The riots in France have exacerbated the deep crisis facing all the country’s civic and political institutions. Many commentators have claimed this demonstrates a failure of the “French model of society”, as if everything could be sorted out simply by prescribing more social programmes and rethinking what “citizenship” means. But this underestimates the situation.
As Stathis Kouvelakis points out in the latest issue of the International Socialism journal, one of the effects of the ruling class’s rejection of the welfare state and social compromise has been to undermine the illusion that those in power care about the general good of society, rather than their own interests.
The widespread sense that France’s political establishment is simply doing the bidding of the big corporations was a major reason why voters defied every mainstream party last May and rejected the proposed EU constitution.
This defeat plunged both the mainstream right and the centre left Socialist Party into disarray.
The sociologist Emmanuel Todd sums up the situation thus: “In recent years, French political life has been nothing but a series of catastrophes. And each time the ruling class’s lack of legitimacy becomes more flagrant.”
President Jacques Chirac’s regime is weak and divided. Prime minister Dominique de Villepin and interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy both want to run for president in 2007.
Both are committed to neo-liberal policies that have little popular backing — so they increasingly rely on repression and racism.
Earlier this year, prior to the riots, the government cancelled £30m of spending on urban employment and social development. In January de Villepin mobilised 8,000 police and gendarmes for a “security operation” in “difficult” schools — subjecting students to humiliating identity checks and body searches.
The Socialist Party leadership, which backs the government’s state of emergency laws, was seriously damaged by the referendum defeat. It is now preoccupied by a fight with the left for control of the party at its congress this month.
Whoever wins this fight, the Socialists are no longer in a position to lead the development of an anti-racist movement, as they did in the 1980s. That potential now lies firmly with the radical left movement against neo-liberalism.
But the clarity which characterised that movement’s intervention in the referendum campaign has been sorely lacking over the past few weeks.
Many Communist Party activists are torn between sympathy for the motivations behind the rioting and their desire to restore “law and order” in the impoverished suburbs they control.
The far left urgently needs to take a lead. The Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) organised a 1,000-strong demonstration against the state of emergency in central Paris last Saturday.
But in general the LCR has played a subdued role in events so far. “You’re asleep — why this silence?” was the overwhelming sentiment on the letters page of its newspaper last week. “Now is the time to act,” wrote one activist. “What are you waiting for?”
The reaction of Lutte Ouvrière, France’s other principal far left organisation, has been appalling.
The party condemned the rioters for a “lack of social conscience”, piously calling for the working class to take a lead and pull the youth of the suburbs away from “the hoodlums and small time crooks”.
Whatever the numbers involved in the rioting itself, it is clear that support for what they are doing is shared by the vast majority of those under 20 and living in the suburbs.
And they are now confronting the question of what to do next. Most people we spoke to talked of the uprising as a movement, and some also stressed a desire for it to avoid being either quelled or co-opted by those in authority.
There were signs this weekend of shifts in the focus. In Lyon confrontations took place in the city centre for the first time, while in Paris plans to descend on France’s showpiece street, the Champs Elysées, were headed off by a massive police mobilisation to enforce a ban on public gatherings.
Whatever the outcome of this extraordinary uprising, there is an urgent need for its demands to be supported more widely and for its causes to be linked with others. Revolutionaries across France must urgently do justice to the challenges unfolding before them.