Farid and Sania are pseudonyms
“I was there when we attacked the police station in the 4th district of Lyon. When it was blazing it was glorious,” says Farid. “All that anger I feel, years of being held down and shutting my mouth. And then we could get them back.
“It’s the best thing I have ever done, it was a tiny bit of revenge for the insults to my mother and my father and my grandparents and my brother and sister.”
Farid has plenty of stories of why France went up in flames after the cops executed 17-year-old Nahel M. “Of course that killing was terrible,” he says. “They gunned him down for perhaps not having a driving licence. A death sentence for that.
“But on its own, that would not be enough. The background is that every week I’m hassled by the police, every week there’s some cop who snarls at me, and every week I hear of someone like me who is told they are a ‘dirty Arab’.
“The French left Algeria, but many of them still have an invader’s thoughts. Many think they are better than us, that we are not from the same world.”
Farid is from Venissieux, a suburb of Lyon where lots of people from France’s former colonies in north Africa live.
Venissieux is made up mainly of drab multi-storey housing blocks. There’s the occasional splash of green space, cafes and shops and—as in such places everywhere in the world—constant promises of “urban renewal” and “community uplift”. Half the residents are below the official poverty line and youth unemployment is 40 percent.
It was once a major industrial area, but the firms and the jobs have gone. And housing improvement often involves blowing up the residential blocks that are the legacy of previous state initiatives.
It’s not completely drab. Like many French estates, the poverty is overlain with some architectural flourishes that a minister or council leader sees as their legacy. But the bright cladding and the clever design don’t overcome inequality and racism.
The emptiness of “official anti-racism” was underlined when Nahel was killed in Nelson Mandela Place.
“Let me tell you about a normal day in my life,” says Farid. “I wake in the flat I share with my parents and two others. It’s overcrowded—it was when I was a child, and it’s worse now that I am an adult.
“Until I was 21, I had no job. If you have a name like mine and an address in Venissieux then it’s tough. Lots of employers won’t even look at you. And it got worse with all the terrorism stuff and Isis and the attacks in France. To be a Muslim is even worse than to be black for some people.
“Now I work for 13 euros (£11.15) an hour. It’s hard work, physical work. Lots of people I work with are undocumented. They don’t have the right papers so they are sort of hidden beneath the surface. Some of them get even less than me.
“When I am going to or from work, cops quite often stop me and ask me questions about what I am doing. Even the ones who know me will stop me. It’s a control thing, a way of saying don’t forget who is in charge.
“When I am in the centre of Lyon, I notice how the cops will smile at the nice middle class white people. The police with guns lower them when they talk to those people. There are no smiles for people like me.
“Ask yourself how many cases such as Nahel’s there are, or similar attacks that perhaps don’t kill someone. And we all know if there hadn’t been a video the cop would have walked off just saying he was defending himself. That’s what he and his mates did until the video came out.”
Sania, who has persuaded Farid to do this interview, is from nearby Givors. She overcame his entirely reasonable fear that, if he is identified as an “arsonist”, he could be jailed for ten years or more.
She has her own stories to tell. “The riots now didn’t come from nowhere,” Sania explains. “Everyone knows there are poor areas where people have no hope and that one day it’ll go up unless there’s a change. And then when it happens, they all act as if it is a big surprise.
“In any case, it’s not new in Lyon. There are the cops but also the fascists. They are strong here. It came out in the World Cup last year. They attacked people who celebrated when Morocco won, and they had a big hunt to beat up Arabs after France won against Morocco.
“It was so tense during that game. I’m not into football, but I was watching every second and hoping so much that Morocco won.”
What do they think about the pension protests that swept through France for months this year? Farid says they were a good thing, but he didn’t really feel part of them. “Am I ever going to get a pension? People in my family often die early,” he says. “And so much will be different by the time I am 64.
“Even if Macron has been beaten on this, I’d still be on 13 euros an hour. I’d still be having to watch for the cops, still waiting to hear about the next person jailed or beaten.”
Sania is more hopeful. “It felt like people, at least some of them, were waking up,” she says. “And it was very violent in Lyon at times. I admire that.” She’s right that the protests went well beyond respectable marches.
On 17 March local media reported, “At least 36 people were arrested during clashes between police and protesters in Lyon. Local authorities reported that the town hall was ‘ransacked’.”
And on 1 May “at least 33 people were arrested as pension protests turned violent in Lyon,” local authorities said. “Projectiles can be seen raining down in the city’s streets as police attempt to control the crowds. Footage shows a looted grocery store and a fire burning outside a bank in the city.”
A week later there were media accounts of “fiery barricades, police, and tear gas in the city”.
Sania says, “I work in the public sector. I went on one of the marches. When something like that is happening, you feel you might be able to get over some of the differences. But what comes afterwards?”
Farid and Sania don’t have much time for politicians, although Sania did try to vote for left winger Jean-Luc Melenchon at the presidential election last year before discovering there was some irregularity that stopped her.
“Le Pen is a fascist, but is Macron much better?” asks Farid. “He hates Muslims, he persecutes us, he gives the police whatever they want. How is it possible that we are supposed to choose between those two for president?”
Sania notes how “all the politicians, from left to right, came together after that mayor’s house was attacked in L’Hay-les-Roses” That’s a national emergency, but it’s not when the cops kill someone.”
Venissieux has a long history of resistance. The riots of September 1981 in its Les Minguettes neighbourhood were some of the earliest of that type of resistance in suburban France. Some historians say that the Les Minguettes riots in 1983 were the first time cars were burned as a protest in France.
A series of racist murders in France, and police attacks in Les Minguettes led to local priests organising a March for Equality and Against Racism in 1983. It was modelled on Martin Luther King’s demonstrations in the US. Beginning with just 17 people, the march lasted 50 days as it went around France and it was greeted at the end in Paris by a rally of 100,000 people.
President Francois Mitterrand from the Labour-type Socialist Party made various promises to the marchers. Most of them are still unfulfilled.
Farid discovered recently that one of his relatives had been a rioter in 1983. “He’d never spoken to me about it,” he says. “But I think what’s happened now made him want to be part of the same thing. Good for him, good for all those who have fought before.”
But he thinks much more than the liberal campaigns of the 1980s or today will be needed to bring change. “I’ll never forget that police station on fire,” says Farid. “Let’s hope one day we can do it everywhere, and all the poor together.”
SW: How do the riots begin?
Farid: When you gather on the streets and the cops know you are there, they turn up in large numbers. Then the fighting starts. Sometimes we had more people than the cops, and the fireworks scared them.
There were several times when they had to run away. That’s a great moment, and it’s when some people will take the chance to loot a shop or start a fire.
SW: Who makes the decisions during a riot?
Farid: There are people who have done this before. Everyone listens to them because it is a very dangerous situation. If you are grabbed, it’s jail for you.
And the cops will fire their weapons at you. It isn’t a place for a meeting and a debate.
Sania: It’s mostly men in charge and making decisions. It didn’t feel like a place for me, at least around here. Some people look down on you, or don’t think you should be there. It’s a problem.
Actually, women can be as angry and ready to fight as men. We can be just as effective.
SW: What comes next?
Sania: People feel they have stood up, that they have done the right thing for Nahel and his family and for themselves. That will make them more confident about not accepting things as they are. But for some people, it will be jail that’s coming. We should support them, try to defend them.
Farid: I don’t think too much about the future. But it’s good to frighten the politicians and let them know that they are on a volcano that can erupt again.
Perhaps they will change a bit. And if not, then let them prepare for more.
Protesters told Socialist Worker why they were marching