For over 2 weeks now France has been ablaze with the anger of rioting youth protesting against their poverty and marginalisation in one of the world’s richest countries. Hundreds of cars have been burnt, as well as several buildings, and violent confrontations have taken place between the youth and the security forces all over the country, the riots having spread from the proletarian ghettos in rundown Paris suburbs to places as far apart as Lille in the north to Nice in the south, Strasbourg in the east to Bordeaux in the west. The scale and duration of these riots is far in excess of what has been experienced in any imperialist European country for many a long year. It is undoubtedly, however, a portent of things to come.
When France voted ‘no’ earlier this year in the referendum on the European Constitution, this was already a sign of widespread dissatisfaction among France’s working class as the French bourgeois government seeks ways of helping to maximise the profits of the French bourgeoisie by cutting benefits to which French workers have become accustomed – a phenomenon common to all capitalist countries as capitalism faces a generalised crisis of overproduction, which is exacerbated in the old capitalist (imperialist) countries by the export of capital and their difficulties in competing against the technically advanced low-wage countries of Asia. While in some senses workers have never had it so good insofar as the shops are flooded with very cheap goods, this is offset by growing job insecurity, pressure to work longer hours more intensely, threats of later retirement ages, reductions of pension rights, loss of rights to free higher education, deteriorating public services, etc. However, in all of this, those who suffer most are those proletarians who are the lowest paid or are long-term unemployed, who are most dependent on the social wage which is being slashed, which is why it is they who are the first to be pushed beyond endurance and take desperately to the streets to hit out against the forces which are oppressing them.
The desolation of life in Parisian lower class suburbs was well documented in the film La Haine, and already at the time that film was produced several years ago it was clear that the life of the propertyless in France was bleak in the extreme. Since then there has been unremitting downward pressure from the bourgeoisie, which could not but lead to resistance of the kind that is now being witnessed.
The spark which ignited the unrest was the death of two innocent young teenagers, Bouna Traore (15) and Ziad Benna (17), who, fleeing in terror from the police, hid themselves in an electricity substation where they were electrocuted and died horribly. This dreadful incident cannot be dismissed simply as an accident since the boys’ response to the police charge is symptomatic of the arbitrary, overbearing and oppressive policing to which poor areas are subjected as the French bourgeois authorities endeavour to keep the dispossessed in check by intimidation and fear. In these areas, even middle aged mums are stopped several times a week and asked to show their papers, while the youth are never free of police harassment. To add insult to injury, less than a week before this incident, the French Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, who has his eye on taking over from Chirac as President in elections due to take place in 2007 and has been setting his cap at the 20% of French voters who support the fascist Le Pen, had denounced France’s slum dwellers as scum who needed to be sandblasted out of the estates.
The underlying cause of the riots, however, is well pinpointed by Jonathan Freedland writing in the Guardian of 9 November (‘France is clinging to an ideal that’s been pickled into a dogma’), who writes:
“The riots … are not hard to fathom; several French commentators have said the only mystery is why they didn’t break out 15 years earlier. If you corral hundreds of thousands of the poor and disadvantaged into sink estates and suburbs in a misery doughnut around the city, expose them to unemployment rates of up to 40%, and then subject them to daily racial discrimination at the hands of employers and the police, you can hardly expect peace and tranquillity. Cut public spending on social programmes by 20% and you will guarantee an explosion. All you have to do is light the fuse.”
The problem for the bourgeoisie is how to contain this revolt, particularly in view of the signs of disaffection even among relatively privileged strata of the working class, as demonstrated by the No vote to the European Constitution. The bourgeoisie, however, is not short of ideas on this score, which it is skilfully implementing even as these words are penned. For an emergency they mobilise the forces of law and order to wield the big stick, making thousands of arrests, deporting anybody who can’t prove himself to be a French national, enforcing curfews, etc. However, this is so expensive and so disruptive of normal economic life that it can only operate on an exceptional basis. The important thing is to make sure that the working class is divided against itself so that it is powerless to challenge bourgeois rule – and the bourgeois media are working overtime to help crystallise such division.
To try to isolate the rioters from the rest of the working class, a massive appeal is being made to the racism and chauvinism that has been cultivated for more than 100 years among the workers of France, as is normal in every other imperialist country, in order to mobilise their support for their masters’ imperialist adventures. That racism has led to institutionalised discrimination against people whose origins lie in the former colonies, which in turn means that the latter are disproportionately represented in the poorest sections of the proletariat of modern France. Jonathan Freedland in the same Guardian article notes that “One study last year found … that a man with a classic French name applying for 100 jobs will get 75 interviews. A man with the same qualifications but with an Algerian name, will get just 14.” That fact alone explains why there are so many people of Algerian origin living in France’s poorest areas.
Bourgeois propaganda therefore tells disaffected white French workers that those who are rebelling are foreigners with whom they have nothing in common. It even goes so far as to suggest it is all an Islamist plot on the part of people who want to set up Islamic autonomy within France! In fact, however, the facts prove this to be nothing but a pernicious fairy tale: John Lichfield, writing in the Independent of 5 November makes the clear point that “these are not, in the classic sense, race riots. There are almost no mono-racial ghettoes in France. The gangs attacking the police, and their neighbours’ property, have a sense of exclusion from rich, white society. But they reflect the bizarre ethnic mixture of the banlieues. Maybe 50 per cent are of Arab or African origin, and 30 per cent are black, with a sprinkling of French kids and the descendants of European immigrants. Of five youths tried for rioting in a court in Bobigny on Thursday, two were of Arab origin, and three were white, one of Italian extraction. Only one of the five was not born in France.”
The propaganda also castigates the slum dwellers as criminals – petty thieves and drug dealers – again people from whom ‘respectable’ workers would want to keep their distance. Since crime and poverty are always statistically related, it cannot be denied that there is a higher proportion of the population engaged in crime in the poor districts than in better off ones. This is still a far cry, however, from being able to castigate any but a tiny minority of the rioters as criminals. In actual fact, cheap drugs are made available by the rich to the poor as a means of keeping them quiescent and even culling a certain proportion of the ‘surplus’ population for which the bourgeois system cannot provide employment. They are sold to potentially rebellious elements among the poor, particularly the youth, on the basis that they give them the opportunity to express their ‘rebellion’ by defying the law by using illegal drugs. It is, of course, only a fake expression of rebellion supplied by the bourgeoisie, which makes its victims impotent to fight for the justice they crave. If there are, however, drug dealers and drug users among the rioters, they are rioting despite their involvement with drugs, not because of it.
It is, however, important to remember, when the bourgeoisie is attacking all sections of the working class, that united we stand, divided we fall. The young rioters are fighting back bravely against the same enemy as us, and they are our people. Although they risk cruel punishment, their actions will force the bourgeoisie to compromise, at least for a while. We must support them, even if they put us to the inconvenience of having to make an insurance claim in respect of a burnt out car.
According to the Financial Times of 9 November cited above, “Edgar Faure, France’s prime minister half a century ago, once remarked: ‘France is not ungovernable. It can be ruled by skill and dissimulation”. Nine-tenths of the information imparted by the news media, especially everything that attributes the riots to racism, Islamic jihad, ‘Eurabian civil war’ (see The Daily Telegraph of 8 November – Mark Steyn), is designed to contribute to the bourgeoisie’s dissimulation campaign. The working class in turn must respond with even more skill, with maturity and wisdom, and above all with an impregnable solidarity with its most marginalised sections, for without that the bourgeoisie cannot be defeated.
Finally, revolutionary communists, instead of condemning the behaviour of the rebellious youth as mindless vandalism and pointless anarchism, has a duty to provide leadership and organisation to this spontaneous uprising of the youth so as to channel it along the broad highway that leads to proletarian revolution in the same way as in the ancient Latin proverb all roads led to Rome.