Youth Revolt in France

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by Gerry Foley / December 2005 issue of Socialist Action newspaper

In November, France was shaken by violent protests in Paris and many other cities. Thousands of cars and some buildings were set on fire. The violence reached into the center of Paris and Lyons. These were explosions of desperation by young people suffering from unbearable unemployment and living conditions.

The growth of an underclass of the chronically unemployed, underpaid, and socially marginalized is a characteristic of capitalism in our time. There have been similar rebellions in the Black ghettos of the United States, most recently in Los Angeles, and in Britain, as in the Brixton Riots of 1981.

In France, most of the underclass is nominally Muslim. In fact, some Israeli rightists tried to portray the clashes as part of a “war of civilizations” between the Muslim world and the West. But there is no indication that Islamists have played any significant role in the protests or that religion has offered any sort of a rallying banner.

Typically, these underclass explosions are touched off when the constant police intimidation touches a raw nerve—the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles as well as the deaths of two youngsters in the Clichy-sous-Bois suburb of Paris, who were accidentally electrocuted when they thought they were being pursued by police.

Given the political history of France, the violent protests were compared with the student rebellion of 1968, which sparked a mass movement that brought the country to the brink of a socialist revolution.

Actually, the clashes between the protesters and police were much more extensive this time than in 1968 but the desperate young people did not get the support of the trade unions, as the students did for a time in 1968. They were left isolated by the deep cleavage in French society between the older population and the underclass of recent immigrant origin.

In fact, some of the suburbs where clashes took place have Communist Party mayors who put an equals sign between the protesting youth and the police. Nonetheless, the outbursts were so extensive that they raised the specter of a deepening social malaise.

The underclass in France is more concentrated than in Britain or the United States. It is packed into high-rise housing projects around the big cities, suburban deserts without any attractions or facilities. Furthermore, since the youth rebellion of 1968, the French police have systematically practiced identity checks of young people, and these, of course, have been most numerous in the poor neighborhoods. This keeps the resentment of youth constantly on the boil.

The concentration of the disadvantaged gave the November explosions an appearance of civil war. But essentially, as in the Black ghetto riots in the United States, the protesters were generally confined to their neighborhoods and could only vent their rage by wrecking their own surroundings and the property of their neighbors. Thus, the uprisings had eventually to burn themselves out.

The right-wing French government presided over by Jacques Chirac was moved to make hypocritical statements of sympathy for the disadvantaged youth and promises to do more for them and their neighborhoods. The premier, Dominique de Villepin, the “soft cop” in the present confrontation, has promised to pump more money into the disadvantaged neighborhoods and to strengthen education and jobs programs as well as the police.

However, the immediate response has been a step-up in repression. In its Nov. 23 issue, Rouge, the newspaper of the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire, Socialist Action’s sister organization in France, stated: “A wave of instant sentences and expulsions [of those who
do not have French citizenship] has followed on the heels of the massive arrests orchestrated during the events in the poor suburbs. In response to social distress, the government is deploying its penal arsenal.

“Since the start of the urban rebellions, the police have charged a lot of people and often on a flimsy basis. Many defense lawyers note vague descriptions, ‘recognition’ based on a silhouette or an item of clothing, a certain brand of t-shirt.

“The pattern continues when they are brought before the courts. Immediate trial is systematically applied for adults, with the well-known results in terms of the lack of any real defense, hasty cases, harder and harder repression. Although they point out enormous
contradictions between the statements of police and witnesses, the lawyers almost never get the attention of the judges.

“On the orders of [Nicolas] Sarkozy [the minister of the interior and the “hard cop” in the government’s response], the demands of the prosecutors are getting more and more severe. In Arras, a 20-year-old young man was sentenced to four years in prison.”

The government has invoked a state of emergency law, and the right-wing majority in parliament has voted to extend it for three months. This law bans any demonstrations the authorities consider disruptive of order and provides for the imposition of curfews. It was passed in response to the Algerian revolution in 1955.

In the short run, according to opinion polls, the government has gained popularity by its crackdown on the disadvantaged youth. The right has been able to exploit the prejudice of the older French population against the recent immigrants and their children.

In this atmosphere the neofascist leader Le Pen is expressing satisfaction, expecting to be the ultimate beneficiary. But for the moment the right-wing parliamentary government is stealing his thunder. The irony is that Chirac was elected president due to fear of Le Pen. Le Pen managed to get into the second round because the Socialist Party was discredited by
its record in office when it controlled the government, so the second round was between Le Pen and Chirac.

Now, although the left, mainly the Socialist Party and its allies, have opposed some of the government’s repressive measures, public opinion polls show that a majority of French voters think that a SP government would not be significantly different than the present right-wing one.

The lack of a political alternative is diffusing the impact of the protests. But the traditions and mood of militancy are very widespread among all working people in France. This fall, there has been a surge of strikes and threats of strikes, enough to ring alarm bells in the British press, for example.

The latest action was a strike by railroad workers against “creeping privatization” of rail. The French government swore up and down that it had no intention to privatize the railroads, but the workers didn’t believe it. Its neoliberal agenda is too obvious.

The rail unions appear to have basically won their battle, giving the right-wing government another bloody nose. The essential problem of the unions remains, however, as it does in all the imperialist countries. Labor cannot win against the capitalists today if it confines its struggles to the narrow trade-union framework. It can only defeat the capitalist offensive by mobilizing a broad front of social opposition, and that has to include the unemployed and underclass youth.

When the French workers movement understands this, it will have the basis for a revolt that will dwarf 1968 and inspire effective counterattacks against the capitalist offensive in the other imperialist countries.

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