[News] Revolt of France’s “low-class scum” lights up the sky

Anti-Imperialist News News at freedomarchives.org
Wed Nov 16 08:46:10 EST 2005


A good comprehensive view of the rebellion in France -


The revolt of France’s “low-class scum” lights up
the sky

AWTW News Service, 7 November 2005. A World to Win News Service.

The 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.

The Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 863-9977
www.freedomarchives.org 
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