By Yves Coleman
In the dialect of French big-city suburbs, to “dance with the wolves” is to provoke the cops, make them run and to escape without being arrested. Unfortunately, the reality is much less romantic.
Around 1600 youth were arrested, half of them under 18, in the first 14 days of the riots from 27 October to 10 November. 180 have already received jail sentences.
On 8 November the government invoked a 1955 law from France's colonial war in Algeria, which allows for cities to impose curfews and other emergency powers. On 9 November interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy said that all convicted rioters who are not French citizens will be deported.
The government has empowered bosses to hire apprentices at the age of 14, instead of 16, so that it becomes even harder for kids from poor families to get qualifications or go to university.
The rioters have burned over 8000 cars and dozens of local shops, gymnasiums, schools, buses, youth centres, migrant hostels, etc.
Everything started because of the death, on 27 October, in Clichy-sous-Bois, a poor northeastern suburb of Paris, of two teenagers, Bouna and Zyed, a French Mauritanian and a French Tunisian. Dodging the police, they went into an electrical power facility, where they were electrocuted and died.
The arrogant and racist attitudes of the riot police sent into the suburbs made things worse. In the streets, day and night, they systematically ask every Black or North-African youth they come across for their identity papers, always calling them “tu” (used for children) instead of “vous” (the polite form), often insulting them. Between 1974 and 2003, France’s police forces have expanded from 99,144 cops to 143,836.
France has 760 poor working-class suburbs (called ZUS, Urban Sensitive Zones), with 4.2 million inhabitants, where things have been getting worse and worse for years.
Unemployment is up to 40 or 50 %. People live in decaying tower blocks, built in the 60s and 70s. The schools are staffed by inexperienced teachers, who have to learn their jobs with the most difficult pupils. There is high absenteeism.
There are only half as many hospitals in these poor areas as in the rest of France. There are fewer doctors.
Over the last 30 years, jobs, public housing, public services, cultural centres, shops, cinemas, etc. — in short the whole economy and social life of these districts — have been slowly destroyed.
Even before the riots, during the first 10 months of 2005, 28,041 cars and 17,489 dustbins were burnt, and there were 6004 incidents of throwing stones, molotov cocktails, etc.
In the 1980s the Socialist Party promoted groups like SOS Racisme, founded in 1984. But the “left” government did nothing to improve basic education, health, transport and culture. It prefered to talk and talk about racism and multiculturalism.
The rebellious youth of the 80s, who had some hopes in reforms, or who had more or less radical views, have been progressively replaced by totally desperate kids who know they have no future, nothing to lose.
The situation in the suburbs has also worsened because of the development of a “black economy” based on drugs and stolen goods. But the districts most controlled by the criminal gangs have see no riots — because they are bad for business.
The riots have no political content, not a left-wing one, and not an Islamist one either. As far as I know there have been few examples of “positive” self-organisation by the people in the riot-hit districts. In Clichy-sous-Bois some groups of Muslim adults (not Islamists) managed to “cool down” the youth. A group called “Au-delà des Mots” (Beyond Words) was created in the same town to help the families of the two dead youth and to push for a serious inquiry about what happened.
In another suburb, around 20 parents met every night in front of the huge tower blocks to discuss with the kids and try to convince them not to provoke the cops and burn cars. After the declaration of the “state of emergency” there have been more attempts to reason with the younger rioters. There have been small local demonstrations, rap stars and famous sportsmen going to the suburbs. Also, ordinary people trying to prevent more arrests and stop police brutality.
As regards negative local organisation, the right-wing governmental party in two Parisian suburbs has organized unarmed patrols by local citizens (“Comités de veille citoyenne”) with cell phones, cameras and fire extinguishers; but it looks as if this rightist vigilantism is quite microscopic for the moment.
In radical circles there has been some debate about what attitude revolutionaries should have to the violence. Obviously you 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 supermarket cashiers of a supermarket, torched a hostel for migrant workers, or beaten up 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 war by the poor on the poor, a symptom of capitalist barbarism.
The inhabitants of the suburbs see acts like burning cars or dustbins differently… unless their own car is burning. But when schools or post-offices are burned down, we should not be afraid of criticising such acts, even if we can understand them as acts of revolt. And it leads nowhere to romanticise physical, or armed, fights with the cops.
The critical problem for us is that no far-left or anarchist group has any base in the poorest parts of the main working class districts. The Communist Party had some roots in some districts, but mostly lost them long ago. Where it keeps them, it is not among the youth.
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 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.
The people of North African background who sympathise with the reformist or revolutionary left are usually those who have a regular job (often in the public sector) and some qualifications. There is a big gap between them and the chronic jobless.
So the future looks rather dark. The left, reformist and revolutionary, continues to address itself to the traditional trade-union types who have a more or less safe job and live in a safe suburb.
The rioting youth have never experienced solidarity in their neighbourhoods, in action in their high schools, or in their temporary workplaces. Or if they have had some brief taste of it, it has not convinced them to adopt the methods of struggle of the working class movement.
That is where the problem lies. Whether the revolutionary left will be able to “take the bull by the horns” remains to be seen.