‘We’ve rioted because of racism and exclusion,” Isaac, from Saint-Denis, told Socialist Worker. “The government’s reaction is useless. Instead of hearing the real problems, they’re trying to fix something else.”
Over 700 of France’s suburbs, with a combined population of 4.5 million people, are officially considered areas “in difficulty”. In an image that will be familiar to many people in Britain you can see signs promising “regeneration” put up by local authorities in many of them.
But it is clear that in these areas the most flagrant abandonment of the “Republican values”, which the French state holds up as models of a decent society, has been by the state itself.
In Clichy-sous-Bois, where one in four people are unemployed and half the population is under 25, it is estimated that 30 percent of households are unable to afford council housing.
In 2002 the government scrapped 60,000 educational assistant posts for areas in difficulty. Tens of thousands of teaching jobs were cut the following year.
Suburbs across the Seine-Saint-Denis area all have unemployment rates of over 15 percent, with youth unemployment running between 25 and 40 percent.
“If a guy called Mohammed applies for a job, and a guy called Jacques applies for one too, it’s Jacques who’ll get the job,” says Malik. “It’s racial discrimination. It’s the same story all over the place — they’ve never given us anything. If we had the same chances as everyone else, we wouldn’t be complaining.”
Where the state does make its presence felt in these areas on a daily and humiliating basis, however, is through the police.
“Here they’ve brought in 20 officers,” Nono told us in Aulnay-sous-Bois, as we stood in front of the burnt out police station.
“They’re young, immature. Heads full of rubbish. They talk to us like dogs. They call you over. They don’t know you. They find out your name.
“They try to open a file on you when you haven’t done anything. Then they start doing research on you, and come and talk about it to you in front of your friends.
“That’s what’s so sickening. That’s why everything blew up like this. That’s why they’ve burnt all that. But it’s the police who started stirring up shit.
“They’re the ones stirring it up. Every day they’re driving around, looking, with their sirens on for no reason.”
The state has cut back on welfare and social programmes, leaving the poorest sections of society at the mercy of the market, and now it offers these citizens repression and demands they identify with “French values”.
To call on anyone denied access to a decent job, home or school — be they French, Algerian, Portuguese or Polish — to then demonstrate their capacity to “integrate” is grotesque.
In a country where five million people voted for the fascist Front National (FN) at the last presidential election it is not difficult to see that racism is the principal tool being used to divide those bearing the brunt of the neo-liberal offensive from the rest of society.
Riots, often sparked by police racism, are not new to the French suburbs.
For around two months in 1981 police fought almost daily battles with the youth of Lyon. The pattern was repeated in the Lyon and Paris areas during the early 1990s.
Rioting is just one way that people have fought back against racism and inequality since the early 1980s. Protests have taken as many different forms as racism itself.
Hunger strikes, occupations and demonstrations have been organised to fight police brutality and harassment, discrimination in education, changes to nationality and asylum laws, miscarriages of justice, deportations and the rise of Le Pen’s FN.
In the 1980s a mass anti-racist organisation, SOS Racisme, was built. Confident and combative at its outset, it sold a million badges in the mid-1980s bearing the slogan, “Hands off my mate”.
But SOS failed to sustain its ability to mobilise the youth of the suburbs. The early dynamism of the movement soon gave way to a much more defensive emphasis on “Republican integration”.
This meant that instead of fighting for sweeping and radical social reform to address inequalities, or mobilising to confront the FN directly, the organisation stressed that the second generation of new immigrants should conform to “Republican values”.
It urged people to back the Socialist Party, which is similar to the Labour Party in Britain.
The French model of state-led integration is based on identification with the supposedly universal values of the Republic—liberty, equality, fraternity. Particular ethnic, religious, class or community affiliations are meant to take second place to this link between state and citizen.
This is often used as a reproach to youths of recent immigrant origin, with racists claiming that Polish, Italian and Portuguese immigrants integrated successfully because of shared cultural values, whereas North African immigrants and their children are unable to assimilate because they are Muslims.
But France’s record of integration — up to a third of all French people are estimated to have immigrant origins — does not mean that the Republic was responsible for it.
The experience of European immigrants to France shows that often integration occurred despite rather than because of the Republic.
Poles who came to work in the mining areas of north eastern France were encouraged by the Republic to develop their own separate ethnic clubs and associations between the wars.
Their involvement in this sub-culture did not prevent them from becoming part of French society. But that was a product of the shared experience of miners in the area — indigenous and immigrant — at the hands of the mine owners.
Once economic crisis hit in the 1930s a third of all adult male immigrants — Portuguese, Italians, Spanish and Poles — were simply deported. Some 120,000 Poles were put on trains back to Poland and allowed to take only 30 kilograms of belongings with them.
The abstract political rights of the Republic offered little protection against the discrimination suffered by European immigrants to France between the wars.
But the experience of the immigrants who stayed revealed that integration was possible through a variety of channels.
It came through their trade union or political activity, through identification with the region in which they found themselves, or, during the Second World War, through the Resistance.
Integration has evolved through a haphazard process determined by changing economic, political and social contexts, and is forged through interaction between cultures and affiliations, rather than though a minority having to abandon aspects of its own.
France’s colonial legacy is the most dramatic example of how state policy conflicted with Republican ideals that are supposed to be at its heart.
Algerians, although their country was considered part of France, were systematically denied the basic political rights which would have helped them become citizens, rather than subjects, of the Republic.
Once all paths to political integration had been blocked by France, millions of Algerians chose instead to fight for independence.
The guerrilla tactics of the independence movement were met with repression and torture, which extended to anyone associated with the national liberation movement.
On 17 October 1961 thousands of Algerians took part in a demonstration in Paris in defiance of the curfew imposed under the terms of legislation introduced in 1955.
Police set upon the demonstrators and over 200 of them were beaten to death, shot or drowned. A further 10,000 were arrested. Many of them were later deported.
The revival of the 1955 law today is the latest in a series of attempts by the present right wing administration to draw on France’s colonial past. The ban on the hijab in schools imposed last year echoed the efforts of the French army to oppose the wearing of veils and headscarves in Algeria at the height of the colonial war.
Earlier this year a law was introduced which called for recognition in schools of the positive role played by France in its colonies, “particularly in North Africa”.
The reaction of the respected newspaper Le Monde to the government’s use of curfews summed up what is at stake:
“To exhume a law from 1955 is to send to the youth of the suburbs a message of shocking brutality — 50 years on France intends to treat them like their grandparents.”
As in the 1950s, when the French state got away with its brutal repression, the events of the last three weeks place a great responsibility on the radical left to respond to the political crisis the riots have unleashed.
The uprising which has swept across France is an expression of the same defiance shown by the powerful movement against neo-liberalism which has emerged in France over the past decade.
It has the same roots as the movement which defeated the political establishment’s plans to adopt the neo-liberal constitution for the EU in May.
The networks which proved such a powerful weapon against the establishment in the no vote in the European constitution referendum in May must now attempt to link up with the fightback in the suburbs.
Those on the left who choose to put respect for the law above resistance to poverty and repression, or refuse to see that racism, not religion, is what blights education and stunts the potential of millions, should not be surprised if they are identified by those engaged in this revolt as part of the problem.
While the methods of those involved in this uprising may be different from those who took part in the anti-racist movement of the 1980s, the essential demands, against racism and for equality, are the same.
This means the considerable left forces must be in the forefront of providing militant opposition to racism and poverty.
Only from that starting point can it hope to connect with, and offer a lead to, the young people who have bravely stood up to state and its repressive apparatus.
Jim Wolfreys is co-author (with Peter Fysh) of The Politics of Racism in France.
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