A revolt against racism
11th November, 2005
MULLEN, a member of the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire (LCR) and editor
of the journal Socialisme International, reports from
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HUNDREDS OF French suburbs and towns have become scenes of open rebellion against anti-Muslim and anti-Arab racism. Thousands of cars have been torched and warehouses set on fire by youth who are the children of North African and Middle Eastern immigrants--people who bear the brunt of the racist and discriminatory policies of the French government.
rebellion began in Clichy-sous-Bois, a poor north-eastern suburb of
10 percent of the French population is first- and second-generation immigrants
from former French colonies, who live in rundown housing estates that ring
most major French cities. These vertical slums are crowded and poorly maintained,
public transportation is unreliable, and unemployment is two to three times
what it is for the rest of the population--conditions familiar to African
Americans and Latino immigrants in the
In addition to the economic despair that permeates immigrant communities, the conservative government of President Jacques Chirac is enforcing a racist law against Muslim girls wearing veils in public schools.
government’s despised Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, refers to immigrants
as “scum.” Two days after the teens’ deaths northeast of
“The resentment is huge here, and we were not surprised to see an incident like this spark it off,” said Mokded Hannachi, a government official who has been acting as a mediator between police and youths. “You cannot constantly stop people for no reason to check their papers and not have consequences.”
thousands of young people in revolt are a new generation of the children
of immigrants, who are concluding that there is little future ahead for
them. Over recent years, they have seen rising electoral support for the
fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen, new racist laws against Muslims and, in the
last few weeks, vicious police round-ups under the excuse of clearing out
immigrants living clandestinely. This summer, the deaths of dozens of people
in a series of fires that swept through unsafe housing for poor Africans
the same time,
The government appears as absolutely illegitimate. Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin is so distant from ordinary people that he has never even been elected to the national assembly, but was appointed by Chirac. Chirac is generally known to have been involved in a series of shady business deals, and only his presidential privilege has kept him out of the courts.
Despite its unpopularity, though, the government has continued its attacks. Taxes on the rich have been slashed, and new labour laws make firing workers much easier.
In this climate, high levels of cynicism among poorer young people are to be expected.
This hopelessness has led to violent reactions--sometimes against the police, but also often against other young people or ordinary workers. One 61-year-old man was killed in the rioting. Last year, high school student demonstrations were attacked by disaffected youth, which eventually made it impossible to organize further protests. In the current riots, police are sometimes the target, but ordinary people’s cars and schools are also being destroyed, and fire-fighters trying to intervene have been stoned.
Among workers, the riots can be interpreted in many ways--people are talking of little else--and the ability of the left to offer explanations different from the right wing’s often racist calls for repression is crucial.
LCR, a revolutionary socialist organization of a few thousand, but with,
for the moment, an influence far beyond its ranks, organized a meeting
of left organizations with the aim of organizing a protest in the poorer
Lutte Ouvrière (Workers’ Struggle), another revolutionary organization, has denounced Sarkozy’s provocative police presence, and the degradation of living conditions for the poor, and called for more community policing.
The combination of an absolutely justified revolt against government contempt and police brutality on the one hand, and cynical, despairing violence against our own people on the other, makes for a difficult debate on the left about what to do and what to say. But the radical left is bigger and more influential than it has been for 20 years, boosted by defeat of the constitution referendum earlier this year. The political terrain won’t fall to the right wing alone this time.
calling for political organizing appeared in many towns as Socialist
Worker went to press. Regional trade union federations are organizing
to join this kind of initiative. Mass strikes spread through
The rioting could help bring down the French government of Chirac and de Villepin--provided they go further and find a link to unions and others, with a vision for changing the conditions that have sparked the upheaval.
The source of the discontent
TERDECHÈNE, a member of the LCR, writes from
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THE U.S., the word “suburb” generally refers to a mostly white and more
or less well-off area. In
One type of suburb that gathers the poorest population of all is the “cités,” with their cheap and ugly housing projects, made up of gigantic buildings that group together hundreds of apartments. They are often called “cages à lapins” (rabbit cages). Average income in the cités is about 60 percent of the national average.
“cités” were built at the end of the 1960s and in the ’70s, when
thousands of immigrants, mostly from northern Africa, came to
Native-born workers who could afford it progressively moved out of the “cités,” which became more and more filled with immigrants. Nowadays, these neighbourhoods suffer the worst problems of French society: unemployment, lack of public services, racism and poverty--and, as a consequence, drugs and violence. In Clichy-sous-Bois, where the riots began, unemployment for young men between 15 and 25 reaches 36 percent, and is even higher if only young Arab men are counted.
first big rioting of immigrants took place in 1983 started in Vénissieux,
a suburb of the southern city of
This type of violence can have self-destructive aspects and is often rejected by the majority of residents. In a way, burning schools, gymnasiums, post offices or public transportation is speeding up the government’s agenda of cutting spending in poor neighbourhoods.
at the same time, there is no doubt about who is responsible for the situation.
As a parent in Grigny (another suburb of
Nicolas Sarkozy is the minister in charge of the police, the leader of the main right-wing party, and probably the main candidate of the right in the next presidential election in 2007. He built his reputation of being tough on crime by organizing spectacular (and, of course, totally ineffective) police operations hyped by the media--and by insulting immigrant youth with his talk of “cleaning the cities.” Everyone is demanding his resignation.
violence could contribute to friction between different parts of the working
class, especially if there is no political answer from the left wing. But
we also have exciting positive historical examples. In 1983, after the
rioting in Vénissieux, Arab youth from the suburbs initiated a march
The left--which gained much credibility last May after the “no” vote against the European constitution-- should be ready to support a similar mobilization, and to restore hope with an anti-capitalist agenda.