven days of rioting across France

Establishment’s cultivated image of ‘equality for all’ goes up in flames

Days of riots across France have profoundly shaken the French establishment and the political elite. An outpouring of unstoppable rage has crisscrossed France for eleven days in a row, in the course of which cars, police stations and banks were set on fire in poor districts in cities and towns.

Last weekend, Jacques Chirac, the French President, called for the restoration of public order. His call, like other appeals from the political establishment, seems to have had no calming effect, whatsoever. Since 27 October, 34 police men have been injured, almost 4700 vehicles destroyed and 1,200 people arrested.

Teenagers killed

The French and international media have paid a lot of attention to the developments in France. Unfortunately, most of these outlets play a role, conscious or unconscious, in obscuring the facts that initiated the outbreak of violence.

There is conclusive evidence that the police are directly responsible for the deaths of two teenagers in Clichy-sous-Bois. The police hunted down three teenagers when they ran away from a police identity check on the night of 27 October. In a desperate bid to escape the police, the three teenagers, Muttin, Bouna and Zyed, climbed over the wall of an electricity sub-station. Two of them, Bouna Traore and Zyed Benna, got stuck in the generator. Only Muttin got out, but suffering severe burns on one side of his body. Later that evening, when he and other locals went back to the power station, they found the other two teenagers dead.

Police checks are a daily occurance in the poorest districts of the greater French cities, and are part of an ongoing campaign of intimidation, often accompanied with racism, by the special police forces, the CRS. Ali Meziane, a local councillor in Clichy-sous-Bois, recently commented on the three teenagers deaths, "You have to ask the question, why the police hunted them down, driving them into a wall. And the police never contacted EDF [the electricity company] to inform them of what had happened".

On the morning after the death of the two youths, the French Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, a rival of the present Prime Minister Villepin in the race to become the candidate for the right wing in the 2007 presidential elections, declared that the teenagers were fleeing because they were involved in a burglary and that the police could not be held responsible. Even when it became clear that the three youths had nothing to do with a burglary the Interior Minister refused to withdraw his comments.

The deaths sparked a day of rioting in Clichy, which was followed by several more days of violence in the area. When the CRS the riot police went into another borough of Clichy, on Sunday 30 October, they succeed in starting violence in an area previously untouched by the riots. The CRS fired tear gas canisters in the direction of the mosque, when prayers were taking place, and one of the canisters exploded inside the mosque.

Poverty, repression and racism

Over the past week, riots spread from the outskirts of Paris to other cities, such as Lille, Evreux, Rouen, Strasbourg, Rennes, Nantes, Toulouse, Marseille, Cannes and Nice. In total, 300 cities have been hit by rioting. These different areas all have poorer boroughs like Clichy-sous-Bois. These 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 in which the poorest ‘subjects of the Republic’ are crowded into ghettos 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 by the strong arm of the police.

While big companies in France, as elsewhere in Europe, have announced record profits over the last few years, the working people and poor of France have paid for it with greater work ‘flexibility’, cuts in public services and more unemployment. Official unemployment stands at over 10%, youth unemployment (under 25 years) stands at 23%, and for French-born young people of Arab descent the figure is at least 27%. Is it any wonder one of the rioters in Aulnay-sous-Bois recently said to journalists, "Jobs? There are a few at the airport and at the Citroën plant, but it’s not even worth trying if your name is Mohammed or Abdelaoui"

Protesters’ demands

Generally speaking, the young people involved in the riots have not expressed a clear set of political demands. That does not mean that there the riots have no political character. From the beginning of the street fighting, one of the most common sentiments made in all the cities affected is that the arch-right wing Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, must immediately resign. Sarkozy is the most verbal representative of the neo-liberal right wing in France. He likes to grandstand on ‘law and order’. His comments over the last days included calling the rioters "vermin" and "scum", blaming the violence on "agent provocateurs", and claiming the riots are organised by "drug barons", or "Islamist radicals". Two days before the riots started, on October 25, Sarkozy called for "crime ridden neighbourhoods to be cleaned out with Kärcher" – a high powered industrial hose – and described youths who protested against his visit to the Parisian suburb of Argenteuil as "gangrene" and "rabble". Sarkozy tries to promote the image that a coming together of ‘out of control youth’, ‘criminal elements’ and ‘Islamists’ have taken over the poorest suburbs.

Some of these sentiments are echoed by the right wing press in European countries like Britain. Jumping on the ‘war against terror’ bandwagon, the media use what is happened in France to further their unending attempts to sponsor prejudice against Muslims and to promote racism, by suggesting that what is taking place in France is in some way connected with Al Qeada terrorism.

Class divisions

Although a very high number of people living in the poorest French neighbourhoods are from Arab, African or Caribbean descent, this does not mean events in France can be reduced to riots fuelled by ethnic or religious divisions. Indeed, on the estates, amongst the disaffected youth, there is a great feeling of unity against the police and the political bosses of the police. These youth react against being treated like second class citizens, being constant victims of state and every day racism, and see no future for themselves.

The division between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ in French society is very deep. When Gérard Gaudron, the right wing mayor of Aulnay-sous-Bois, organised a local march to appeal for calm, he succeeded in driving a wedge between the inhabitants of the more affluent neighbourhoods and those who live in the poor boroughs, by blaring out the ‘Marseillaise’, the French national anthem, through speakers, at the start of the demonstration. The inhabitants of the poorer neighbourhoods, among them many immigrants or people descended from immigrants, regarded the mayor’s actions, correctly, as an insult. "This sends [out] the message that all the rioters are immigrants", said Ben Amar, a local resident, adding "Who has built the metro, who has dug the channel tunnel? We did. For us, the immigrants, those who are strange to us, are those in government".

One of the youth that took part in the riots in Aulnay-sous-Bois, in the Parisian district of Seine-Saint-Denis, expressed the same opinions to journalists when he was asked how he felt about being French. "I am part of Mille-Mille [a housing estate in Aulnay] and Seine-Saint-Denis, but I am not part of Sarkozy’s France, or even the France of our local mayor whom we never see."

This points, on the one hand, to deepening of class divisions in France society, while, on the other hand, to a cry of desperation, a feeling of helplessness in the most downtrodden city areas, when faced when the onslaught of neo-liberal attacks and cuts in education, social provisions and public services.

The Chirac government is determined not to bend under the pressure of recent workers’ industrial action, including strikes, but to push on with its programme of cutting government spending, privatising public services, and promoting ‘flexibility’ in the labour market.

Of course, to riot, to burn and to destroy what is left of local infrastructure is not a solution. Local inhabitants in the poorest areas are the first victims of the capitalist system and the policies of the government and should not be made to suffer even more. The same goes for the bus drivers and emergency services people, including ambulance staff and the fire fighters, caught up in the rioting.

It is not by burning cars, shops or banks that Sarkozy and the government’s policies will be stopped. Riots are acts of desperations and destruction that hit working class areas the hardest and are anything but an effective struggle against Sarkozy and neo-liberalism. On the contrary, the riots are used by Sarkozy and the government to increase repression, including curfews in some areas, and to try to introduce more repressive legislation.

Working class people and youth need a collective and organised political response to the policies of Sarkozy, to police repression and discrimination, and to the main political parties, at both national and local government levels. The UMP (President Chirac’s governing party) led coalition government is carrying out the worst social devastation in post WW2 France. These attacks on working conditions, living standards and the welfare state were started by ‘Gauche Plurielle’ government of the PS (Socialist Party), the PCF (Communist Party) and the Greens. To halt this devastation, working people need to rely on their collective strength and independent organisation.

The French working class has organised tremendous battles to try and halt this brutal bosses’ offensive. However it is clear this battle cannot be won on the industrial front alone. It also needs a political response; the formation of a fighting party of the working class, defending the interests of the poor and downtrodden against capitalism, and which struggles for a democratic, socialist society.

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November 2005