The French Riots: Dancing with the Wolves

Against the Current, No. 120, January/February 2006

Yves Coleman

IN FRENCH SUBURBAN slang, to “dance with the wolves” means to provoke the cops, make them run and, obviously, to escape without being arrested.  The unfortunate reality is much less romantic.  The three weeks of recent riots may be seen as a long overdue political response to the profound racism of French society; but in this writer’s view this uprising is more an index of desperation of French youth, of all national origins, than the beginning of a new political movement.

The Big Stick…

As a result of the riots 4,770 persons have been arrested.  At the beginning, the government tried to persuade the media that the “rioters” were mainly foreigners, but we know now that this was a lie—90% had a French ID, although 60% were children of immigrants (who themselves may have attained French nationality after a certain number of years of stay in France).

Half of the persons arrested were under 18, and the courts have delivered severe judgments: 422 adults have already received jail sentences, from two months up to four years, and 577 minors have been treated under juvenile justice (118 have been put in closed youth institutions).

To better control the situation, the government invoked a 1955 law from France’s colonial war in Algeria, which allows for cities to impose curfews and other emergency powers.  This exceptional “state of emergency,” which was supposed to last only 12 days, has then been extended for three months by the Parliament and may be used at any time.  Once the riots were over, the government announced a series of repressive measures: u Against so-called fake marriages.  In other words, it will be more difficult for a foreigner to marry a French man or woman.

  • Against polygamy.  A part of the right wing has accused French-African kids from polygamous families of playing a leading role in the riots, the government will be stricter against those who practice polygamy in France (the numbers vary from 10,000 to 30,000 African families, but it’s impossible to have serious figures).
  • Against foreign students.  (More requirements will be imposed to get a student visa).
  • Against illegal workers.  More will be expelled in 2006 than in 2005.
  • Against the “rioters” who have been arrested and did not have a French ID. (A hopeful development, however, is that the Minister of Interior discovered it wasn’t that easy to expel them legally).

…And the Carrot

After having used the big stick the government has made several promises: All the unemployed will be interviewed during the next three months in the unemployment agencies; 20,000 short-term contracts, specially designed for young people under 25, will be reserved for the poorest areas (a similar kind of job invented by the left in 1997 to provide cheap labor for municipalities and NGOs had been cancelled in 2002 when the right took power); 5000 teaching assistants will be employed in the most “sensitive” districts (those jobs too were cancelled three years ago); the number of grants for pupils will be tripled and more money given to local associations which help the youth by providing free education help, or, for example, offer dance, sports or music classes (the government had drastically diminished their funding).

The government has also decided to enable bosses to hire apprentices at age 14 instead of 16, a big step backwards for working-class youth.  Only the kids of poor families will be targeted.  (Already 68% of pupils are oriented to technical schools at the age of 15.) This measure is aimed at destroying the “unique college” (a common school for all the pupils under 15), preventing them from gaining better general knowledge and qualifications and, obviously, impeding them from going to university.  And it will enable the bosses to hire teenagers for much less than the minimum wage (50-75% less).  But let’s go back to the spark which put the plan on fire.

Immediate Causes

Everything started because of the deaths of two French-African teenagers, Bouna and Zyed, on October 27, in Clichy-sous-Bois, a poor northeastern suburb of Paris.  They had just finished playing football with friends when they saw some policemen.  Scared, they ran, escaping into an electrical power facility, where they were electrocuted.

Spontaneously, local youth mobilized in the streets and protested, burning garbage cans, cars, etc. It could have ended or lasted two or three days in the small town of Clichy-sous-Bois, had not Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy accused the two dead youth of planning a theft and if, on October 30, a Muslim prayer room had not been hit by a teargas canister.  Sarkozy lied a second time, accusing the “rioters” of having thrown this police canister.

The Minister of the Interior’s lies, the violent and racist language he repeatedly used in front of TV cameras, the initial unwillingness to open an inquiry about the death of Bouna and Zyed, and the open contempt for the praying Muslims, who received no explanation or apology from the highest authorities of the state—all these factors exasperated not only the youth of Clichy-sous-Bois but a significant part of the French youth who live in working-class and poor districts.

In subsequent days, the situation worsened in many Parisian suburbs and then on a national level.  One estimates that around 15,000 people (in a country of 62 million inhabitants) participated, in small groups from 10-50 people.  To counter them, the government mobilized 12,000 policemen and “gendarmes” (126 of whom have been wounded, a dozen quite seriously).

Although the media have dramatized the situation, only 25 of 96 departments have seen riots, and 300 of over 36,000 municipalities were affected.  Nevertheless, the rioters burnt or damaged over 9500 cars and all sorts of public institutions: post offices (50), gymnasiums, schools (250), buses (140), youth centers, theaters, child care centers, etc.

Young people wanted to express their solidarity with the two dead teenagers of Clichy, to protest against the attitudes of the cops, and to protest against the teargas cannister thrown into a Muslim prayer room.  Many of them remembered past examples of police “bavures”—acts of cop violence which end in the death of local youths, whether delinquent or not. (Between 1981 and 1991 alone, 189 youth died in these “incidents.”) They remembered that most of the time cops are not convicted by courts, or are treated very lightly, when they kill a young inhabitant of these so-called “sensitive districts.”

The media also played a certain role in the extension of the riots, because minority groups in each suburb wanted their district to become “famous.”  Burning cars or dumpsters and attacking cops or firemen became a way to get on TV for one night and to show that they had as much “balls” as the youth of other suburbs.  (Young girls and women did not participate at all in these riots, although many of them understood their reasons; as one of them jokingly put it, “For us there is a permanent curfew in the estates,” referring to women’s oppressive condition.)

It took some days for the rioters to find new tactics to organize themselves—for example, in order not to be recognized some went to other districts, swapping their place of intervention—and it also took some days for the forces of repression to understand their tactics and to find the appropriate answer.  For political reasons, the government preferred to fall into the rioters’ trap by sending a disproportionate number of cops into the districts, both to show the population that they were mastering the situation but also to over-dramatize it.

Deep Origins of Youth Revolt

Obviously a large debate has started in all the political circles to explain why this revolt happened.  At the beginning the right wing blamed the “Islamists” or even “the Muslims,” but soon this ridiculous accusation was dropped, especially when the most important Muslim organizations denounced the riots and mobilized their members in the districts to cool things down.  The Muslim religious groups were not very effective, but at least this proved the riot did not have any religious motives.  Then the right started to denounce the recently arrived African kids, “neglectful” parents, etc.

The left pointed to other causes, including obviously the arrogant and racist police attitudes.  In the streets, day and night, the cops systematically ask every Black or North African youth they come across for their identity papers, often insulting them to provoke a violent reaction.  (Nationally, the number of cops is permanently expanding in France.  Between 1974 and 2003, it jumped from 99,144 to 143,836.  These figures don’t include the constantly growing private municipal forces.)

Apart from the aggressive and often racist attitude of the police towards the youth of the working-class districts, their entire social environment is in crisis.  There are in France 751 ZUS (Sensitive Urban Zones, better known as poor districts) with a total population of 4.2 million inhabitants whose situation has just been getting worse for years.  What are the main problems?

  • Unemployment: up to 40-50% in some districts for the sons and daughters of working-class immigrants, as opposed to a national average of 10%.
  • Bad housing: old decaying tower blocks mainly built in the 1960s and ’70s, first for French workers, then for French settlers who were obliged to leave Algeria after 1963, and for foreign workers who often lived in third-world slums around the main big towns until 1968.  These estates are geographically isolated, lack in public transport, public services, shops, etc.
  • Bad public education: young, inexperienced teachers (38% are less than 30 years old in the Ile-de-France region, the largest in France with a population of 10 million people), learning on their jobs with the most difficult pupils; a high percentage of school absenteeism, a high level of violence (10% of the schools account for half of the so- called “acts of violence” including insults, physical aggression, thefts, rackets, etc.), and a high concentration of pupils with foreign-born parents (10% of schools for students aged between 10 and 15 have more than 40% of pupils with foreign-born parents).
  • Poor public health: there are half as many hospitals in the poor areas as in the rest of France; fewer private doctors and drugstores, more problems of obesity among children, less care for teeth, bad vision, etc.
  • A very difficult situation for women: working-class districts have the highest percentage of single mothers living below the poverty line.  In the Seine-Saint-Denis department (1.3 million inhabitants, at the gates of Paris) half of these mothers are defined as “poor.”

Statistics about so-called “urban violence” jumped from 3,462 acts of violence in 1993 to more than 100,000 in 2005.  During the first ten months of this year, 28,041 cars and 17,489 garbage cans were burnt and there were 6,004 incidents involving some sorts of “missiles” (stones, Molotov cocktails, etc.).

This means that state administrators and politicians had all the information at hand but ignored it for obvious reasons.  It would cost too much to restore all that has been slowly destroyed during the last 30 years: jobs, public housing, public services, cultural centers, shops, cinemas, etc.—in short the whole economy and social life of these districts.  The March for Equity The first important riots in Les Minguettes (near Lyon) in summer 1981 had provoked a “March for Equity” in 1983, a wonderful name which later became known as the “March of the Beurs” (Beurs is an ethnic slang word for Arab and has no political content).

Around 100,000 people gathered in Paris on December 3, 1983, raising many hopes in the French immigrant youth at that time.  Only three weeks later the Socialist Prime Minister was attacking the religious practices of the North African Muslim workers of Talbot-Poissy who were on strike against mass firings in the automobile industry.

The left in power, and especially the Socialist Party (SP), was only able to recruit a certain number of the local leaders for its local municipal teams (at a very low level of responsibility), and to finance local or national associations (SOS Racisme, founded in 1984, being the most famous), which became heavily dependent on the SP.

The left did not launch a massive program of investment in education, health, transport and culture—to mention only some basic needs—preferring to talk about racism and multiculturalism instead of acting against the plague of racism and dealing with its deep economic roots.

The SP preferred to select a small elite of obedient leaders and to recruit underpaid social workers of North African origin in the working-class suburbs, rather than to deal with the problems of mass unemployment.

From “Security” to Despair In October 1990, a second wave of revolt exploded at Vaulx-en-Velin.  Since then, the left and the right have decided to launch various “politiques de la ville”(town policies) conducted by a “ministère de la ville” (town ministry, created in May 1991), which led to the very slow restoration of some districts and the creation in 2003 of “free zones,” areas where companies get important tax advantages if they agree to invest in these districts and hire 25% of local staff.  These “free zones” have had a limited impact for the moment, creating only 90,000 jobs.

From the 1990s another important change occurred: the left started to adopt the same language as the right and far right and talked all the time of “security” instead of dealing with social insecurity.

The rebellious youth of the 1980s, who had some hopes in reforms or who held more or less radical views, have been replaced by totally desperate kids and young adults who know they have no future, and in fact nothing to lose.  To be beaten up, to be arrested by the cops and to go to jail, is seen not as a failure but as an heroic act, a necessary test.  All those who live in working-class suburbs have stories to tell about weapons circulating in schools, physical fights with baseball bats between rival youth gangs, permanent police harassment.

Regarding racism towards French people of African and North African descent, young workers have also their depressing stories: bad nicknames invented by French coworkers or foremen, suspicions or accusations of being linked to Bin Laden’s ideas if they openly practice their religion at work, difficulties in getting a qualified job even if one has a university degree, etc.

The general situation in the suburbs has also worsened because of the development of an important “parallel economy” based on drug trafficking (mainly cannabis) and trafficking all kinds of stolen goods.  Today, when right-wing politicians say that criminals are manipulating the riots, most policemen say the opposite: the small districts which are most controlled by the criminal gangs have not known any “rioting”—guess why!

But one must add that French suburbs are not homogeneous: You have small houses (“pavillons”) next to huge old tower blocks falling to pieces or new renovated estates.  The situation can change from one street to another, or one block to another.  Therefore it’s difficult to talk of “the” suburbs.  The only certainty is that the poorer the suburbs are, the more immigrants (or sons of immigrants with French ID) and unemployed you will find living there.

Who Has Been Involved?

The violence has involved all sorts of people, from 10-year-old kids to a very small minority of delinquent adults (22-25 years old), but it had no political content and certainly not an Islamist one, contrary to the fairytales invented by some journalists.  (Radical Islamists—i.e. jihadist—terrorists—try to keep a low profile.  As for the rioters themselves, the fatwas issued by local Muslim leaders against the violence were regarded as simply irrelevant.)

All observers note that the big difference between these riots and those of the 1980s and ’90s is that the majority of today’s rioters were much younger (10-16) and that there was a significant gap between the teenagers and their 20- to 30-year-old brothers and sisters.  One must also note the explosion of what is labeled “juvenile delinquency:” the statistics jumped from 72,242 to 142,824 minors arrested between 1973 and 1996, 18% being charged for a “crime” or an “offense.”  Obviously one must be very cautious about these statistics, which are always manipulated by different state institutions.  But at least they show, on a long-term perspective, that the state has a more repressive attitude towards the youth, repression which obviously fuels the hate against cops and judges.

Local Spontaneous Mobilization?

To my knowledge there have not been many examples of “positive” self-organization of the inhabitants apart from a working-class district in Toulouse, where the anarchosyndicalists have been active for years.

In Clichy-sous-Bois some groups of Muslim adults (“moderate” not right-wing Muslims or Islamists) succeeded in “cooling down” the youth.  But the intervention of religious authorities in political struggle can’t be considered as something positive for revolutionaries.  An association (Au-delà des mots, Beyond the Words) was also created in the same town to help the families of the two dead youths and to push for a serious legal enquiry about what happened.

In other suburbs, small groups of parents and inhabitants gathered every night in front of their district’s huge tower blocks to talk with the kids and try to convince them not to burn cars.  But apparently this did not lead to many political discussions.

The left and the right mayors mobilized their staff and sympathizers.  They organized local meetings, but these were boycotted by the youth and attended only by people over 40 or 50, local animators and municipal council members.

As regards negative local organization, in two Parisian suburbs the right-wing governmental party organized unarmed patrols by local citizens with mobile phones, cameras and fire extinguishers.  There have also been private local initiatives by people who wanted to protect their cars and property and who cooperated with the cops.  Hopefully, this right-wing (or worse, if the National Front had infiltrated them) militia phenomenon has been quite microscopic, and Jean-Marie Le Pen told his troops to stay quiet and calmly wait for the next elections.

The Media and the Parties

Once the “events” were over, we discovered that French TV did not show the same images as the world media, and that the most violent scenes appeared only on foreign TV, which may partly explain why French people did not understand the tone of the American media.

After having chased the “rioters” to interview them with little success, the media have now switched to another theme: the successful small businessmen (of African and North African descent) who succeed in making money and becoming efficient entrepreneurs and good citizens in the most adverse situation!

What has been the attitude of the reformist left, and of the right?  The Socialist and Communist parties (SP and CP) wanted to “reestablish law and order” and did not push for new elections or for Jacques Chirac’s departure.  The CP opposed the reintroduction of the 1955 emergency law, while the SP had first a neutral attitude and then changed its mind when it was extended for three months.

The SP preferred to support a “good” law-and-order policy than to support the youth, while the CP in some towns struck a bit more empathic attitude toward the youth without showing “anti-cop” attitudes.

Before the crisis, the right was already divided, discredited and hated for its permanent attacks on the living standards and basic social rights of a majority of the population.  Chirac could have asked Sarkozy to leave the government as a symbolic change, but preferred for the moment to combine a tough policy with the announcement of some symbolic “social” measures.  In any case this right-wing government has a simple short-term policy: to stay in power until 2007.

Even if Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin has admitted that the government made a mistake in drastically diminishing the funding of local community associations, he keeps insisting that the cops made no mistakes.  He even talked about the “social imbalances created by an uncontrolled flow of clandestine immigration” (for years one of the National Front’s arguments).

Collective Bargaining by Riot?

Concretely the “suburbs” have “won” nothing for the moment.  In a way, things have got much worse for their inhabitants, especially the youngest ones, for whom everything will be more difficult after this movement.  But the rebels succeeded temporarily on one point.  Issues that were denied or considered irrelevant are now plainly visible: the misery of some districts, discrimination at work and at school, the despair of some significant layers of the French population.(*)

The rap singers, sociologists and social workers who sympathized with the youth acted as the interpreters-spokespeople of the youth in the media and said: “When young people don’t have words to express their anger and frustration they act violently to be heard.”  The problem is that many people are ready to distort the message of that revolt.  The left politicians agree to say “The best molotov cocktail is a ballot”—and the majority of the far left and anti-globalization movement have no other concrete perspective than the elections of 2007.

The anti-racist left and a part of the far left present “positive discrimination” (in American language, affirmative action) and an increased political role for religious leaders as solutions, as if the American and British models were not also based on racism and racial discrimination, and did not prevent people from having a broader point of view than their so-called “ethnic” or “racial” identity.

Some people argue that in Britain and the States there is a bigger “non-white” petty-bourgeoisie and larger “non-white middle class” than in France.  That remains to be proved; but these anti-racists forget that social discrimination acts not only on the basis of color but on the basis of class, that there are millions of young kids who have French parents, whose grandparents were French, and have also very little future.

One of the unexpected consequences of these riots has been the creation of a Federation of 60 African and West Indian organizations: the CRAN, which wants to put forward specific demands for the “French Blacks”—a new word at least in political circles, even it’s used by the youth for 20 years—and at the same time remain in the traditional Republican, universalist (Americans would probably say color-blind) scheme.  The future will tell if this is a new development in French politics and whether strong “ethnocentric” tendencies will grow in the French African and French West-Indian population.

“Good” and “Bad” Violence?

On the internet and in radical circles there has been some debate about what attitude revolutionaries should have to youth violence.  The main Trotskyist and anarchist groups condemned “violence” in a rather abstract way, while a minority of small “autonomist” or anarcho-syndicalist groups supported the rioters, without criticism.

Nevertheless one can’t put violence against persons on the same level as the violence against objects, goods and buildings.  In other words, when rioters have burnt several buses with the passengers inside, physically attacked the cashiers of a supermarket, set a housing center for immigrant workers on fire, or beaten to death an old man who tried to calm them down, there is no way such acts can be supported.  They must be denounced as what they are: a symptom of the war between the poor, a symptom of capitalist barbarism.

The question is different if we are talking about burning cars or dumpsters.  When schools or post offices are concerned we should not be afraid of criticizing these acts, even if we can understand them as acts of revolt.  But it was not necessary either to call the rioters “delinquents” or “idiots” as one revolutionary group did (Lutte Ouvrière), nor to condemn the rioters’ “violence” in an abstract way, because we, revolutionaries, are not systematically opposed to violence.

As regards the violence against cops, the fact that they are armed does not justify every act against them.  In the present political situation, wounding or shooting at cops (which happened in two districts) has no positive political result.  If revolutionaries were in a position to do something, they would rather choose to politically influence the cops, propose to them that they leave the police force or at least refuse to obey orders.  Romanticizing physical (or worse armed) fights with cops leads nowhere.  The Italian far left has paid—and is still paying—a hard price for such illusions.

As to the far left or anarchist groups, none has important roots in the poorest parts of the main working-class districts (the CP lost its roots a long time ago, or where it retains them it’s not among the youth), and certainly not among the French of North African or African descent.

Most of the towers and big estates populated in the 1960s and 1970s by French and foreign workers have been abandoned by those who had enough money, either to buy with longterm credit their own little house in another district or to live in smaller and better buildings.  Thus the poorest suburbs and estates are predominantly populated by the poorest and most recent immigrants, or by the poorest French who did not have enough money to move.

The same phenomenon applies to foreigners or immigrants, when they can gather enough money.  As soon as a North African or African boy or girl succeeds at school, and goes to university, he or she moves into a slightly or much “better” area.  The 18-25 year olds who remain in those districts are generally the ones who have left school at 16 (often stopped attending classes regularly at 13-14), and have had only shitty, part-time jobs or unemployment benefits—or who have a university degree but can’t find any decently paying job.

The people of North African or African background who sympathize with the reformist left or the revolutionary left are usually those who have a regular job, some modest skill (blue or white collar), and are often state employees.  There is a big gap between those who have a job and those who are unemployed; no political group has been able to fill this gap in the last 40 years.

Some groups (mostly Trotyskyist) tried to “politicize” the revolt by demanding that Sarkozy quit the government and/or Chirac resign.  Unfortunately these slogans mainly address themselves to the traditional trade union, CP or SP militants or sympathizers who have a more or less safe job, live in a safe suburb or a safe district of a suburb, and who still have illusions about the reformist left.  Most of these traditional targets of the revolutionary left don’t have African or North African parents.

The revolutionary left had little to say to the rioters and to all the young people who, even if they did not approve of all their actions, more or less sympathized with them.  This part of the youth had never experienced solidarity—neither on a local level, nor in high school strikes, nor in a temporary workplace.  And if they have had some brief taste of it, it certainly did not convince them to adopt the classic methods of struggle of the working-class movement.

Now that the riots are over and the courts have been very tough with more than 1000 people, the revolutionary groups have been very shy to mobilize for an amnesty and to create links with the families of all the adults condemned to jail, or youth who are going to be closely followed by the judges and other repressive institutions.

This is where the problem lies, not in a change of minister, a change of president, a 6th Republic or a new left government.

Whether the revolutionary left will be able to take the “bull by the horns” remains to be seen.  And it will be necessary to deal not only with the classical questions of solidarity among all the sections of the working class (employed and unemployed), but also with racism in a more effective way than until now. If not, French people of African and North African descent may well take the blind alley of African or Arab nationalism.

(*) Some people think that this revolt was much more political than similar riots in Britain or in the States.  For them, the fact that the rioters targeted symbols of the State and its institutions (policemen, post offices, schools, cops, etc.) inscribes them in an old French egalitarian tradition.  In this view the rioters have perfectly integrated French Republican values and protested because they can see that freedom exists in France, but not the other two pillars of the Republican system: equity and fraternity.  The Right-wing’s interpretation is obviously the opposite: the rioters hate France and most of them will probably never be integrated (“Love it or leave it”).  Needless to say, the first interpretation, although optimistic, seems more accurate than the second. 
back to text

ATC 120, January-February 2006