The riots have triggered a sharp debate among French socialists—and show how many are fully integrated into politics that defend the capitalist state.
The most high-profile figure on the left, Jean-Luc Melenchon, described the police as “uncontrolled”. It was hardly a wild description after months of assaults on pension protesters and now the cops’ attempt to cover up the execution of a teenage boy.
But even this sort of language was too much for the leader of the Labour-type Socialist Party (PS). Its leader Olivier Faure said he was “in deep disagreement” with Mélenchon. Speaking in Lyon, he said, “We are right to call for calm and a return to civil peace. We cannot give the feeling of encouraging and accepting violence.”
The PS, along with the Greens and the Communist Party, is part of the Nupes electoral alliance with Melenchon. Sections of the PS don’t like the link, even though it provides life support for a PS that has haemorrhaged support in recent years. They now want to use the response to the riots as a further reason to break off.
Melenchon seems nervous that he has now gone too far. He spoke of his “absolute disavowal” after the attack on the house of the right wing mayor of L’Hay-les-Roses. And his central demands are merely improved training for the police and the construction of independent “oversight commissions”.
It’s ludicrous to think that the police who see themselves “at war” with “vermin” can be persuaded to become non-racist defenders of working class people.
Clementine Autain, from Melenchon’s LFI party, has spoken more powerfully. She said, “We don’t want a return to normal, because what is abnormal is precisely the normal situation. The responsibility for these riots lies with the power that left the situation to rot.
“What have they been up to since the riots after Zyed and Bouna died in 2005? Inequalities have worsened, poverty has exploded, public services have deteriorated.” She called for a “march for justice” from Nanterre.
The Autonomie de Classe (A2C) group, which is close to the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in Britain, says, “We should champion the bravery and determination of young, mainly black and Arab working class people. We’ve seen four months of fighting over pensions, then just weeks later this fight against the police, the state and racism.
“We are talking about a process of class confrontation against capitalism, the ruling class and the forces and the structures of the state.”
In a statement on its website, A2C said, “The state of crisis in which the movement against the pension reform has put Macron opens the possibility of a victory. While the government will do everything to isolate this anti-racist movement and any possibility of a bridge with the fight against pension reform, we must build this link.
“In all the frameworks of self-organization built against the pension reform, we must express solidarity at the base, clear and unconditional to those who fight in the street for Nahel.”
A2C is organising for a demonstration on 14 July to oppose the Bastille Day official national celebrations involving president Emanuel Macron.
The Twitter feed of the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) puts forward some of the right things. On 1 July it said, “Revolt and anger are legitimate! Our place must be alongside the rebels and all those who want to put an end to this violent government and system.”
The next day it said, “In support of the ongoing revolt, the NPA calls to participate in all the initiatives that will take place this evening and in the days to come everywhere in France. #justicepourNahel”.
Philippe Poutou, the NPA’s presidential candidate last year, said, “Calls for calm are indecent in the face of an expression of dignity.”
But then it’s all the more remarkable that on Tuesday morning the NPA’s website had nothing to say about the riots—almost a week after they began. Perhaps it’s just the sluggish pace of the NPA’s online presence. But it doesn’t suggest an urgency, let alone a determination to shape events.
Its statement on 5 July said, “The destruction that has taken place in recent days has absolutely nothing to compare with the violence of the system. And when the ‘condemnations’ come from those who destroy our lives and the planet through their defence of capitalism that exploits humanity and nature, up to imperialist wars, they are revoltingly cynical.”
French Communist Party leader Fabien Roussel has produced a terrible series of attacks on the rioters. He announced on Friday of last week his “absolute condemnation of the violence that took place that night”—and he didn’t mean the cops. He added, “When you are on the left, you defend public services, not their looting”.
Roussel has repeatedly given in to racism, including criticising France’s borders for being like “sieves” that let too many people in.
Another group that claims to be revolutionary, Lutte Ouvriere, is appalling. Its main statement recognises the poverty and racism that young black and Arab people face. But it goes on, “There are young people, kids, who live with rage in their hearts. This is what pushes a small part of them to respect nothing. And it was this rage that exploded into blind violence with Nahel’s death.
“The destructive fury that has hit some neighbourhoods is causing consternation, dismay and even anger. And for good reason! It is not the bourgeois who see their car, their fancy restaurant or their tennis or golf course go up in smoke.
“It is the women and men of the working classes who find themselves destitute without a social centre, without a shop for their shopping, without transport to get to work.” It denounces “small thugs and traffickers, who do not care a lot about putting the lives of the inhabitants in danger”.
Such a disgusting analysis echoes the government spokesperson Olivier Veran who said, “There is no political message here. When you loot a Foot Locker, Lacoste or Sephora store, there is no political message. It’s looting.”
The riots are political—and looting is political. The riots’ targets are overwhelmingly the state and its repressive thugs. It would be excellent if a social explosion targeted solely the rich and their luxury lairs. That has never been a reality—even a strike doesn’t do that.
A nurses’ walkout doesn’t just hit millionaires—indeed they have their private health services to rely on. It can mean pain and suffering for working class people. But it’s entirely right to strike for pay and to defend the NHS.
The same is true of school strikes. Class struggle very rarely solely affects the direct class enemies. That doesn’t make it wrong.
The 1965 Watts riots—or Watts Rebellion— in Los Angeles in the US are today remembered as a great movement of resistance. At the time they were widely condemned. Triggered by racist police brutality, they began on 11 August 1965.
In less than a week the riot covered 46 square miles and left 34 people dead, only one of them white. Another 1,032 were wounded. Police arrested 3,438 people, and property damage was put at $40 million—the equivalent of close to half a billion dollars today.
Rioters damaged or destroyed over 600 buildings. These riots were highly political. Watts was a statement that many black people had gone beyond begging the existing power structure for change and thinking that it could provide the answers.
Black workers heckled Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King when he went to Watts because he had criticised the looting. The riots changed King as well.
Three years later, as riots burst out again, King made a famous speech where he said, “A riot is the language of the unheard”. He spoke of “a growing disillusionment and resentment” toward the black “middle class and the leadership which it has produced”. Less than a month later he was assassinated.
The murder of King saw another huge wave of riots. But, the lack of a big enough revolutionary force, meant the biggest gainers were the black upper middle class who grabbed places in corporations and politics.
Such basic lessons are ignored by much of the French left which has a long-term problem of not standing up against racism. Teachers who were members of the Lutte Ouvriere and the forerunner of the NPA were behind the expulsion of two Muslim students for wearing the niqab at a school in 2008.
Much of the NPA was so hostile towards one of its own candidates who wore the hijab that she and her supporters left the organisation.
The far left has failed to oppose vicious state racism and Islamophobia. It swallows the lie that the type of secularism that was progressive during the French Revolution of 1789—when it targeted the power of the Catholic Church—is still positive.
Now it’s a cover for the persecution of Muslims and a way to demonise people who oppose racism and imperialism. The left has not addressed the poisonous legacy of French colonialism in the working class movement.
Riots are not the same as strikes. Strikes target the source of profits, the exploitation in the workplace that capitalism relies on. And strikes can have a democratic collective discipline and accountability.
That’s why mass and militant workers’ resistance—not carefully choreographed action that is wholly controlled by the union leaders—has the capacity to be stronger than riots.
But our criticism of riots is that they do not go far enough. They do not have the power to tear down the whole system of capitalism. Moving from riot to revolution does not mean becoming more “respectable” or diluting the fury against the system.
It requires an insurrectionary fusion of the power of the workplace and the power of the street. But the first step is to stand with the rioters now.
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