frontline 19.

France: Shock waves of a popular revolt

Last November France's poor suburban neighbourhoods exploded. What sparked it off was a fairly banal event - two teenagers in the Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois were accidentally electrocuted while fleeing from police. Unfortunately, it is not such a rare occurrence for young people to die as a direct or indirect result of police methods - especially those who, like these two young men, come from immigrant backgrounds. Usually such deaths are followed by local protests, and then things calm down again. But this time the reaction spread like wildfire. For three weeks France was shaken by nightly "riots" - at least that was the term used by politicians and the media to describe what was happening. It was in fact a full-scale revolt involving thousands of youth, overwhelmingly of Arab and African origin, but mostly born in France, therefore French citizens. It is worth noting that is was essentially a revolt of young men, many of them under age. But they were supported by young women, and seem mostly to have had at least the grudging approval of their families. The primary tactic was to burn cars. In the course of the revolt, over ten thousand vehicles went up in smoke. The youth also attacked anything that symbolised authority or wealth - schools, supermarkets, car showrooms, warehouses - and of course police stations.

Police forces were stretched to the limit in the face of the revolt. The reaction of the right-wing government of Dominique de Villepin was to invoke a 1956 law giving prefects - the government-appointed administrators who run France's departments (counties) - the right to declare a state of emergency, to impose curfews, ban meetings and demonstrations, control the press, ban people from going to certain places and search houses at night. Ironically, the law in question had originally been introduced during the Algerian War of Independence. Its reintroduction to deal with the revolt of today's post-colonial immigrants, the children and grandchildren of those who fought for Algeria's independence, was highly symbolic. The far Right and the more extreme members of the governing majority wanted to go further and send the army in.

Now that the dust has settled, we can begin to see the effects of this revolt. At the time, the hard-line right-wing Minster of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, referred to the young men concerned as "scum" and "rabble" and talked of "sandblasting" the estates where they live. He also said that 75 per cent of those concerned had been in trouble with the police and that the riots had "nothing spontaneous" about them but were "perfectly organised" by "gangs of yobbos" or "fundamentalists". This sort of talk by Sarkozy and his imitators was widely echoed in the media.

But quite a different reality has emerged. Around 3000 young people were arrested during those three weeks, half of them under 18. About 600 received prison sentences. But the statistics that emerged from the court proceedings showed that in fact 75-80 per cent of those arrested had no previous criminal record. Take the example of the juvenile court in Bobigny, administrative centre of the Seine-Saint-Denis department, where the revolt started. Of 95 minors brought before the court, only 17 were previously known to the police. And some of them were known not for any offences they had committed, but because they were considered by social workers as in need of care and protection.

As for what happened being a revolt - it's official. There exists in France a rather peculiar institution called "General Information" (RG). The role of the RG is to keep the government informed as to what is happening in the country, specifically anything likely to pose a threat to law and bourgeois order. Its agents spend a fair amount of their time snooping around left-wing and trade union movements to gather information. But their role is to do precisely that - gather reliable information, not engage in populist rhetoric like Sarkozy.

In a report dated November 23rd, they had this to say (1). "France has experienced a form of unorganised insurrection, with the emergence of a popular revolt without leaders and without proposing a programme. Just in case that wasn't clear enough, they added: "No manipulation can be discerned which would accredit the thesis of a generalised and organised uprising - each group of youth in each neighbourhood acted autonomously. Specifically, Islamic fundamentalists played "no role in the unleashing of violence or in its spreading". The RG added that in fact Muslims had "every interest in a rapid return to calm to avoid amalgams i.e. to avoid being held responsible for the troubles, in a situation where there is already widespread Islamophobia. And in fact the only interventions that came from mosques and Muslim associations during the events were to appeal for calm.

The RG also noted that the far Left "didn't see anything coming and is fuming at not having been at the origin of such a movement. Well, the far Left was hardly "fuming". But it certainly had nothing to do with what happened for the simple reason that, like the rest of the French Left, it is largely absent from those poor housing estates - described by the RG as "urban ghettos of an ethnic character" - which were the centre of the revolt.

The report concluded that the strong identity felt by the young people who revolted "was not only based on their ethnic or geographical origins, but on their social condition as those excluded from French society. They "feel penalised by their poverty, the colour of their skin and their names" and they have an "absence of perspectives", particularly in relation to work.

It is important to understand the two interlinked aspects of this revolt. It was on the one hand a social revolt, an outburst of anger and frustration. These youth were rebelling against their present - life in the grim housing estates around Frances‚ towns and cities, with few facilities, living in poverty, suffering police harassment. They were also rebelling against their future prospects, or the lack of them - unemployment or low-paid jobs with no prospects. In the Clichy-sous-Bois-Montfermeil area where the revolt started, the unemployment rate for 15-24 year-olds is 31.1 per cent. In the neighbourhoods where the revolt spread, the percentage of those leaving school without qualifications is 30-40 per cent, as against 17.7 per cent nationally (2).

But young people of Arab and African origin do not just suffer the social consequences of neo-liberalism, as do many other young people. They suffer these consequences in a way that is magnified by the racism they suffer, a racism that is endemic in French society. This racism is expressed on a social level, by discrimination in housing and employment. Several surveys have demonstrated that job applications from people with Arab or African names and whose address has the code "93" (for Seine-Saint-Denis) have little chance of being successful. The fathers and grandfathers of many of these young people came to France during the post-war boom, to work as unskilled labour on building sites and in car factories. And in spite of many of them having educational qualifications that their parents did not have, they are faced with the reality that their future also lies in jobs at the bottom of the social scale. Racism is also expressed in access to leisure activity. Night clubs routinely refuse entry to Black and North African youth. It is of course illegal but it happens anyway. And racism is perhaps above all expressed by daily contact with the police who constantly harass them and demand their identity papers on the slightest pretext. It is also shown in ingrained contempt and intolerance for the cultures of immigrants and their descendants. Muslims suffer particularly from this, as witnessed by the ban on schoolgirls wearing the Islamic headscarf - a ban that has been extended to many public sector employees.

The revolt was an expression of all that. No doubt as a form of struggle, burning cars and schools leaves a lot to be desired. Particularly when the cars in question belonged to the people living on the same estates. But it was the only way for them to make themselves heard. The well-known Muslim intellectual Tarik Ramadan commented after the riots: "Over the last few weeks I have spent a lot of time listening to men and women who live in the pour suburbs. The vast majority told me they knew that violence was not the solution, then added "but it's the only way anyone will listen to us in this country‚". French international footballer Lilian Thuram reacted against Sarkozy's declarations by saying: "You have to know why people become like that! It's not gratuitous aggressiveness, I don't believe that. You have to see what's behind it". Sarkozy tried to brush this off by pointing out that Thuram was a highly-paid footballer, so what did he know about it. But unlike Sarkozy, Thuram is Black, and he grew up in the same sort of neighbourhoods as the riots broke out in, and suffered the same racism.

In any case, these young people have propelled the issue of their situation into the forefront of French society. Now the discriminations that they suffer from are admitted by politicians and the media. The discrimination in jobs and housing is now out in the open. More concretely, after only ten days of rioting funds that had been cut off to associations working in these neighbourhoods were restored, and money was made available for grants to school students from poor families. And beyond that their revolt has acted as a catalyst for something that was already under way before - the raising of the "race question" in France.

This is something very difficult for French society to deal with, even on the left. In France, perhaps more than elsewhere, everyone is supposed to be equal - the idea of equality is deeply rooted in society. This has a positive side in the radical egalitarian consciousness that helps to explain the mass movements of workers and youth that have regularly punctuated recent history. But it can also have a negative side, by refusing to see really existing inequality. For example, there is tenacious resistance, including on the left, to any form of affirmative action on the basis of race or national origin. In addition, the idea of any separate identity is quite contrary to the ideology of the Republic. The French bourgeois republic was built in a centralised, monolithic way. This led to the forced "Francisation" of Bretons, Basques, Alsatians, etc., with sustained offensives aiming to suppress their national-cultural identities and languages. Everyone is supposed to be French, full stop.

One rather ironic result of this mentality is that whereas the press is full of the threat of Islamic fundamentalism and now these violent young men in the suburbs, no one actually knows exactly how many Muslims there are in France, or how many Black people, or how many second- and third- generation immigrants. Because the government refuses to collect statistics based or religion or national origin. But it is perfectly clear that although all French people are equal, some are more equal than others. And it's a question not just of class, but also of race. France's immigrant populations are still paying the price of the racism that was born with the slave trade and colonialism.

Coming to terms with this did not start with the revolt of last autumn, but it has sped things up. A Representative Council of Black Organisations (CRAN) has been set up, to encourage "the emergence of a black consciousness". On the bicentenary of Napoleon's victory at Austerlitz, a collective of citizens of France's overseas departments denounced the fact that the Emperor had restored slavery, which had been abolished by the Revolution. It is particularly significant that this comes from the "overseas departments". There are four of these departments - Martinique and Guadeloupe in the Caribbean, Guyane on the South American mainland and Reunion in the Indian Ocean. Their inhabitants are overwhelmingly Black. But they are citizens of France with full citizenship rights and can come and live in France. Many of them did come to live and work in France during the post-war boom. Unlike the immigrants from North and Black Africa, they had access to public sector jobs that were at that time reserved for French citizens, such as the post office. And they and their children found that because of their skin colour they were not considered quite as French as they might have thought. So there has been a development of black consciousness, both in France and in the overseas departments. Sarkozy had to cancel a planned visit to Martinique and Guadeloupe in the face of widespread protests. And there have been moves to bring together what an appeal launched last year called "the indigenous people of the Republic" - those who are non-white, especially those who come from France's former colonies.

Last February some members of parliament from the right-wing UMP party, which has a majority in the National Assembly, pushed through a proposal that the "positive role" of French colonisation should be taught in schools. This provoked widespread opposition, but attempts by Socialist and Communist parliamentarians to have it annulled failed, so a broad movement took shape to campaign for its repeal. A united front was formed that went, exceptionally, from the right wing of the Socialist Party, via the Communist Party and the Greens, to Lutte Ouvriere and the LCR. The campaign was gathering speed when President Chirac stepped in and annulled the clause in question. He has further announced that May 10th will become a day of commemoration of the abolition of slavery - May 10th is the day the French Parliament adopted, in 2001, a law characterising slavery and the slave trade as crimes against humanity. All of this is of course symbolic and will not fundamentally change racist attitudes. But symbolic does not mean meaningless, and it would not be happening had the people most concerned by racism not begun to mobilise.

The question of the non-representation, or at least the extreme under-representation, of France's non-white citizens in its political institutions and in the media is also being posed. Socialist Party members of immigrant origin are raising the issue within the party. And if the established parties do not manage to integrate the non-white population, it will find other avenues of expression. In the 2004 European elections, the "Euro-Palestine" list won significant results in the working-class suburbs, including some of the storm centres of the November revolt. Although this list had a particular appeal to people of Arab origin, surveys showed that many immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean also voted for it.

All this raises many debates. The self-organisation of the oppressed is not part of French political culture, not even, and perhaps especially not, on the left. The idea of any specific consciousness, other than a common social and political consciousness, is seen as divisive, even by some of the victims of racism. An article in Le Monde (3) spoke of them being torn "between a desire for integration and a demand for recognition of their specificity". It did not seem to occur to the journalist that the recognition of a specific identity, a specific history, a specific oppression might be the pre-condition for real integration. In fact, when French politicians and journalists talk, as they often do, of the need for immigrants to "become integrated", they actually mean for them to become assimilated into French society as it exists, to abandon any other identity. This is not, in fact, a specifically French problem. It is posed in most countries of Western Europe. Nations whose identities were based on white populations and Christian cultures, more or less secularised over time, have now to come to terms with the presence of significant non-white, non-Christian populations, many of whom come from former colonies. This challenges ingrained notions of cultural superiority and implicitly or explicitly racist attitudes. There are now moves in several European countries to impose language and "culture" tests on those seeking citizenship - often exposing in the process some rather threadbare notions of culture. The only progressive way out of this situation is for the countries in question not only to recognise the national and cultural diversity of their populations, and to see it as something positive, but to come to terms with their own colonial past.

The French Left is very much absent from the areas where the revolt broke out, which are often described as a "political desert". This is misleading. There are in fact many associations active in these neighbourhoods, sometimes of a religious character - not only Muslim, also Christian - sometimes not. But there is little contact with the French Left, and some mutual suspicion. You only have to look at a demonstration or a congress to see that the French Left is very largely white. It is now becoming increasingly urgent to overcome this situation. A polarisation is taking place in French society. On the one hand racist and reactionary ideas have real support, as is seen by the renewed activity of the far Right since the revolt and widespread support for the positions of Sarkozy, who is blatantly courting the racist vote in his bid to be president. This has to be countered and it cannot be countered without building an alliance between the Left and those who are on the receiving end of racism. There have been some positive signs. There were demonstrations against the state of emergency supported by the LCR, sections of the Communist Party and many associations. But the response was not on the scale it should have been. Much more needs to be done and the radical Left has a particular responsibility to close the gap between the working-class movement and France's non-white population.

Murray Smith


1) Quotes from the report, as published in Le Monde, December 8th, 2005. 2) Figures quoted in Le Monde Diplomatique, December 2005. 3) Le Monde, December 6th, 2005.