Riots are not a sign of strength, but desperation

No call for staying calm

Paul Russell looks back at the disgusting record of police savagery and gives his take on the challenges faced by the left in the next presidential election

In 2002, president Nicolas Sarkozy abolished neighbourhood police patrols, announcing that the police would from now on be a law-and-order force alone. Following this, subsequent government rulings simply increased police powers - notably Emmanuel Macron’s 2017 legislation authorising police use of firearms against anyone refusing a gendarme’s order to stop. Since then - uniquely in Europe - 13 youngsters have been killed by police firearms, including three so far this year.

Following the police killing of 17-year-old Nahel M on June 27, sparking a series of riots across the country, the main police union declared: “Today we are at war against vermin.” Presumably Nahel M was one of those “vermin” who needed to be eliminated - as he was by an officer shooting at point-blank range. An online ‘Go fund me’ initiative raised a million and a half euros for the officer’s defence and would have raised more, had not an embarrassed government stepped in to stop further contributions. Meanwhile, a fund for Nahel’s family lingers at the lower end of a few hundred thousand euros.

Vichy France

This is the latest in a long list of appalling actions carried out by French police, who do not have a distinguished record, to put it mildly. For example, back in July 1942, Paris police rounded up some 13,000 Jews, including 4,000 children. They were imprisoned in the Vel d’Hiv stadium in the suburb of Drancy. Packed together in totally unsanitary conditions and with little food or water, they were then dispatched by cattle truck to German extermination camps. The police initiative was an enthusiastic response to the request from the government of Vichy France to the capital’s police: demonstrate clearly to the German administration that Vichy was perfectly capable of carrying out such brutalities on its own.

Not until the middle of August 1944 did the Paris police react to the imminent liberation of the capital by going on strike, along with postal, railway and metro workers. Workers on the railways, unlike the police, had been active in resistance networks throughout the occupation - and at great cost. Given that the police had bided their time until the last moment, when leading elements of the French Second Armoured Division had penetrated the suburbs, this was a measure of their pusillanimity during the occupation.

Senior police commander Maurice Papon avoided trial for collaboration and the expulsion of Jews to Nazi Germany. Quite the opposite - he even received the Legion of Honour! Then in the 1950s, as the Algerian crisis deepened, Papon was dispatched there to oversee - and to participate personally in - the interrogation and torture of Algerians suspected of belonging to the National Liberation Front. Back in Paris in 1961, Papon coordinated the repression during the Paris massacre: a peaceful march of pro-independence Algerians confronted by a police attack, which resulted in many deaths - possibly 200 (police files are still closed). Algerians were beaten to death or thrown into the Seine. The following day, Papon announced that perhaps three Algerians had died. Thousands were rounded up - and not just Algerians, but Spanish, Portuguese, Moroccans, along with anyone of the wrong colour. They were imprisoned in makeshift camps … also in the Vel d’Hiv!

But back to the reaction to Nahel’s death. Violence erupted in his suburb of Nanterre, with similar actions occurring in some of the larger cities across the country. Disaffected and marginalised youth - two thirds of whom were under the age of 18, according to some reports - staged an urban revolt, attacking vehicles, shops, schools, libraries, town halls. In one case, they even ramrodded the home of a mayor. Agitators attempted - sometimes succeeding - to set fire to these buildings. Their weapons included Molotov cocktails. Several hundred police suffered injuries and responded with tear gas and water cannon, drones, helicopters and armoured vehicles. Three thousand demonstrators were arrested.

No doubt the state was taken by surprise, but it has been there before - notably during the gilets jaunes (‘yellow vest’) protests that erupted across France in 2019. That was a more rural affair, with agricultural workers joining smallholders and shop owners from provincial towns to protest against the increased cost of living, together with the steady degradation of transport links and social infrastructure. The movement extended nationally, with the blocking of major roads and entrances to towns.

The main enemy was Macron’s government, with the police a close second. When the protestors surfaced in Paris, they were joined by the bloc noir (‘black bloc’), an amorphous group of anarchists who rampaged along the Champs Élysées, smashing vitrines - especially those belonging to banks and larger corporations.

There is an evolving situation that is French only insofar as these events have occurred in that country - even if France has an issue with race and Muslims in particular, given its self-image as a secular, egalitarian society.

Left response

At heart, this is a problem of neoliberalism and endless years of austerity. It is the problem of a breakdown in the state’s ability to control the agenda, to find sufficient numbers who identify positively with it. The right has been calling for French society to re-impose a hierarchy, though without explaining how this is to be achieved and despite the evergreen French monarchists lamenting the loss of male authority, by blaming the French Revolution for having guillotined France’s premier father, Louis XVI, in 1793.

Two important factors - the nation-state and working class solidarity - have been fractured by a market which promotes individual autonomy. In France, as in other countries, a rising pushback is occurring in the trade unions, even if the traditionally larger and more militant trade union, the CGT, has lost ground to the more moderate CFDT. Which leaves the political scene and its leftwing parties - notably the Nouvelle Union Populaire, Écologique et Sociale alliance - to bear the brunt of rightwing attacks and the burden of replying in kind.

Under Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Nupes - and especially his France Insoumise (‘France In Rebellion’) - refused to ‘call for calm’ in the national assembly during the uprising. It did not call for violent action either, but its refusal to condemn the young rioters incurred the wrath of the centre-right and right in the assembly. Until 2005, FI had distanced itself from ethno-religious disputes - notably French Muslims, and their grievances. However, in 2005, after two youngsters from a disaffected suburb were shot and killed by the police, Mélenchon began to shift his priorities. Over the next few years, FI members worked in the suburbs. There is now an implantation of several thousand militants.

In his public pronouncements, Mélenchon repeats over and again that the problem is not the young rioters, but the government’s unwillingness to reign in the police, because, he says, it is afraid of them. Yet there are obvious cracks in Nupes, which need to be addressed in a principled way.

Two of the four political parties, the Greens and the Socialists, have publicly demurred at Mélenchon’s uncompromising stand. But, while
the Parti Socialiste remains committed to Nupes, the Greens are already planning to fight next year’s European elections separately, partly because the Greens have always done well in European elections. Mélenchon will have to work hard to ensure that any independent French Green MEPs remain aligned (‘in principle’) with the Nupes programme.

Right awaiting

Meanwhile, a faction within the PS, as well as the Parti Communiste Français, are also yearning to break their links with Nupes. But, given their recent mauling and collapse at the ballot box, they do not dare do it - for now. Fittingly, on July 1, attending a PS gathering in Lyon with the hopeful title, ‘Arise Socialists’, Olivier Faure, the party’s first secretary, responded to hostile questioning from the minority members who want a clean break with Nupes. Faure conceded that Mélenchon’s intransigent pronouncements did not sit well with the PS. And yet Faure took pains to steer clear of former PS member and former PS prime minister, Bernard Cazenove, who is now busy promoting his “social democratic, republican, humanist and ecological PS’ - along with former PS president, François Hollande.

Even an FI deputy, speaking off the record, said of her party leader:

Of course Mélenchon is still strong, but there is creeping fatigue. His old leftie stance is painful to watch. On the matter of pension-age reform, everyone was against it, so why did we end up quarrelling with all the other parties? With the Nanterre kid, it’s the same - we emerge angry with everyone.

Waiting in the wings is Marine Le Pen and her far-right Rassemblement Nationale. If an opinion poll published in the daily Le Figaro is to be believed, she emerged with the most satisfactory public approval (39%) of her response to the Nahel affair - basically to stay silent! Mélenchon is at the bottom, with 20% approval. Le Pen never tires of pronouncing that the RN is the official opposition, though her party is smaller than Nupes. Le Pen’s point, which she wants the electorate to understand, is that hers is a single party, unlike Nupes, and it acts as a government-in-waiting.

Other rightwing parties - notably Eric Zemmour’s Reconquête! (‘Reconquest!’) whose vice-president is Marine Le Pen’s niece, Marion Maréchal - may stand against the RN for the presidency in the next elections three years hence, but, upon losing in the first round, Zemmour and co will back the RN in the second, if Le Pen is the run-off candidate.

But candidate against whom? Macron will have terminated his uninspiring two terms, having shattered the illusion that he is the ‘Little Prince’. No-one from the mediocre bunch of his party appointees looks likely to replace him as a presidential candidate. The traditional right, Les Républicains, might see their fortunes revive, which would give Le Pen some worries.

However, in a scenario where Le Pen is faced off against Mélenchon, while she can count on the right to back her, Nupes will need every left vote it can muster. Lutte Ouvrière (‘Workers’ Struggle’), the persistently present Trotskyist party, has a habit of contesting the presidency in its own name and has chosen not to join Nupes. In the first round of the last election, when Mélenchon came just behind Le Pen, who qualified as the run-off candidate against Macron, he expressed frustration at the lack of votes from LO and other far left groupuscules, extending to LO’s refusing to ask its members to back LFI candidates in the subsequent parliamentary elections, which follow the presidentials by a month.

Nupes is a left-reformist alliance, even if its leader and his FI group within it are much more ‘left’ than ‘reformist’. But Marxists are faced with the dilemma, common to all bourgeois parliamentary systems (where similar parties in Greece and in Spain have come to grief), that it is very difficult to envisage a formula that would allow Mélenchon to proclaim a revolutionary programme; to get elected on it; and to carry it out.

Still, that is the hope and Marxists are nothing if not hopeful.