State of emergency against youth revolt

While France explodes, the left pontificates. Peter Manson exposes the narrow-mindedness of economism

After two weeks of violent protests across France's towns and cities, the Jacques Chirac government of the quasi-democratic Fifth Republic is invoking draconian emergency powers in an attempt to crush the revolt of disaffected youth. In Paris and some 30 other towns a state of emergency has been declared along with night-time curfews. The government has given itself special powers, using a 1955 law aimed at suppressing the Algerian struggle for independence. They have only once before been employed in mainland France - in 1961, after the police killing of over 200 Algerians in Paris. The powers run for 12 days but can be extended indefinitely by parliament. Far-reaching and dangerous, they: l permit the cabinet to declare a state of emergency in all or part of the country; l allow the minister of the interior to place individuals under house arrest; l give regional authorities exceptional powers to impose curfews and restrict movements (breaches could mean a fine or two-month jail sentence); l enable the authorities to close down public meeting places, control the press and broadcast media, and stop film and theatre performances; l empower the police to carry out raids and search properties without a warrant. At the time of writing 6,000 cars and scores of buildings have been torched and around 1,500, mainly young, people arrested. The uprising began in the eastern Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, which is situated in the area colloquially known as 'nine-three' - 93 is the postal code for the department of Seine Saint-Denis, part of the former 'red belt' dominated by the Parti Communiste Franà§ais. Seine Saint-Denis still provides the PCF with its most concentrated support and best election returns, but the revolt was hardly organised or inspired by communists. The youth of Clichy-sous-Bois, particularly the Chêne-Pointu sink estate, were outraged after two teenagers were killed running away from the police. Rival gangs suddenly forgot their old enmities and united as one in what has been a sustained outburst of pure rage. Their revolt is an act of despair, a violent eruption of accumulated anger against authority and against the bleakness and hopelessness of life. There is no plan, no coordination, or a readily definable political target - except the police. The police are hated. They are renowned for their brutal treatment of those whom they stop or arrest. One youth commented of the two dead teenagers: "They had done nothing, but if the police chase you around here, you run." The two, together with a friend, scaled the wall of an electricity sub-station in their desperation to get away. All were electrocuted, but one of them miraculously survived. Interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy - a rightwing populist who aims to succeed Chirac as president - had previously declared a "war without mercy" on violence in the Paris suburbs. After regretting the deaths he at first implied that the three were 'delinquents' being pursued after the police became suspicious of them. However, within hours, he stated that they had no reason to fear, since the police were not pursuing them at all. In all likelihood it was Sarkozy's callous lies - put out as part of his anti-migrant spin-doctoring - that sparked the violent reaction in Chêne-Pointu on the night following the deaths. So disgusted were the dead boys' parents that they refused to meet with the interior minister. However, his immediate reaction to the initial rioting helped ensure the revolt widened - he described the rioting youth of the cités as nothing but racaille (riff-raff) and voyous (yobs): they were gangrène (scum) who needed to be flushed away with a power-hose. He soon came to regret his comments, as the rioting spread - first to other Paris suburbs, and then to just about every area of France with a substantial migrant population. Or, more accurately, with a population that is often descended from migrants - most of the young rebels will be the sons or even grandsons of those who came to France as early as the 1950s. Many originated in French colonies in north or sub-Saharan Africa and most of these are muslims - a convenient scapegoat for dropping living standards, as the state continues its neoliberal assault on pensions, working conditions and wages. Although France has probably the highest proportion of migrants and their families in Europe (an estimated 10% of the population), it can hardly be said that the majority have been fully integrated. Employers routinely discriminate against applicants with Arab or islamic names and unemployment among people of African descent is twice the national average (already high at around nine percent). Some estate agents have a policy of preferring "French-looking" buyers. Many long-term residents are not French citizens and are unable to vote and there is ongoing harassment of sans papiers - those without official documentation. On top of all this, recent state cuts in education spending and in grants for local amenities have hit the banlieues (suburbs) particularly hard. Not surprisingly then, as well as displaying its ruthless side, personified by Sarkozy - with thousands of the notorious CRS riot squad deployed in the cités and 1,500 reservists called up, not to mention the full, anti-democratic armoury of emergency powers - the state has attempted simultaneously to demonstrate its 'compassionate' face. Cuts in community spending are to be restored and a €30 billion urban redevelopment plan is to be speeded up. Prime minister Dominique de Villepin, a close ally of Chirac - in contrast to Sarkozy, who is widely regarded as a rival - has fronted the announcement of these hastily thought up sops, together with a range of, as yet largely unspecified, measures to help 'promote equal opportunities'. Firms will apparently be encouraged to actively recruit in the banlieues and, monstrously, the compulsory school-leaving age may be reduced from 16 to 14 in some cases to allow youngsters to take up special apprenticeships. That will supposedly give them a sense of belonging. Chirac himself sums up the carrot and stick approach: "The law must be applied firmly, but in a spirit of dialogue and respect." But it is highly unlikely that the thousands of disaffected working class youth will be won round either by increased spending or a few platitudes. Even those opposed to the current violence express anger and despair. The fact is that they are not regarded by the gaullois majority as being 'properly' French - they are not franà§ais comme les autres. There can be no clearer demonstration of this chauvinist, anti-migrant and especially anti-islamic attitude than the passing of the 2004 law which bans the wearing or displaying of conspicuous religious and political symbols in state schools. It was claimed that this was a non-discriminatory measure, designed to protect secularism, but there is no doubt that it was brought in to undercut support for the Front National and the baying right with their demands to 'halt the islamicisation' of France. Everybody knew that it was muslims and the hijab which were the targets. The entire left has come out against Sarkozy and the government's emergency powers. It has condemned racism and discrimination and issued statements ranging from liberal good wishes for the inhabitants of the suburbs to a kind of understated sympathy with the rioters. Yet in 2003-04, when Chirac was pushing through his islamophobic, chauvinistic ban on the hijab, almost without exception the left failed to see this for what it was - a divisive, ultimately anti-working class measure aimed at an already oppressed section of society. The PCF came out officially against the ban, but did precisely nothing to oppose it. Far from attempting to mobilise its supporters to defeat it, it boycotted the (usually small) actions called against the bill. It even gave its 24 deputies in the national assembly a free vote when the matter came to a head in February 2004 - and seven of them actually voted for the ban. The Fourth Internationalist Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire was also formally opposed to the law, but some of its teachers actually went along with the ban in schools. The LCR adopted an 'even-handed' approach - 'against the ban, against the veil' - and like the PCF stayed away from organised protests: "We don't want to take part in a demonstration that might appear ambiguous on the wearing of the veil," said Christian Picquet on behalf of the LCR political committee (see Weekly Worker February 26 2004). A minority, together with the leadership of the youth section, the Jeunesses Communistes Révolutionnaires, took a more principled stand - in opposition to both the ban and the LCR majority's opportunism. However, the worst of the lot was the ultra-economistic Lutte Ouvrière. It was LO teachers who led the way in anticipating the law before it was passed and refused to teach muslim girls wearing the hijab - on the grounds of secularism and women's rights! LO's weekly paper declared that teachers would be "delighted to have at their disposal a text to support their opposition to the wearing of the veil in school" (Lutte Ouvrière December 19 2003). The law would be a "point of support" for them, and for those girls allegedly forced to wear the veil by family or community pressure. The left's attitude to this question exposes its expressed concern for migrant rights during the current crisis for what it is: somewhat shallow, to say the least. This is partially reflected in its coverage of the riots - you get the distinct impression that they would all rather be concentrating on mobilising against the pending electricity privatisation, and in fact the LCR leads on the electricity privatisation question on the front page of the latest edition of its weekly, Rouge! Although Arlette Laguiller takes up the revolt on the estates in her editorial in Lutte Ouvrière (November 4), at the time of writing LO has issued no statement on the crisis. When it comes to what the PCF does say, its statement serves to accentuate the party's continuing political as well as organisational decline. It is almost entirely bereft of class content - a mix of liberal platitudes and downright reactionary calls for a benign police force and respect for the law. There was a time, in the post-war years, when estates like Chêne-Pointu would have been a PCF stronghold, with a PCF presence, if not a PCF local organisation, in every apartment block. Despite its nationalism, reformism and bureaucratism, the party was a real power right into the 1970s. It would have been able to, at least partially, impose that power on the youth and help divert their frustrations into more political, more organisational forms, despite the obvious opportunism of its politics and the dead ends into which they would lead. Nevertheless, the PCF would certainly have been able to minimise the anti-social aspects of the current revolt - the destruction of schools and other facilities, the burning of cars and other such property. Now there is a vacuum and in these particular areas it is the islamists who are attempting to fill it. Admittedly, there is not as yet much evidence of any great success, but there is no doubt that in these circumstances the youth will be open to all sorts of new ideas. One thing is for sure: after its performance over the hijab ban, muslim youth will not be turning to the left in large numbers. In truth the PCF has never had a good position vis-à -vis migrants and the colonies. It hardly threw its weight behind the movement for Algerian independence and its elected representatives have had a tendency to express many of the gaullois prejudices against outsiders. An example of this occurred last month when the PCF mayor of Calais, Jacky Hénin, called in the CRS against homeless migrants on his patch. Hundreds are wandering the streets of Calais, sleeping rough in parks, since the closure of the Sangatte refugee centre. Now they are forced to rely on various charities to feed them and are subject to harassment by the police - between 400 and 500 sans papiers, desperate to reach the UK, are arrested every week. There had been a tacit agreement that the police would not harass the migrants while they were queuing for their daily meal. But on October 27, following the alleged rape of young deaf woman by a migrant, the CRS launched an attack against 300 refugees waiting outside a Red Cross booth. Hénin has commented that it would be too easy to say all migrants are bad, but he had a duty to protect Calais residents. He was against opening a new refugee centre because that would only mean "another Sangatte, where mafias make the law" (Lutte Ouvrière November 4).