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About the french riots, october-november 2005

About the french riots, the point of view of a comrade from the Organisation communiste libertaire.

On October 27, 2005, in Clichy-sous-bois, a small town in the Paris suburbs, two kids who were returning from playing football died because of a police identity check, and a third boy, a 17 year-old Turk whose parents have no legal papers, was seriously burned. They were scared. Why ? Because police checks in poor suburban communities (what the French call cités) are arbitrary, often violent, always humiliating and may last for hours, and all that just for nothing. Zyad (17) and Banou (15) didn’t want to go through that, and they died for that reason. Since then, the riots that started in Clichy-sous-bois because of their death have spread to other cités in the Paris area, then throughout the country. That was the unavoidable outcome of at least eight years of increasingly tough security measures and over thirty years of deterioration of the social situation, orchestrated by left as well as right-wing governments.

A minister of the interior who touched off the explosion

This isn’t the first time there has been rioting when a kid in an underprivileged area died after a problem with the police (remember Vaulx-en-Velin, in 1990, after young Thomas Claudio died). But the riots remained confined to the immediate area or the surrounding neighborhoods. Some groups did try to politicize those revolts, but every effort has been made to turn them into mere law-breaking, to reduce them to nothing.

The minister of the interior’s statements, first in June 2005 at the “cité des 4000” in La Courneuve, “we’re going to karcherize the cité, clean it up, literally and figuratively, clean out the hoodlums” and then on October 26, 2003 in Argenteuil, “We’re going to rid you of that scum (racaille)”, were felt as real provocations.
The weight of the words, then the fact that the government lied from the start about the causes of the two kids’ death (claiming they had robbed a construction site shed, that they would not have been prosecuted, it was just an identity check, and so forth), followed by the tear bombing of a mosque didn’t help any.

The real reasons behind the revolt

These riots express the despair felt by the most marginalized part of a no-future generation. Nonetheless, they should be put in the perspective of the government’s strategy of creating tension and putting down social movements (transport and postal workers’ strikes, high school students’ movement in the Spring of 2005, etc.) These struggles are signs of the same social insecurity.
For years now, the poorest and most scorned elements of the people, underprivileged, often of immigrant descent, have been suffering from massive unemployment and precarity, discrimination and segregation. Racist discrimination in hiring and housing is very widespread in France, with the utmost complicity of those in power. Often the working-class jobs held by their parents no longer exist, while school is no longer a way out for these youths. This society doesn’t offer them anything but idleness, hanging around in apartment house halls and being submitted to stupid, humiliating police checks. No-one is really surprised that a lethal accident triggered off nation-wide violence.

For example, a few days after his staggering declaration in La Courneuve, Sarkozy went back there to offer hundreds of jobs in local businesses. By now, about fifty youths have gotten jobs from that offer, but at the same time PSA has eliminated 500 workers in Aulnay-sous-bois and another company has announced 350 lay-offs. In many of the neighborhoods where the revolt broke out, the unemployment rate is twice the French national rate, and sometimes as high as 40%.

“There is much talk about the violence of the river, but nothing about the shores that hold it in”

The politicians and the mass media are flooding us with news about the violence in the working-class neighborhoods. But where is the violence?
The real violence is the massive lay-offs that reduce workers to dire poverty. It is the constantly rising rents. It’s the high cost of living that prevents us from satisfying our most elementary needs (the price of gas, etc.) What’s violent is throwing women and children out of their homes. It’s when the police enters schools to expel children “without legal documents”. It is the state and economic oppression that is violent.

The government’s response

“The republic is in danger !” So anything goes. In addition to the large police and gendarmerie forces (8,000) already sent out, the government called in 1,500 reservists, decreed a curfew in some cities, using a law on emergency situations dating back to 1955 and the Algerian war and used only once since, in Kanaky in 1985. Clearly, the government has taken an option fraught with politically serious consequences and symbols. There were all sorts of other ways of setting up a curfew—some mayors actually ordered a curfew for juveniles before that “state of emergency”, including the mayor of Orléans in 2001—but the government chose to use that April 1955 law.

There are at least two reasons for that:

1) A throwback to France’s colonial past. This brutally proclaims that the French government is at war with youths of immigrant descent today, the way it was at war with Algerians fighting for their independence 50 years ago. This clearly designates the enemy for “French” people: young workers North Africa. After all the manipulations surrounding the issues of the law on women’s “Islamic” veils, mounting antisemitism in the suburbs, collective rapes, sexism, fundamentalism, bearded muslims, the cracking of so-called terrorist networks . . . this is still another way of contributing to the “racialization” of social conflicts. Which is of course just another version of “divide to rule”.

2) The law on the state of emergency does not simply prescribe curfews, it also makes house visits legal at any time of day or night, makes it possible to monitor the press and entertainment and to set up military courts. As for the justice system, it is worth noting that since the beginning of the week there are summary trials at the Bobigny court practically 24 hours a day, with three hearings at once. If they have set up the state of emergency, then, it was with the intention to be able to use some or all of that arsenal of measures, and not just the curfews for juveniles. Of course it’s a bit like crushing an ant with a bulldozer, but it’s helpful in getting people used to exceptional laws, like “Vigipirate”, the antiterrorist measure, which was exceptional and temporary at the beginning, but is now permanent. They will probably withdraw the state of emergency after the first 12 days, but we wouldn’t be surprised if they reactivated it in the forthcoming months or years, when some serious social conflicts crop up.
Over 1,000 youths have been picked up by the police and given a summary trial, with sentences ranging from 1 to 4 months with suspended imprisonment, and that is with no tangible proof and no possibility of remaining outside prison in case of an appeal procedure.

The other response : integration

All of the people “ on top ” (politicians, the police, people in the media, educators, hawkers of all sorts of religions, sociologists) talking down to the youth rebellion have one word, and one thing to propose : integration. Integration into what ? To this shitty society which is built, precisely, on keeping the poor out when they are no longer of any use on the labor market, or to exert pressure on the market.

Capitalism has always needed the poor and ghettos. There have been the peasants torn from the countryside, the Italians, Jews, Muslims, Britons, Spaniards, Arabs . . . Some of them “ succeed ” and are held up as examples. They point to Ahmed “ who set up his own company ”, Mamadou “ who became an educator ”, the way they used to talk about Gomez “ who became a doctor ”, Alberto “ running a company ”, Kowalevski “ an extraordinary plumber ” or Rachel, a “ teacher ”. This is multi-racial France, a melting pot, and on they go to set up a new ghetto, as needed.
The only solution they have to achieve integration is individual success through money. Which, by definition, can only apply to a tiny minority, but develops a competitive mentality, inherent, precisely, to this shitty society. The only integration that this can achieve is the interiorization of their values : money and consumerism, without which there would not be any capitalism or exclusion.

So everything is possible ! That’s the slogan of the Republic ! But the Republic is only equal chances (at best, theoretically, because in fact that can’t exist in a class society), which is not real equality. So the Republic is a machine for making outcasts, poor, exploited people, but who allows a few of them to climb the social ladder. Don’t we have anything better to do than to fight for the possibility for one out of a hundred to get into the middle class ?

The ignominious Socialist Party

The Socialist Party touches the rock bottom in this affair, since once again, the ONLY way in which it differs from Sarkozy is in the method recommended : “ Yes to the state of emergency, but be careful, do it with parcimony and delicately ”. As always over the last 20 years, the socialists differ in their method, communication, style and pace. Look at the mug of the mayors, whatever their politics, who you see on TV “ regretting the violence ”, “ flattering people in the suburbs ”, but “ denouncing the violent minorities ”, “ regretting the failure of urban development schemes over the last 20 years ” . .. Same twerps, calling for more security, lusting for only one thing : to stay in power in their city... There’s no more room for the Front National (extreme right).

A “ politicizing ” movement ?

A lot of good souls think that our suburban “ rascals ” are ambiguous, that their values are dubious, their violence undirected, etc. Well, yes, that’s definitely true, they aren’t revolutionaries with all of the values that have made revolutionary movements such a success, as we all know, over the last 150 years ! In addition, they’re certainly sexist, terribly attracted to classy brand-names, etc. Whereas the workers at the SMN and the bus drivers in Marseilles, who are on strike now, aren’t any of that, are they ? come on . . .

The bus drivers and their trade unions, in Lyons and Toulouse, are meeting, at their request, with their boss to consider what measures should be taken, following attacks on the buses. Wouldn’t it be better if they went to have a talk directly with their “ attackers ”, to explain to them that they have problems too, and that they have the same enemies . . .A distribution of flyers signed by bus drivers in solidarity with the suburban kids, telling about their own problems and struggles, and clearly pointing to the enemy they have in common – that would be more impressive than sobbing over safety problems.

The people in the movement are not all beurs (people of North African origin) and blacks, from the looks of the names of those indicted. So the movement wasn’t such an ethnic business after all... or else the community involved was a class one.

We would bet that the “gratuitousness” of the acts, and their so-called “ depoliticization ” are propaganda, to snare us. The targets are meaningful, and there is every reason to believe that a movement like this one will have a tremendously “politicizing” effect.

Another May ’68 ?

These revolt s seem to have much more in common with the riots in Los Angeles in 1992 than with May 1968. In the present crisis, with dire economic and social poverty, and oppression by the State, which infuriates us all, maybe the youths who have rebelled now will spark a more complete challenge of this fundamentally unjust society. For the time being, they are just responding to a series of injustices.

No revolutionary political force, even an anarchist one, is present in this rebellion. Those young people, even those who are most politicized, distrust all political organizations, even if some of them are attracted to some of what revolutionaries have to say.

After the “Islamic veil” affair, in which there were widely differing opinions within revolutionary organizations (including: is excluding those girls a solution?) the first responses, individual ones, were often rather moralistic (isn’t this rebellion playing into the hands of the fundamentalists, the government or the extreme right wing? What’s the use of burning the cars of people who are just as poor as you are ? of burning a school ? of attacking a public service like the post office ? we don’t agree with that kind of violence, etc.).

The statements issued by libertarian organizations seem to agree on the following points:
- There can be no peace without justice !
- Against the state of emergency
- If jobs and riches are not redistributed, if the present social regression, inequalities, racism and exclusion continue, there will be other similar outbreaks of furor.
- It is high time to attack the true causes of the violence to which we are submitted.

Camille, Organisation Communiste Libertaire (France)