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Immigrant teens' death sparks rioting that spreads across France
A revolt against racism

November 11, 2005 | Page 4

JOHN MULLEN, a member of the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire (LCR) and editor of the journal Socialisme International, reports from Paris on the revolt against racism that led to ongoing nights of rioting. SHERRY WOLF, an editorial member of the International Socialist Review, contributed to this report.

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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.

The rebellion began in Clichy-sous-Bois, a poor northeastern suburb of Paris, after police checking identification apparently chased two North African teenagers into an electrical power facility, where the two were electrocuted. Nightly rioting spread to other predominantly immigrant suburbs around Paris, and then to an estimated 300 towns and cities across the country, as Socialist Worker went to press.

Almost 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 U.S.

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.

The government's despised Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, refers to immigrants as "scum." Two days after the teens' deaths northeast of Paris, police hurled a teargas canister inside a mosque during Friday prayers. The message of contempt is clear.

"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."

The 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 in Paris underlined how low a priority poor people--and particularly non-white poor people--are for the French government.

At the same time, France's right-wing government has suffered a series of setbacks. The governing party suffered a disastrous result in regional elections last year, and in the referendum on the European Constitution earlier this year, where the pro-business draft was voted down.

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 labor 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 firefighters 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.

The 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 suburbs of Paris. On November 9, there will be "meetings to demand respect" around the country. The latest LCR statement calls for the resignation of Sarkozy, an end to police provocations and violence, and more money for reforms to meet social needs.

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.

Leaflets 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 France only a few weeks ago in response to public service cuts and threats of further privatization.

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

YANN TERDECHÈNE, a member of the LCR, writes from France about the background of the rioting.

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IN THE U.S., the word "suburb" generally refers to a mostly white and more or less well-off area. In France, the situation is exactly the opposite--during the last 30 years, because of increasingly expensive rents in city centers, workers had to move to the suburbs, where the housing is cheaper.

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.

The "cités" were built at the end of the 1960s and in the '70s, when thousands of immigrants, mostly from northern Africa, came to France, called by employers who needed more labor. At this point, the politicians weren't making racist speeches about "closing the borders."

Native-born workers who could afford it progressively moved out of the "cités," which became more and more filled with immigrants. Nowadays, these neighborhoods 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.

The first big rioting of immigrants took place in 1983 started in Vénissieux, a suburb of the southern city of Lyon, when youth answered back against the racist violence of the police. Since then, riots have occurred regularly, often sparked by the deaths of young people at the hands of police--as they were this time when two teenagers died trying to escape a police ID check.

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 neighborhoods.

But at the same time, there is no doubt about who is responsible for the situation. As a parent in Grigny (another suburb of Paris) put it: "Burning a school is unacceptable, but Sarkozy is the one who set fire."

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.

The 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 on Paris to call for respect and equality.

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.

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