France: the fire this time

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On the night of 27 October, over 400 youth, mainly of north African origin, clashed with police on the streets of Clichy-sous-Bois, a north-eastern suburb of Paris; police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. Within days riots had erupted all over France, from Rouen in the north to Avignon in the south. Over the next 18 days and nights nearly 9,000 cars were torched and schools, buses and shops set alight as young people fought running battles against the hated police. On 5 November there were 1,400 arson attacks in a single night. On the night of 9 November, vandalism at two power stations caused widespread blackouts in Lyon, France’s second largest city. The unrest even spilled over the border into Belgium.

Police responded with brute force and mass arrests and on 9 November, President Chirac imposed a state of emergency throughout France, giving cities sweeping powers to impose curfews, limit the movement of people and vehicles, close public spaces where ‘gangs gather’ and place those identified as trouble-makers under house arrest. These special powers, which date back to the Algerian war of independence and have never before been used in France itself, are now in force across 40 cities and suburbs of France. At the same time the scale of the revolt has forced France to confront the issue of the appalling poverty, ghettoisation and discrimination faced by its immigrant community. In this there are parallels with the uprising by mainly black working class youth that erupted in Britain in 1981.

State racism, police brutality
The riots followed the death of two boys, Bouna Traore, aged 15, and Ziad Benna, aged 17, in Clichy-sous-Bois, who were so desperate to escape from police that they were electrocuted as they scaled the wall of an electricity power substation. Police immediately claimed they had been running from the scene of a crime; it swiftly transpired they had been fleeing a routine ID check. The situation was further inflamed when, two days later, police hurled tear gas into a mosque where community leaders were meeting to try to dissolve the resistance and when the right-wing populist demagogue, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy defended police over the deaths and proceeded to refer to the rioters as ‘scum’, saying the immigrant ghettoes needed to be hosed down with a power spray or flushed out with industrial cleaner. However, these events were merely catalysts for an explosion waiting to happen.
The sprawling estates, or banlieues, around France’s major cities, which house a third of France’s north African population, are a byword for deprivation and squalor. In areas like Clichy-sous-Bois half the population is aged under 20 and unemployment stands at around 40%. At the same time young people are subject to constant police harassment and brutality, usually in the form of random ID checks and raids, which have intensified since the attack on the Twin Towers in 2001. Funding for social projects in the banlieues has been slashed in recent years. Small wonder crime, anti-social behaviour and drug trafficking flourish under these conditions, alongside a simmering resentment and hatred of all forms of French authority.

France is a deeply racist, former colonial power where those with Arab or African-sounding names struggle to find employment and even second and third generations are still viewed as ‘immigrants’. Young people of African origin – the ‘Maghreb’ from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria and increasing numbers from war-torn sub-Saharan Africa, who made up the majority of the rioters – are routinely refused entry into hotels, nightclubs and restaurants. A French 1992 survey found 21% of the population prepared to describe themselves as out-and-out racists (‘racistes convaincus’), with a further 9% being ‘lukewarm racists’ (‘racistes tièdes’). The polarisation is on the increase, as under the cover of secularism and equality, the French government is introducing legislation aimed at discriminating against Muslims. Small wonder Sarkozy’s inflammatory racist comments have sent his popularity soaring. Even Jean-Marie le Pen, leader of France’s powerful National Front, struggles not to be outdone, demanding that those of north African descent involved in the riots be stripped of their French citizenship and deported back ‘to where they came from’. France does not have even one black member of parliament. Since April 2005, there have been three fires at hostels housing African immigrants; 48 have been killed. It seems almost certain these were murderous arson attacks but they were never properly investigated.

Parallels with Britain
Political and media pundits in Britain have been smug in comparing ‘multicultural’ Britain with events in France. Their memories are short. In 1981, in Brixton, London and Toxteth, Liverpool, black and white youth took to the streets to fight pitched battles with bricks, petrol bombs and barricades against a racist and brutal police. But the anger was against years of discrimination and harassment, unemployment and appalling housing conditions.

The state response was classic – on the one hand, to buy off a whole section of the black population, to create, in effect, a black middle class, while on the other meting out mass repression against those whose rage and power had forced the government to act. Money for regeneration and social projects flowed into the estates. In 1987, four black MPs were elected. But in reality, the trappings of this spurious multiculturalism benefited only a tiny minority. For the poor, the reality has continued to be racism, harassment, poverty and discrimination, particularly, since 2001, for those of Arab or Asian descent or anyone who appears to be Muslim.

And, just as in France today, where SOS Racisme, the major anti-racist organisation, has condemned the riots (while weakly calling for better provision for the banlieues, police reform and an end to discrimination), so the vast majority of the left in Britain disassociated itself from the violence of the oppressed. The SWP may today scoff at France’s major Trotskyist organisation, Lutte Ouvrière, which condemned the ‘lack of social conscience’ shown by French youth. Its memory is short, too. In 1981 it described the black youth as ‘lumpen’ elements, the ‘soft underbelly of the working class’.

In France, the mass repression has begun. By 10 November 120 young north Africans had been deported. Police have made nearly 3,000 arrests. At a local level a vicious vengeance is being meted out by the French authorities, such as in the Paris suburb of Draveil where the mayor announced on 14 November that the municipal council would stop all funding for canteens and crèches for families of those convicted of rioting or arson: ‘If they want their kids to eat in the cafeteria, the first step is not to set it alight’ Mayor Georges Tron is a member of Chirac’s centre-right UMP.

Soon the money for regeneration, education and retraining, possibly even ‘affirmative action’ will flow – but the beneficiaries will not, in the most part, be those who took part in the uprising. In reality nothing will change for the oppressed.

Already, in the wake of the protests, organisations are beginning to be formed and events organised to defend those arrested and victimised by the state. It is groups like these, made up of those who took to the streets and their communities, who are best placed to continue the struggle against police harassment, racism and poverty and to stand up for their own rights and for justice
Cat Wiener

FRFI 188 December 2005 / January 2006

 

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