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French riots : when the youth dances with the wolves

vendredi 11 novembre 2005

The French Riots : Dancing with the Wolves

by Yves Coleman

IN FRENCH SUBURBAN slang, to “dance with the wolves” means to provoke the cops, make them run and, obviously, to escape without being arrested. The unfortunate reality is much less romantic. The three weeks of recent riots may be seen as a long overdue political response to the profound racism of French society ; but in this writer’s view this uprising is more an index of desperation of the French youth, of all national origins, than the beginning of a new political movement.

The big stick....

As a result of the riots 4,770 persons have been arrested. At the beginning, the governement tried to persuade the media that the « rioters » were mainly foreigners but we know now that it was a lie. 90 % had a French ID although 60 % were children of immigrants (who themselves may have got French nationality after a certain number of years of stay in France). Half of the persons arrested were under eighteen and the courts have delivered severe judgements. 422 adults have already received jail sentences, from two months up to four years, and 577 minors have been addressed to the children’s justice (118 have been put in closed youth institutions).

To better control the situation, the government invoked a 1955 law from France’s colonial war in Algeria, which allows for cities to impose curfews and other emergency powers (including censorhip of the press, banning public meetings, searches in private homes at night without any warrant, creation of spécial prisoners camps, etc.). This exceptional « state of emergency » which was supposed to last only 12 day was then been extended for 3 months by the Parliament. In January 2006 the governement decided not to use it anymore but it may be reactivated at any time

Once the riots were over, the government announced a series of repressive measures :

- against « fake mariages » : in other words, it will be more difficult for a foreigner to marry a French man or woman ;
- against polygamy : as part of the Right wing has accused French-African kids from polygamic families to have a leading role in the riots, the governement will be stricter against those who practice polygamy in France (the numbers vary from 10 000 to 30 000 African families, but it’s impossible to have serious figures until now) ;
- against foreign students (more criteria will be necessary to get a student visa, they will be asked to have a personal project, etc.),
- against illegal workers (more will be expelled in 2006 than in 2005) ;
- against the « rioters » who have been arrested and did not have a French ID (but, hopefully, on this point the minister of Interior announced too quickly that they would be sent back to their native countries and discovered afterwards that it was not that easy to do legally).

...and the carot

After having used the big stick the government has made several promises : all the unemployed will be interviewed during the next 3 months in the unemployment agencies ; 20 000 short-terms contracts, specially designed for young people under 25, will be reserved for the poorest areas (a similar kind of job invented by the Left in 1997 to provide cheap labor for municipalities and NGOs had been cancelled in 2002 when the Right took power) ; 5000 pedagogical assistants will be employed in the most « sensitive » districts (those jobs too were cancelled 3 years ago) ; the number of grants for pupils will be tripled and more money will given to the local associations which help the youth by providing free education help, or offer dance, sports or music classes, for example (the government had drastically diminished their fundings). The government has also decided to enable bosses to hire apprentices at age 14 instead of 16, a big step backwards for working class youth which will only be targeted at the kids of poor families. (Already 68 % of the pupils are oriented to technical schools at the age of 15.) This measure is aimed at destroying the “unique college” (a common school for all the pupils under 15), preventing them from gaining better general knowledge and qualifications and, obviously, impeding them from going to university. And it will enable the bosses to hire teenagers for much less than the minimum wage (50 or 75% less). But let’s go back to the spark which put the plain on fire.

Immediate causes....

Everything started because of the deaths on October 27, in Clichy-sous-Bois, a poor north-eastern suburb of Paris, of two French-African teenagers, Bouna and Zyed. They had just finished playing football with other friends when they saw some policemen. Scared, they ran and escaped into an electrical power facility, where they were electrocuted.

Spontaneously the local youth mobilized in the streets and protested, burning garbage cans, cars, etc. But it could have ended or lasted two or three days in the small town of Clichy-sous-Bois, had not Minister of the Interior Sarkozy accused the two dead youth of planning a theft and if, on October 30, a Muslim prayer room had not been hit by a teargas canister. The Minister of the Interior lied a second time, accusing the “rioters” of having thrown this police canister.

The Minister of the Interior’s lies, the violent and racist language he repeatedly used in front of TV cameras, the initial unwillingness to open an inquiry about the death of Bouna and Zyed, and the open contempt for the Muslims choking in their prayer room who received no explanation or apology from the highest authorities of the State — all these factors exasperated not only the youth of Clichy-sous-Bois but a significant part of the French youth who live in working class and poor districts.

In subsequent days, the situation worsened in many Parisian suburbs and then on a national level. One estimates that around 15 000 people (in a country of 62 millions of inhabitants) participated to the riots, by small groups from 10 to 50 people. To counter them, the governement mobilised 12 000 policemen and « gendarmes » (126 have been wounded, a dozen quite seriously).

Although the media have dramatized the situation, only 25 departments over 96 have known riots and 300 over 36 000 municipalities were concerned. Nevertheless, the rioters have burnt or dammaged over 9500 cars and all sorts of public institutions : post offices (50), gymnasiums, schools (250 over 58 000), buses (140), youth centres, theaters, child care centers, etc.

Young people wanted to express their solidarity with the two dead teenagers of Clichy, to protest against the attitudes of the cops, to protest against the teargas cannister thrown into a Muslim prayer room. Many of them remembered past examples of police “bavures” — acts of cop violence which end in the death of local youths, whether delinquent or not (only between 1981 and 1991, 189 youth died in these “incidents”). They remembered that most of the time cops are not condemned by courts, or treated very lightly, when they kill a young inhabitant of these so-called “sensitive districts.”

The media also played a certain role in the extension of the riots, because minority groups in each suburb wanted their district to become “famous.” Burning cars or dustbins and attacking cops or firemen became a way to get on TV for one night and to show that they had as much “balls” as the youth of other suburbs (young girls and women did not participate at all to these riots, although many of them understood their reasons ; as one of them put it joking : “For us there is a permanent curfew in the estates”, referring to the women’s difficult position).

Another factor played its role : the fact that cops and firemen were massively mobilized pushed them to intervene massively. This was the aim of the small groups of rioters : they would burn some garbage cans, then three cars of cops and three cars of firemen would come ; then the rioters would go to another area, attack the cops or firemen, more cops would come, etc.

It took some days for the rioters to find new tactics to organize themselves — for example, in order not to be recognized some went to other districts, swapping their place of intervention — and it also took some days to the forces of repression to understand their tactics and to find the appropriate answer. For political reasons, the government preferred to fall into the rioters’ trap by sending a disproportionate number of cops into the districts, both to show the population that they were mastering the situation but also to over-dramatize it.

...and deep origins of the youth revolt

Obviously a large debate has started in all the political circles to explain why this revolt happened. At the beginning the right wing blamed the « islamists » or even the « Muslims » but soon this ridiculous accusation was dropped down, specially when the most important Muslim organisations denounced the riots and mobilised their members in the districts to cool things down. The Muslim religious groups were not very efficient, but at least it proved the riot did not have any religious motives. Then the right started to denounce the recently arrived African kids, the « neglectful » parents, etc. The Left obviously pointed to other causes, including obviously the arrogant and racist attitudes of the policemen. In the streets, day and night, the cops systematically ask every Black or North-African youth they come across for their identity papers, often insulting them to provoke a violent reaction. (Nationally, the number of cops is permanently expanding in France. Between 1974 and 2003, it jumped from 99,144 cops to 143,836. These figures don’t include the permanently growing number of private municipal force. Apart from the aggressive and often racist attitude of the police towards the youth of the working class districts, it’s also all their social environment which is in crisis.

There are in France 751 ZUS (Sensitive urban zones, or better, poor districts) with a total population of 4.2 million inhabitants whose situation has just been getting worse and worse for years. What are the main problems ?

Unemployment : up to 40 or 50% in some districts for the sons and daughters of working class immigrants, as opposed to a national average of 10%. Bad housing : old decaying tower blocks mainly built in the 1960s and ‘70s, first for French workers, then for French settlers who were obliged to leave Algeria after 1963 and then also for foreign workers who often lived in third-world slums around the main big towns until 1968. Contrary to what the foreign medias have said the private and state-financed popular estates were never populated massively by immigrants and their families. And today this is true only in some mini districts or some towers inside an estate. In general, these estates are geographically isolated, lack in public transport, public services, shops, etc. Bad public education : young, inexperienced teachers (38% are less than 30 years old in the Ile-de-France region, the largest in France with a population of 10 million people), learning on their jobs with the most difficult pupils ; a high percentage of school absenteeism, a high level of violence (10% of the schools concentrate half of the so-called “acts of violence” including insults, physical aggression, thefts, rackets, etc.) and a high percentage of pupils with foreign-born parents (10% of schools for students aged between 10 and 15 have more than 40% of pupils with foreign-born parents). Bad public health : half as many hospitals in the poor areas as in the rest of France ; fewer private doctors and drugstores, more problems of obesity among children, less care for teeth, bad vision, etc. A very difficult situation for women : it’s the working class districts that have the highest percentage of single mothers living below the poverty line. In the Seine-Saint-Denis department (1,3 million inhabitants, at the gates of Paris) half of these mothers are defined as “poor.” Social scientists, social workers, “mediators,” community workers and rap artists were expecting this kind of event, which has already happened before — either in Parisian suburbs or in other towns — though never on such a large scale. Statistics about so-called “urban violence” jumped from 3,462 acts of violence in 1993 to more than 100,000 in 2005. During the first 10 months of this year, 28,041 cars and 17,489 garbage cans were burnt and there were 6,004 incidents involving some sorts of “missiles” (stones, Molotov cocktails, etc.).

This means that the state administrators and politicians had all the information at hand but ignored it for obvious reasons : It would cost too much to restore all that has been slowly destroyed during the last 30 years : jobs, public housing, public services, cultural centers, shops, cinemas, etc. — in short the whole economy and social life of these districts.

The first important riots in Les Minguettes (near Lyon) in summer 1981 had provoked a “March for Equity” in 1983, a wonderful name which later became known as the “March of the Beurs” (Beurs is an ethnic slang word for Arab and has no political content). Around one hundred thousand people gathered in Paris on December 3, 1983, raising many hopes in the French-immigrant youth at that time. But only three weeks later, the Socialist Prime minister was already attacking the religious practices of the North African Muslim workers of Talbot-Poissy who were on strike against mass firings in the automobile industry.

The Left in power, and especially the Socialist Party (SP), was only able to coopt a certain number of the local leaders for its local municipal teams (at a very low level of responsibility), to finance local or national associations (SOS Racisme, founded in 1984, being the most famous one), which became heavily dependent on the SP.

The Left did not launch a massive program of investment in education, health, transport and culture — to mention only some basic needs — preferring to talk about racism and multiculturalism for years, instead of acting against the plague of racism and dealing with its deep economic roots.

The SP preferred to select a minute elite of obedient leaders and to recruit underpaid social workers of North African origin in the working class suburbs, rather than to deal with the problems of mass unemployment.

From “Security” to Despair

In October 1990, a second wave of revolt exploded at Vaulx-en-Velin. Since then, the Left and the Right have decided to launch various “politiques de la ville” (town policies) conducted by a “ministère de la ville’”(Town ministry, created in May 1991), which led to the very slow restoration of some districts and the creation in 2003 of “free zones,” areas where companies get important tax advantages if they agree to invest in these districts and to hire 25% of local staff. These “free zones” have had a limited impact for the moment and created only 90,000 jobs. From the 1990s another important change occurred : the Left started to adopt the same language as the Right and Far Right and talked all the time of “security” instead of dealing with social insecurity.

The rebellious youth of the 1980s, who had some hopes in reforms or who held more or less radical views, have been replaced by totally desperate kids and young adults who know they have no future, and in fact nothing to lose. To be beaten up, to be arrested by the cops and to go to jail, is seen not as a failure but as an heroic act, as a necessary test. All my friends who live in working class suburbs have stories to tell about weapons circulating in schools, physical fights with baseball bats between rival youth gangs, permanent police harassment, etc.

And as regards racism towards French people of African and North-African descent, young workers have also their depressing stories : bad nicknames invented by French coworkers or foremen, suspicions or accusations to be linked to Ben Laden ideas if they openly practice their religion at work, difficulties to get a qualified job even if you have a university degree, etc.

The general situation in the suburbs has also worsened because of the development of an important “parallel economy” based on drug trafficking (mainly cannabis) and trafficking all kinds of stolen goods.

Today, when right-wing politicians say that criminals are manipulating the riots, most policemen say the opposite : the small districts which are most controlled by the criminal gangs have not known any “rioting” — guess why !

But one must add that French suburbs are not homogeneous : You have small houses (“pavillons”) next to huge old tower blocks falling to pieces or new renovated estates. The situation can change from one street to another, or one block to another. Therefore it’s difficult to talk of “the” suburbs. The only certainty is that the poorer the suburbs are, the more immigrants (or sons of immigrants with French ID) and unemployed you will find living there.

Who has been involved ?

The violence has involved all sorts of people from 10-year-old kids to a very small minority of delinquent adults of 22-25 years, but it had no political content and certainly not an Islamist one, contrary to the fairytales invented by some journalists. (Radical Islamists — i.e. jihadist-terrorists — try to keep a low profile. As for the rioters themselves, the attempts of local Muslim leaders to issue fatwas against the violence were regarded as simply irrelevant.)

In somecases there was some imitation between youth from rival suburbs, whether organized in formal gangs or not ; in isolated small towns where they burnt four or five cars, it was just for fun and to attract media notice. All observers note that the big difference between these riots and those of the 1980s and ‘90s is that the majority of today’s rioters are much younger (10-16) and that there is a very significant gap between the teenagers and their 20 to 30-year-old brothers and sisters.

One must also note the explosion of what is labelled “juvenile delinquency :” the statistics jumped from 72,242 to 142,824 minors arrested, between 1973 and 1996, 18% being charged for a “crime” or an “offence.” Obviously one must be very cautious about these statistics, which are permanently manipulated by the different state institutions. But at least they show, on a long term perspective, that the State has a more repressive attitude towards the younth, repression which obviously fuels the hate against cops and judges.

Local Spontaneous Mobilization ?

To my knowledge there has not been many examples of “positive” self-organization of the inhabitants apart from a working class district in Toulouse, where the anarchosyndicalists have been active for many years. In Clichy-sous-Bois some groups of Muslim adults (‘moderate’ not right-wing Muslims or Islamists) succeeded in “cooling down” the youth. But the intervention of religious authorities in political struggle can’t be considered as something positive for revolutionaries.

An association (Au-delà des mots, Beyond the words) was also created in the same town to help the families of the two dead youths and to push for a serious legal enquiry about what happened. In other suburbs, small groups of parents and inhabitants gathered every night in front of their district’s huge tower blocks to talk with the kids and try to convince them not to burn cars. But apparently it did not lead to many political discussions. The Left and the Right mayors mobilized their staff and sympathizers. They organized local meetings, but these reunions were boycotted by the youth and attended only by people over 40 or 50, local animators and municipal councellors.

As regards negative local organization, in two Parisian suburbs the right-wing governmental party organized unarmed patrols by local citizens with mobile phones, cameras and fire extinguishers. There has also been some private local initiatives by people who wanted to protect their cars and property and who cooperated with the cops. Hopefully, this right-wing (or worse, if the National Front had infiltrated them) militia phenomenon has been quite microscopic and Le Pen said to his troops to stay quiet and calmly wait for the next elections.

The Media : from the rioter to the successful small businessman

Now that the “events” are over, we discovered that French TV did not show the same images as the world media, and that the most violent scenes appeared only on foreign TV, which may partly explain why French people did not understand the tone of the American medias.

After having chased the “rioters” to interview them with little success, the medias have now switched to another theme : the successful small businessmen (of African and North African descent) who succeed to make money and be efficient entrepreneurs and good citizens in the most adverse situation !

The parties

What has been the attitude of the reformist Left, and of the Right ? The Socialist and Communist parties (SP and CP) wanted to “reestablish law and order” and did not push for new elections or for Chirac’s departure. The CP opposed the reintroduction of the 1955 emergency law, while the SP had first a neutral attitude and then changed its mind when it was extended for 3 months.

The SP preferred to support a “good” law-and-order policy than to support the youth, while the CP in some towns tryied a bit more empathic attitude toward the youth without showing “anti-cop” attitudes.

Before the crisis, the Right was already divided, discredited and hated for its permanent attacks on the living standards and basic social rights of a majority of the population. A fraction of the Right may have considered the possibility of a new Gaullist-Centrist-Socialist government alliance, but did not make any move in this direction. Chirac could have asked Sarkozy to leave the government as a symbolic change, but he preferred for the moment to combine a tough policy with the announcement of some symbolic “social” measures. Anyway this Right-wing government has a simple short-term policy : to stay in power until 2007.

Even if Prime Minister Villepin has admitted that the government made a mistake in drastically diminishing the funding of local community associations, he keeps insisting that the cops made no mistakes. He even talked about the “social imbalances created by an uncontrolled flow of clandestine immigration” (for years one of the National Front’s arguments).

Collective Bargaining by Riot ?

Concretely the “suburbs” have “won” nothing for the moment. In a way, things have got much worse for their inhabitants, especially the youngest ones, for whom everything will be more difficult after this movement. But the rebels succeeded temporarily on one point. Issues that were denied or considered irrelevant are now plainly visible : the misery of some districts, discrimination at work and at school, the despair of some significant layers of the French population.

That’s basically what the rap singers, sociologists and social workers who sympathized with the youth were saying. They acted as the interpreters-spokespeople of the youth in the media and said : “When young people don’t have words to express their anger and frustration they act violently to be heard.”

The problem is that many people are ready to distort the message of that revolt. The Left politicians agree to say “The best molotov cocktail is a ballot” — and the majority of the Far Left and anti-globalization movement have no other concrete perspective than the elections of 2007.

The anti-racist Left and a part of the Far Left present “positive discrimination” (i.e. affirmative action) and an increased political role for Muslim religious leaders as solutions, as if the American and British models were not also based on racism and racial discrimination.

Some people argue that in Britain and the States there is a bigger “non-white” petty-bourgeoisie and larger “non-white middle Classes” than in France. But these anti-racists forget that social discrimination acts not only on the basis of color but on the basis of class, that there are millions of young kids who have French parents, whose grandparents were French, and have also very little future.

One of the unexpected consequences of these riots has been the creation of a Federation of 60 African and West-Indian organizations : the CRAN, which wants to put forward specific demands for the “French Blacks” — a new word at least in political circles, even it’s used by the youth for 20 years - and at the same time remain in the traditional Republican, universalist (Americans would probably say colour-blind) scheme. The future will tell if this is a new development in French politics and to new and strong “ethnocentric” tendencies in the French-African or French-West-Indian population.

“Good” and “Bad” Violence ?

On the internet and in radical circles there has been some debates about what attitude revolutionaries should have to youth violence. The main trotskyst and anarchist groups condemned the « violences », in a rather abstract way, while a minority of smal autonomous or anarcho-syndicalist groups supported the rioters, but without any criticism. Nevertheless one can’t put the violence against persons on the same level as the violence against objects, goods and buildings.

In other words, when rioters have burnt several buses with the passengers inside, physically attacked the cashiers of a supermarket, set a housing center for immigrant workers on fire, or beaten to death an old man who tried to calm them down, there is no way such acts can be supported. They must be denounced as what they are : a symptom of the war between the poor, a symptom of capitalist barbarism.

The question is different if we are talking about burning cars or dumpsters, and even the inhabitants of the suburbs saw these actions with different eyes — unless their own car was burning. When schools or post offices are burning we should not be afraid of criticizing these acts, even if we can understand them as acts of revolt. But it was not necessary either to call the rioters “delinquents” or “idiots” as one revolutionary group did (Lutte ouvrière)nor to condemn the rioters “violence” in an abstract way, because we, revolutionaries, are not systematically opposed to violence. As regards the violence against cops, the fact that they are armed does not justify every act against them, even if they kill, beat up or torture innocent people. Our attitude is not only linked to the fact that this kind of violence leads nowhere because of a temporarily unfavorable relation of forces. In the present political situation, wounding or shooting at cops (it happened in 2 districts) has no positive political result.

If revolutionaries were in a position to do something, they would rather choose to politically influence the cops, propose to them that they leave the police force or refuse to obey orders. Romanticizing physical (or worse armed) fights with cops leads nowhere. The Italian Far Left has paid and is still paying a hard price for such illusions.

As to the Far left or anarchist groups, none has important roots in the poorest parts of the main working class districts (the CP lost its roots a long time ago, or where it retains them it’s not among the youth), and certainly not among the French of North African or African descent.

Most of the towers and big estates populated in the 1960s and 1970s by French and foreign workers have been abandoned by those who had enough money either to buy with a long credit their own little house in another district or to live in smaller and better buildings. So this is why now the poorest suburbs and estates are predominantly populated by the poorest and most recent immigrants, or by the poorest French who did not have enough money to move.

And the same phenomenon applies to foreigners or immigrants, when they can gather enough money. As soon as a North African or African boy or girl succeeds at school, and goes to university, he or she moves into a slightly or much “better” area. The 18-25 year olds who remain in those districts are generally the ones who have left school at 16 (often stopped attending classes regularly at 13-14), and have had only shitty, part-time jobs or unemployment benefits. Or the one who have a university degree but cant find any decently paid job.

The people of North African or African background who sympathize with the reformist Left or the revolutionary Left are usually those who have a regular job, some modest skill (blue or white collar), and are often state employees. There is a big gap between those who have a job and those who are unemployed ; and no political group has been able to fill this gap in the last 40 years.

Some groups (mostly Trotyskyist) tried to “politicize” the issue by demanding that Sarkozy quit the government and/or Chirac resign. These slogans mainly address themselves to the traditional trade union, CP or SP militants or sympathizers who have a more or less safe job, live in a safe suburb or a safe district of a suburb, and who still have illusions about the reformist Left. Most of these traditional targets of the revolutionary Left don’t have African or North African parents.

The revolutionary Left had little to say to the rioters and to all the young people who, even if they did not approve of all their actions, more or less sympathized with them. This part of the youth had never experienced solidarity — neither on a local level, nor in high school strikes, nor in a temporary workplace.

And if they have had some brief taste of it, it certainly did not convince them to adopt the classic methods of struggle of the working class movement. Now that the riots are over, and that the judges have been very tough with more than 1000 people, the revolutionary groups have been very shy to mobilize for an amnesty and to create links with the families of all the adults condemned to jail or youth who are going to be closely followed by the judges and other repressive institutions.

This is where the problem lies, not in a change of minister, a change of President, a 6th Republic or a new Left government. Whether the revolutionary Left will be able to take the “bull by the horns” remains to be seen. And it will be necessary to deal both with the classical questions of solidarity between all the sections of the working class (employed and unemployed) but also with racism in a more efficient way than until now. If not, French people of African and North-African descent may well take the blind alley of African or Arab nationalism.

Since the end of the “riots” there has not been any significant solidarity movement towards the approximately 800 people who are still in jail today because of their participation to the street fights. A small group of mainly anarchist and “autonomist” (inspired by the Italian “autonomia” of the late 1970s) people has taken some initiatives, like a petition signed by intellectuals, a weekly meeting and a demonstration (regrouping only 200 persons !) on New Year’s Eve in front of La Santé, the only jail in central Paris. This lack of interest and solidarity strongly contrasts with the fierce discussions inside the Left and Far Left about the 2007 presidential candidates. All these signs indicate that new revolts will certainly take place in the poorest suburbs of France and may well be used by reactionary forces, if the Left and Far Left stay fascinated by electoral politics.

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