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France's right-wingers crack down on youth rebellion
The velvet glove over an iron fist

November 18, 2005 | Page 6

LEE SUSTAR reports on the situation in France following weeks of rioting against racism.

THE FRENCH government moved November 14 to prolong the state of emergency declared a week earlier, even though the riots that swept the country for the previous 18 days appeared to be subsiding.

Opinion polls explain why. Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, whose tough-guy rhetoric reflected his racist contempt for North African and Arab youths involved in the riots, is out to use law-and-order campaign to boost his chances in the 2007 presidential race. Some 53 percent of respondents in one poll expressed support for Sarkozy--far higher than the approval rating for President Jacques Chirac, a fellow member of the right-wing party leading the current government.

Another 25 percent of respondents expressed a positive view of Jean-Marie Le Pen of the far-right National Front, who has called for the deportation of immigrants and their descendants. Sarkozy has already moved to deport non-citizens arrested in the upheavals, pandering to the far right amid a racist backlash.

Sarkozy, Chirac and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin--also a conservative presidential hopeful--have also promised to increase social spending and launch affirmative action programs aimed at youths in the suburbs who face poor housing, underfunded schools and few job opportunities. "It is the duty of the republic to give everybody the same opportunities," Chirac said in a nationally televised speech November 14. "Discrimination saps the very foundation of our republic."

But this velvet glove won't fit over Sarkozy's iron fist. For him, a crackdown represents an opportunity to recapture the political initiative following the government's defeat in May, when French voters rejected the proposed European Union (EU) constitution.

As French journalist Françoise Mouly noted, "Sarkozy openly admires American neoliberalism, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Rudolph Giuliani. He regularly counteracted the lofty pronouncements of the patrician Chirac with comments like 'I do what works.' As one French ghetto kid put it, 'He acts and speaks like a gang leader.'"

Villepin, meanwhile, has pushed a conservative agenda that includes pension "reform"--in other words, cutbacks in retirement benefits. Chirac, already weakened after the EU referendum defeat, was increasingly seen as irrelevant during the crisis.

The same can be said of French Socialist Party (SP) leader Françoise Hollande, who also backed the EU referendum. Though critical of the government's state of emergency law, the SP has done nothing to oppose it.

If, as expected, the state of emergency is prolonged by a parliamentary vote November 15, regional police would have the power to declare curfews and search homes without a warrant. This will only set the stage for a repeat of the outrages that led to the riots in the first place--abuse by racist local cops in the suburban ghettoes that ring French cities.

It was the threat of just such harassment that led two North African youths to flee police October 27 in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois as they tried to avoid a checkpoint. The young men died when they fell on power lines, and outrage in their communities soon turned to rioting. Three days later, the police attacked a mosque with a teargas grenade, and the rebellion spread.

While the media portrayed those involved as almost exclusively of North African Muslim origin, the descendants of African immigrants were also involved, as were substantial numbers of white youths.

All share the frustration of limited opportunities in a weak economy, as Business Week pointed out: "France's economy has grown an average 1.5 percent annually for the past four years and is set to grow only 1.2 percent this year. Unemployment is nearly 10 percent, and among those under 25, it is nearly 22 percent, about twice the U.S. rate. Youth joblessness runs over 50 percent in the suburbs that are home to many of France's more than 5 million first- and second-generation African and Arab immigrants."

The French far left, including the Ligue Communiste Revolutionaire (LCR), has been working to give the uprising a political focus and challenge the state of emergency, calling for the left to unite to organize protests that defy the curfew.

A revolt of second-class citizens

MURRAY SMITH of the Ligue Communiste Revolutionaire (LCR) wrote this article, excerpted here, for International Viewpoint, on the background to the riots and the government's use of a 1955 law authorizing the state of emergency.

THE 1955 law not only authorizes prefects (non-elected, government-appointed administrators of France's departments--the equivalent of counties) to impose curfews in areas where they deem it necessary. It can also be used to ban meetings and demonstrations, control the press, place banning orders on people going to certain places, search houses at night and even put people under house arrest.

The utilization of the 1955 law is highly symbolic. It was originally adopted during the Algerian War of Independence to combat the independence fighters and the population that supported them. Fifty years later, it is being used against young people, many of whom are the grandchildren of those same Algerians.

Because the areas where the riots have taken place are not just poor and neglected. They are also home to large concentrations of North and Black Africans.

The vast majority of these young people were born in France, and therefore have French citizenship. But they are very conscious of not being French citizens like anyone else. Young people of Arab and African origin are second-class citizens. And they are subjected to constant racist harassment--police controls, de facto color bars at the entrance to nightclubs, etc.

The use of the 1955 law amounts to a recognition that the only thing the government has to offer these young people is repression. Periodic attempts to "rehabilitate" their neighborhoods have had little effect.

The scale of the revolt is indicated by the more than 30 zones where the state of emergency has been invoked. They cover areas in and around France's main towns and cities, from the English Channel to the Mediterranean.

The term "riot," which has come to be applied to the revolt, is in fact misleading. The revolt is the work of gangs of youth who know each other and who consciously turn their anger into acts of destruction of property--burning cars, schools, shops, buses--and attacks on the hated police. As one young man put it to the Madrid daily El Pais: "We don't have words to explain what we feel. We only know how to speak with fire."

The only political demand that the rioters put forward is for Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy's resignation.

Of course, there is a negative side to this revolt. It is easy enough to see that wreaking havoc in their own neighborhoods causes damage to their neighbors and families. This can and is being exploited by the government to divide their communities between generations and between those of French descent and immigrant descent.

But when the despair of those to whom society offers no future explodes in revolt, it rarely does so in a neat, tidy and "politically correct" way.

The LCR, French section of the Fourth International, has called from the beginning for the resignation of Sarkozy. This demand has also been taken up by the Communist Party (CP) leadership, which has, however, had to contend with pressure from within the party, mainly from the municipalities it controls in the suburbs, to put equal blame on the police and the rioters. A joint statement opposing the state of emergency was issued November 8, signed by political parties (the LCR, the CP, the Greens and the Citizens' Alternative), trade unions and civil rights organizations.

Discussions are taking place with a view to organizing unitary initiatives, including demonstrations in defiance of the curfew in the areas where it has been imposed. A first rally took place on November 9 in Bobigny, the administrative center of the Seine Saint-Denis department, northeast of Paris, the area where the revolt began. It was supported by the LCR, the CP and the main trade unions of the department.

But over and above such initiatives, when the dust has settled, the French left will have to develop an ongoing presence in the neighborhoods where the revolt exploded, and from which it has been all too absent in recent years.

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