The events in France over the last three weeks are more than a riot — they are an urban uprising on a scale not seen in Western Europe since the Second World War.
The French government, backed by the media and parts of the left, has tried to present this uprising as the work of “hooligans” or “criminal gangs”.
But with over 6,000 cars torched by the start of this week and more than 2,500 people arrested in towns and cities as far apart as Paris, Carpentras, Lyon and Toulouse, the riots represent a major challenge to the French elite which has sent a political shockwave across the continent.
Quite simply, young people from the poorest areas of France’s cities are fighting back in their tens of thousands against decades of poverty and racism.
“France has two faces,” says Malik, one of several young people who spoke to Socialist Worker in the Seine-Saint-Denis suburb, north of Paris, which has been at the heart of the rioting.
“The first is the one they show the world — we’re a democratic country, lots of museums, the Champs Elysées, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the good life, fine wine, and all that,” he says.
“It’s not true. Here, it’s miserable poverty. We live here, we grew up here. And now we’ve started burning it, they’re talking about doing this up, renovating that. But until we did anything, they’d left us for dead.”
The riots began on 27 October in Clichy-sous-Bois, after two teenagers were electrocuted in a power substation after being chased by the police.
There has still been no official expression of regret for their deaths. Instead interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy has backed police denials that they had been chasing the teenagers. Those lies are contradicted by the testimony of an injured survivor from his hospital bed.
Existing tensions in the suburbs have been deliberately stoked for some time by Sarkozy, who is positioning himself as the mainstream right’s alternative to Jean-Marie Le Pen of the fascist Front National.
During the summer Sarkozy had boasted of dealing with the “hooligans” in the suburbs by “cleaning them out with Karcher (a power hose)”.
Then, two days before the rioting started, he marched into the Argenteuil suburb of Paris and declared on national television, with the jeers of local youth ringing in his ears, “We are going to get rid of this racaille (rabble or scum).”
On 28 October police in Clichy fired tear gas into a mosque and humiliated those who fled the building. Fury at state racism and injustice meant others were quick to take action.
This is how a group of young people described what happened on the Cité des 3,000 estate in Aulnay-sous-Bois, not far from Clichy:
“We saw what was happening in Clichy, so we met up and said we have to do something in the Cité des 3,000 too. It was about having pride in the reputation of our estate. What the police did in Clichy made people full of hate. And what Sarkozy said about the youth — it was a provocation.”
Momo from Aulnay says, “Before, with the other areas, it was war. Now we’re all together.”
Although much of the media debate tends to portray events as some kind of “ethnic conflict”, focusing mostly on the question of immigration and six million Muslims, this is a movement which involves French working class youth in all its diversity.
“You mustn’t say it’s just the immigrants taking part in all this,” says one young man in Aulnay.
“It’s not just the Muslims and the blacks and the Arabs involved. There’s the Portuguese, the Vietnamese, the French. They always generalise and say, ‘It’s the blacks and the Arabs.’ But it’s all races together, all those who live in the suburbs.”
Youth unemployment on the Cité des 3,000 estate, as in most of France’s poorest suburbs, runs at close to 50 percent. “They don’t talk about jobs,” says Rachid. “If we had more jobs, young people wouldn’t hang around the area in the evening. They would’ve been thinking about work the next morning.If we had a job we wouldn’t be against anything. But we’ve got nothing, that’s why we’re against everything.”
The Tory government, weak and divided, has responded to the uprising by lashing out. Last week Sarkozy threatened to deport all foreign nationals who have been arrested — there are many legal immigrants who have residency papers but are denied French citizenship.
A state of emergency has been declared in the suburbs, giving local authorities the right to impose curfews, by reviving colonial legislation first introduced during the Algerian war of independence in the 1950s.
The French establishment has closed its doors to the population of the suburbs when it comes to decent housing or schools.
It has frozen them out of regular employment and deprived them of the means to enjoy proper facilities for leisure and culture.
It has subjected them to the daily humiliation of racist policing and told Muslim girls that it will decide what they wear on their heads. Now the French state is drawing on its colonial past to keep the revolt in check.
“We will remain in the suburbs,” announced the head of France’s riot police last weekend, “in order to reconquer these territories.”
The reaction of the people we spoke to in Seine-Saint-Denis was defiant. To those who deplore the fact that gymnasiums and schools are burning along with the cars, they gave this response, “The gymnasium round here is always closed—so we burn it. We were always getting thrown out of the schools — we burn them.
“The shops and malls where we never get jobs — we burn them. A hundred people work at Renault here, but not a single young person from this estate — so we burn it.
“If there’s no change, it’s not going to stop.”
‘It’s more than desperation’
“This is a movement,” says Isaac, from Saint-Denis. “It wouldn’t have lasted so long if there wasn’t something behind it.
“If it was just to have fun, it would have maybe lasted a night.
“If it’s lasted this long it’s because it’s really for a cause. They say we’re desperate, but it’s more than that.
“This movement is against politicians who talk but have nothing to say and are useless. We’re against that, so we’re not going to start doing the same thing. We want to act.
“Sarkozy, he takes action, but in a wrong way. Well, we want to take action too, but in the right way.”