A World to Win News Service, 7 November 2005The rulers of France are facing their worst crisis in decades. Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin has invoked a half-century old law that has not been used since France’s colonial war in Algeria, allowing local authorities to declare a state of emergency and impose a curfew forbidding anyone to be on the streets at certain hours. Although de Villepin ruled out turning to the army at this point, his critics point out that once such measures are imposed, they can be taken as a challenge, and if sufficient force is not used to enforce them, the government could find its situation deteriorating still further. The problem, for them, is a revolt by the people France’s Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy called not human beings at all but racaille, rabble or low-class scum. The once-voiceless youth from the cités (housing estates or projects) have put themselves at the centre of events, and forced everyone else to define themselves in relation to them.
Shortly after he took his present job, Sarkozy declared “war without mercy” against the “riffraff” in France’s suburbs. He said he would take a Karcher, a high-pressure water hose most famously used to wash dog excrement off sidewalks and streets, to “clean out” the cités, home to much of the immigrant population and the lower section of the working class of all nationalities. This was not just talk. He unleashed his police to harass and humiliate youth even more than usual. It is common for young men walking down the street alone at night to be suddenly jumped by a carload of cops for an “identity check” that often means getting thrown on the ground, handcuffed if they open their mouth to protest, and slapped around. In recent weeks, the police have sharply stepped up this persecution. From time to time youths responded by burning cars at random, something that has become a common act of rebellion in France in recent years.
Their smouldering anger first burst into flames on 27 October in Clichy-sous-Bois, a suburb to the east of Paris formerly considered a quiet town. A group of young teenagers were coming home after an afternoon spent playing football. Later the police claimed that someone had tried to break into a construction site office in a vacant lot that lay in their path, although there are no offices on the lot, or anything of value. A carload of police showed up – the BAC, a special brigade whose job is to brutalise cité youth. The kids ran. Three of them tried to escape by climbing over a metre and a half-high wall. Several youth who had been arrested earlier and were being held in other police cars overheard the cops’ communications. One cop radioed in a report, saying they had seen some teenagers climbing over the wall into an electrical power substation. “They’re in mortal danger,” he said. “Well,” came the response, “they won’t get far.” Almost an hour later, the firemen’s rescue squad showed up and finally had the current cut off. They found two boys dead, and a third severely hurt.
Small groups of youth burned rubbish bins and cars and threw rocks and bottles at police that night. The next afternoon there was a silent march in solidarity with the families of the two dead youth, Bouna Traore and Zyed Benna. The media described them as 15 and 17 years old, although some local people say both were younger than reported. Bouna, whose family came from Mauritania, was known as a good soccer player. Zyed, of Tunisian origin, was considered a nice kid by older neighbours because he offered to run errands for them. The next night saw more local outbreaks on about the same level as the previous one.
In the following days, Sarkozy helicoptered into a nearby town – local youth say he didn’t dare come to Clichy. Striking his most macho pose, he ranted about “hoodlums” and racaille in what his critics and supporters alike took as a deliberate provocation. On 31 October, the police fired a tear gas grenade into a mosque crowded with worshippers celebrating an important night of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. The effects lingered for the rest of the week. The authorities refused to apologize for anything. The parents of the two dead boys stood firm in the face of government efforts to conciliate them.
Instead of dying out after the weekend, the flames grew higher and spread. Hundreds of cars were burned and scores of people detained every night. A week later, as the fighting died down here, an even bigger clash between youth and police took place in nearby Aulnay-sous-Bois. Small groups of very young teenagers set cars on fire in some 20 towns around Paris, many of them in department 93, east and north of the capital. A police station, an unemployment office, big and little stores, two schools and a bus depot were burned down. By Friday 5 November, 900 cars had been burned in the Paris region; the next night flames consumed 500 cars in the Paris region and nearly 800 more in half a dozen cities across France from north to south.
With one possible exception, a retired autoworker killed in his parking lot in murky circumstances, there have been very few reports of the youth deliberately attacking ordinary people of any nationality in the cités or anywhere else, although a handful of bystanders have been hurt. In fact, there seems to be much less fighting between youth of different neighbourhoods than usual. The targets of the youth are very clear and not at all random in the broad sense: the police, the government and anything seen as its representatives, and the prevailing social order. Burning cars is a form of disorder and challenge to authority that the forces of order, as they call themselves in France, cannot tolerate.
The police answered with water cannons – Sarkozy’s Karcher, and especially rubber bullets, along with tear gas and clubs. Youth say the “flash ball” bullets really hurt, especially in the face or neck. On 4 November, for the first time in France, helicopters hovered just over the rooftops of massive public housing complexes in Paris and at least one other city. They shined searchlights onto walkways and into apartment windows, filming everything and coordinating mobile squads of police. But the tactics of the authorities have gone through stages. At first there were not many arrests. The police would sweep up everyone they could catch at a given scene, and later release most of them. The authorities seemed to be hoping the youth would lose heart, and worried about further inflaming them. Almost a week and a half later, with the youth becoming bolder than ever, Sarkozy proclaimed, “Arrests – that’s the key.” After that, hundreds were taken into custody every night. By 7 November about 20 had already been sentenced to prison and 30 more were awaiting trial for what the government threatens will be very serious charges. According to official figures, half of those in jail at that point were under 18, and almost all under 25.
The authorities are howling that the youth are “using real guns”, which would be unusual in France. In the only such incident reported, police in Grigny, south of Paris, said they were “ambushed” by groups of young men with baseball bats and guns. It turned out that two officers were slightly wounded by non-lethal birdshot. The police claimed they had found an empty real rifle shell on the ground afterward. This may be a way for the state to justify the use on their part of far more deadly force.
An editorial in the so-called leftist daily Libération claimed that the fighting is being “organised” by “gang kingpins eager to clear out the police so they can deal drugs, and by imams seeking cannon fodder for their jihad.” As far as the first charge is concerned, the press itself has quoted cité residents pointing out that serious dealers are not going to organise anything that disturbs business. As a man from Aulnay said, “It’s the state that’s very happy to see drugs flood into the ghettos.” The underground economy in all forms thrives in the cités, but that’s not what lies behind this outbreak.
Some politicians claim to see the hand of Al-Qaeda behind it all, which is a coded way of saying that the proper response to these youth’s actions is a bloodbath. But even the charge that it is a consciously Islamic upsurge or that imams are leading it is totally wrong. Muslim leaders in the cités have been sending out their followers to try and pour water on the outbreaks since the beginning. Even if they sympathise with the youth against the government, they are against what they consider unruly behaviour. The Union of French Islamic Organisations issued a fatwa (religious ruling) forbidding all Muslims to participate in or contribute to “any action that blindly hits private or public property or could constitute an attack on someone’s life.”
The French government’s attitude toward Islam is two-faced. It attacks the rights of Muslims under the guise of secularism. It banned women wearing a head covering from entering a school – as if depriving observant young Muslim women of an education is anything but racism and more oppression of women. At the same time, Sarkozy has spent great efforts to pull the imams under the government’s wing, so that the government presides over their appointment and financing, and in some ways turn them into an organised arm of the state to be used to control immigrant communities. In Aulnay, a woman remarked, “Every time something like this happens they build a new mosque. That’s not what all of us want.”
The basic problem with this revolt, as far as the powers that be are concerned, is not who is behind it, but that no one is. No one started it, so there is no one to call it off. The foreign media have exaggerated certain aspects of the fighting. There have been few full-scale pitched battles, and even the hit-and-run actions have left very few police seriously injured. Most youth most of the time seem to be avoiding head-on confrontations they feel they can’t win. The reason for the French government’s crisis is that whatever Sarkozy thought he was doing, the situation has gotten out of his or anyone else’s control. It has turned out to be not proof of the power of the state’s steel hand, as Sarkozy may have hoped, but of its limits and of the power of the streets. The state has been unable to stop these disturbances so far. Not only have their efforts failed; they have just fanned the flames, and worse, spread burning oil to every part of the country. Their state itself is not in danger, but the youth are contesting their authority.
The Minister of the Interior’s CRS, the national riot police, are said to be stretched thin and tiring. Significantly, an emergency meeting of ministers on 4 November included not only Sarkozy and the various ministers responsible for aspects of life in France’s ghettos, but also the Defence Minister. Calling out the army, however, may not be a solution either, especially in the longer run. In one town in department 93, a shopkeeper who was critical of the youths for destroying property explained why he thought the government was hesitant to bring in the regular armed forces. “If the army comes it, that’s it. I’m shutting down and so will every other shopkeeper in 93. No one will stand for that.” In fact, extreme hostility to such a government action would extend far more broadly than the department and its shopkeepers. It might create a polarisation in which many people who do not stand with the youth now would consider the government unacceptable. For historical reasons that have to do with the French state’s collaboration with the Nazi occupation and with the French colonial war in Algeria and the May 1968 revolt that rocked the country, dislike of the forces of order runs particularly broad and deep in France.
This crisis has had contradictory effects on the ruling classes and what in France is called “the political class”, those who take turns running the government. It has set them against one another at some moments, and pulled them apart at others. At first Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin tried to distance himself from his Interior Minister, Sarkozy, a political rival whom he criticised for using intemperate language. For the first few days and to some extent afterward, President Jacques Chirac distanced himself from both of them with his silence. Criticism of Sarkozy’s language even came from one of Sarkozy’s fellow cabinet members, the token Arab junior minister for “Equal Opportunities”. One of the several police unions called for Sarkozy to shut up because he was endangering cops. But a week or ten days later, very few establishment figures had anything bad to say about Sarkozy in public – his big mouth had become the least of their worries.
The youth are demanding Sarkozy’s resignation. That demand is almost universally repeated by people from immigrant backgrounds and very widely supported by people of all nationalities in the cités and far more broadly, including a large part of the middle class. Sarkozy is the most open face of repression, a man who styles himself as an “American”-style politician in the sense of a boastfully reactionary bully who doesn’t try to hide it. That suits his position as Interior Minister, which is probably why his rivals gave him that office. His job is to represent the hard edge of the state against the people, using force against not only immigrants and their children but also strikers, and imposing repression in general. Maybe at first de Villepin and Chirac were hoping that Sarkozy’s arrogance would be his downfall. But no one in the political class could accept a situation in which the racaille drove the country’s chief cop from office.
The Socialist Party doesn’t dare try to take political advantage of the situation to reverse their own decline, at least right now, even though their rank and file would welcome going after Sarkozy. Their leaders argue that “restoring calm” is a precondition for even talking about anything else and explicitly refused to join the call for his resignation.
The revisionist Communist Party is no less unhappy with the situation. They try to heap all the blame on Sarkozy and the right, as if when they were in power the so-called “left” parliamentary parties didn’t take the same stance toward the cité youth (a Socialist education minister called them “savages”) – and more importantly, as if during their many years in office these parties didn’t help make French society what it is today. The party does call for Sarkozy’s resignation, but at the same time it has distanced itself far away from the cité youth. Asked on radio if youth who burn cars are “victims or offenders,” party head Marie-Georges Buffet quickly answered, “Offenders.” Her party’s press called the rebellion “the disastrous result of disastrous policies.” They clamour for an “investigation” of the death of the two boys, as if the facts weren’t clear enough – as if this were not clearly a case of right and wrong and the people had not already reached a verdict. While CP elected officials held a “peace” demonstration in front of the Prime Minister’s offices, their local forces tried to organise “peace” demonstrations in working class neighbourhoods. In the last weeks youth have risen up in towns run by Socialist, Communist and rightwing mayors without distinction because which party is in power makes no difference in their lives.
The truth is that France has seen far too many years of “calm” in the face of oppression and the kind of “peace” that comes from the downtrodden accepting their fate. What’s so good about quietly accepting the kind of life imposed not only on these youth but on the great majority of people in France? Violence within the ranks of the people seems to be at a low point right now and the spirits of the youth are soaring. Their rebellion is not a “disaster”. It is very good. It represents fresh air amid political and social suffocation – something positive amid a pervasive atmosphere of cynicism and just putting-your-head-down-and-trying-to-get-by that has prevailed for far too long since the defeat of the May 1968 rebellion and the betrayal of people’s hopes represented by the Socialist-led and revisionist-supported Mitterrand government. These youth want to fight, not vote – and they are going up against the predominant idea that nothing can be changed in a country where the electorate united against the openly fascist candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen a few years ago, only to elect Chirac and get Sarkozy. Whatever mistakes the youth may be making, this rebellion represents the best hope that France has seen in decades for a different kind of society.
Is important to note that one of the main carrots offered by Prime Minister Villepin, who plays the “good cop” to Sarkozy’s stick, is a programme that would allow youth to leave school at age 14, instead of 16, so that they can start working as “apprentices” in below-minimum wage jobs of the dead-end kind reserved for school dropouts. In other words, the best that is being promised them is more or less what their parents endured, when their parents endured that in the hopes that their children would get something better. What the phoney socialists and revisionists refuse to admit is that even if the capitalists and their government wanted to, they couldn’t offer these youth decent jobs and still employ them profitably. That’s why the ruling classes consider the unemployed and especially the immigrants and their children “useless” people to be suppressed and gotten rid of to the extent possible. Sarkozy’s policies are an expression of this underlying economic reality.
The often-heard complaint among mainstream and even many “far left” “political people” that these youth are “apolitical” is one-sided and mainly nonsense, although these youth have not gained the conscious understanding that would be necessary for them to go further, even in the limited sense of having a clear understanding of the nature of their enemies and seeking allies against them. It is not “apolitical” to reject the only life the system can offer them – it is breaking with the bourgeois definition of what politics are allowed and whether the starting point of politics is, as another article in Libération said, the “recognition” that the present system is the only possible one. In fact, not only have the youth refused to accept the circumstances in which they themselves are imprisoned, they pay more real attention to key world affairs such as in Iraq and Palestine, or at least feel them more deeply, than many of their elders who have let their opposition to imperialist crimes go soft because “their” government tries to appear uninvolved.
These youth are neither “victims” nor “offenders”. They have become makers of history, taking action on a scale that no one else has in a country where the majority feel ground down at best. They have stormed onto the stage of political life that has been forbidden to them. There is a consensus among mainstream political parties and the tolerated opposition that this outbreak should be stifled and/or crushed, but above all ended – quickly. These youth are struggling to awaken, in a country full of sleepers, and it’s about time.
“A World To Win News Service” is run by the Committee of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement. Although I have mainly focused on making English translations of French texts available on my blog, this article is a good synopsis, so I have decided to include it. It can be viewed online here.
Categories: clichy-sous-bois, france, maoism, police, riot