SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Riots and repression, and more neo-liberalism, in France

FRANCE HAS been shocked by weeks of violence. Nightly riots started in the poor estates of Paris’s outer edges and spread to more than 300 cities. Around 9,000 vehicles have been set afire since the violence erupted on 27 October. At the height of the unrest, youths burned 1,408 vehicles across France in one night (6 November). The disturbances have been described as the largest civil unrest hitting France since the riots in May 1968, then the prologue to the general strikes and occupation of factories in which millions of workers participated.

Today, however, the leaders of the trade unions (let alone the Communist Party), have not lifted one finger to provide an alternative to the growing malaise in French society. The repeated attacks on workers’ rights, the driving down of living standards and the worsening social and economic situation are the direct results of the neo-liberal policies of the government. The French bourgeoisie is on the ropes: it cannot compete against its international opponents and seeks to gain an advantage by attacking its own working class and poor. Despite determined struggle by the working class on issues like education, pension ‘reform’ and privatisation, it is the failure of the leadership of organised labour to fight for a consistent alternative, to unite behind its banner all the exploited, which has led to the feeling amongst disaffected youth that rioting is the only possible way to make their voices heard.

Interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy is the most vocal representative of the neo-liberal rightwing. A rival to prime minister Dominique de Villepin in the race to become the candidate for the governing right-wing party, Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), in the 2007 presidential elections, he likes to grandstand on law and order. Any kind of security emergency and you can bet that ‘Sarko’, as he is known in the media, will make a statement for the cameras. Two days before the rioting started he visited the Parisian suburb of Argenteuil and described local youth who came out in protest as ‘racaille’, rabble or scum. He called for "crime-ridden neighbourhoods to be cleaned out with a Kärcher", a high-powered industrial hose.

Then, on the night of 27 October, police hunted down three teenagers in Clichy-sous-Bois. The boys were coming back from a football game and wanted to avoid a police identity check. They climbed over the wall of an electricity substation where two of them got stuck in the installation and died. The next morning, Sarkozy declared that they had been involved in a burglary and the police could not be held responsible. The deaths sparked a day of rioting in Clichy, followed by several more days of violence in the area. On Sunday 30 October, the CRS (riot police), deployed in the poor areas, went into another borough in Clichy, previously untouched by violence, firing-off tear gas canisters. One of them exploded inside a mosque during a prayer service.

Rioting spread rapidly to cities like Lille, Evreux, Rouen, Strasbourg, Rennes, Nantes, Toulouse, Marseille, Cannes and Nice. The areas touched by these events have much in common. Their poor boroughs are modern day over-crowded ghettos, where half of the inhabitants are under 20 years old, unemployment is above 40% and identity checks and police harassment occur daily. The ‘poorest subjects of the republic’ suffer poverty and racism, and dependence on government benefits.

The authorities try to hold the residents in check using the strong arm of the CRS. The latter was again exposed as a brutal, racist force when two officers were filmed beating a young man in the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, with six of their colleagues looking on. French president, Jacques Chirac, praised the "professionalism and sang-froid" of the French police on the same day that the TF1 channel filmed an officer taunting an Arab youth in a Lyon suburb. The officer was heard to say: "Do you want me to take you to an electricity substation?" The threat was repeated by a second policeman on the scene: "So you want to go and fry with your mates? You want to go into the transformer?" When the boy responded by saying that this was not the way to calm down the estate a third officer replied: "We don’t give a shit if the estate calms down or not. Actually, the more it gets fucked up the happier we are".

The reaction of these officers is a flawless translation of the orders they received from their political masters. Bernard Accoyer, UMP leader, in the lower house of parliament declared that "amongst the youths involved in crime there is an over-representation of children who come from polygamous families". His comments were repeated by several other government representatives, such as employment minister, Gerard Larcher, and echo the racist filth peddled by the Front National (FN) and its leader Jean-Marie le Pen. Sarkozy is seeking to surf this wave of racism by calling for the expulsion of all foreigners caught rioting and has suggested that even French nationals, if involved in rioting, could see changes to their status in the future.

The political elite has united with Sarkozy to confront the disturbances with increased repression in the short term and more neo-liberal measures in the long term. Vague promises of urban regeneration aside, the main measure taken was the revival of a law that allows regional representatives of the government, prefects, to implement curfews and declare a state of emergency. This law was last used by General de Gaulle in 1961 to suppress the national liberation struggle of the Algerian people against the French colonial masters. It was used in Algeria and also in Paris, where up to 200 French Algerians were killed by the police.

The French parliament has now voted to prolong the state of emergency to three months and the law has been used to impose curfews in 30 districts. Across the country, 11,500 police have been deployed, 2,700 people have been arrested, and over 350 adults and 68 juveniles have been imprisoned. The police have charged five parents for failing to control the behaviour of their children and teenagers have been arrested for posting messages on the internet.

While most of the international press poured scorn on Sarkozy for inflaming the situation, he is gaining widespread support from the same commentators for his neo-liberal programme. According to a Financial Times editorial (8 November), the urgent measures needed to further the integration of what it calls, "the latter day sans culottes at the margins of the French economy", are "to cut the minimum wage and payroll taxes… reduce the job protection rights of those in work to create a more level playing field for those without".

So, the logic of capitalism is to create integration by making the majority of working-class people as poor and vulnerable as those who have nothing to lose. The measures announced by de Villepin go in the same direction. The job creation schemes for the poor estates are not to provide real jobs but amount to reheating existing government policy: allowing young people to quit school at 14 and start an ‘apprenticeship’ with almost no wages and without any real legal protection. The government wants to turn a whole generation of young people over to employers, without any real rights, and use them to push down the working and living conditions of French workers as a whole. The government has recently brought in a new contract for first time recruits to the labour market. The CNE (contract nouvelle embauche) allows employers to make workers redundant by sending them a letter during the first two years of their employment, with no obligation to state the reasons why. Workers will not have the right to fight the redundancy.

The government is determined neither to bend under the recent workers’ mobilisations and action, including strikes in national rail against ‘rampant privatisation’, nor under the pressure of violence from the most downtrodden sections of society. It will try its utmost to push on with its neo-liberal programme.

Of course, it is not through rioting that the government will be stopped. On the contrary, the French political elite has used the riots to impose even more draconian repression and whip up racism and division.

In the events of the last month it has been the trade union leaders, with a mobilising power of hundreds of thousands at their finger tips, who have been found most wanting. They could have stepped in with mobilisations, fighting for a socialist programme against the government and forged unity between the inhabitants of the poor estates and the working class at large. Such a struggle could have cut across the racist lies of the rightwing, exposed the government policies for what they are and forced the hated CRS police off the estates.

Karl Debbaut


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