A WORLD TO WIN    #32   (2006)

France’s Proletarian Youth Erupt

The following is based on a report by a supporter of the Revolutionary Communist Party, Canada (Organising Committee) who carried out political work among proletarian youth in the Paris region last November along with a few other comrades. –AWTW

In twenty nights of fighting from 27 October to 15 November 2005, thousands of French proletarian youth mounted the most important challenge to the status quo since the May 1968 revolt. Like all crises, as Lenin wrote, this one revealed a great deal about the nature of French society, the interests of its social classes and those represented by organised political forces, and the fault lines along which this society could break apart and be reorganised in a whole new way through revolution.

Background to the Revolt

France’s cités, huge public housing complexes surrounding the suburbs of Paris, and most of France’s large and medium-sized metropolises and even some small towns, were built during the post-Second World War economic boom. In addition to many workers from Spain and Portugal, company recruiters brought in whole villages of immigrants from French-dominated North Africa to work in factories, the construction industry and other jobs.

Most of the complexes are very large, some with thousands of families and as many as 20,000 inhabitants. Further, especially in Paris, Lyon and other large cities, vast urban areas are made up of cité after cité, with row after row of sets of enormous blocks of concrete extending for many kilometres, as far as the eye can see. The French government calls poor neighbourhoods (which are often but not always synonymous with cités), “Sensitive Urban Areas”. According to official data, 5 million people live in 751 of these areas, 1.4 million of them in Île-de-France, the region formed by the departments adjacent to Paris.

These buildings represented a big change for the better in the living conditions of many of their original inhabitants, who often came from rural areas. Until the 1970s, thousands of Arab immigrant workers, especially those with unskilled jobs in construction and other unstable employment, lived in shantytowns on the outskirts of Paris and other urban agglomerations. The quality of the public (and some private) apartment complexes in the cités was never good in the first place, since they were built as cheaply as possible. For instance, soundproofing and other amenities were virtually ignored. Over the decades, their elevators, plumbing and other facilities have gone from bad to horrible, especially in those inhabited by the poorest people.

Even in neighbourhoods inhabited by tens of thousands, non-residential buildings are kept to a minimum, and the people have no place to go, not even a library or a cinema. The situation is the same for the younger kids, who “entertain themselves by fighting, since no activities are planned for them”, a girl from Seine-Saint-Denis said. Also, as was written in AWTW News Service, “A major complaint, heard everywhere in the suburbs, is that these housing complexes were deliberately located far from everything, from any place people might want to go, with public transportation only to where they’re supposed to work and practically no good way to get around at night – certainly not to Paris…. They call the cité a ghetto, not in the American sense of being inhabited almost exclusively by one or two nationalities but in the original sense of a place where certain people are forced to live and barely allowed to leave.” This situation, and also the high cost of public transportation, has created a feeling of frustration towards the transportation system; it’s no wonder that trains and buses were prime targets during the uprising.

These housing estates were multi-national and in some cases majority French, but with the passing years most of the native white workers moved out of many of them. The character of some of the larger ones changed sharply with the collapse of France’s auto industry in the mid-1970s and the decline of French big industry in general, which led to changes in the configuration of the proletariat. In the Paris region and many other (but far from all) cités, the majority of families today are of Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian as well as black African and sometimes Turkish backgrounds. There are still families of French and other European origin and more recent Third World immigrants. But the youth involved in the November uprising were overwhelmingly second and sometimes third-generation French, part of the French proletariat, not only in terms of their primary language and their legal status as citizens, but also in terms of their position in French society and their outlook and aspirations. In many ways they are different, for instance, from the worst-off workers in France, the recent immigrants, mainly from central and West Africa, who are confined to cleaning and other very menial jobs and live in far more precarious and often dangerous conditions than exist in most public housing areas.

These youth are French, but they have never been treated as other French people. Whereas unlike recent immigrants it is French society that has shaped them, it shaped them in a very particular way. This has forged a large part of their identity and outlook. Much of France’s working-class population came from Poland, Italy and Portugal; today their descendents are generally integrated into French society, distinguishable only by their last names. Most of the children of immigrants from France’s colonies have not been offered that option. By and large they don’t identify with the French system, the “Republic”, the way many other French do, and even if some of them would want to, they are always treated as foreigners by the rest of the population. As one young woman in a cité near Paris said, “It doesn’t matter if my friends and I were born in France; for most people, we’re blacks and Arabs.” The exclusion and segregation within French society the youth feel are not separate from the humiliation and domination at the international level that people of their various countries of origin are also subjected to by the big imperialist powers. This factor certainly played a role in the subjective factors that incited them to massively rise up.

Unemployment among youth in general in France is a huge problem. In the suburbs, about 20 percent of the people are unemployed, twice the national average, and in some neighbourhoods, as many as 40 percent don’t have jobs. Employers often select candidates according to skin colour, ethnic origin (revealed by the family name) and address, as well as the other, more universal criteria. There is a double frustration: it is very hard for cité youth to get any job, and if they do, it is likely to be one they don’t want. Their parents endured terrible hardships in the hopes that their children would have a better life. Their children have little hope for any life they consider acceptable.

By 10 or 12 years old, many children want to flee from school as a place of oppression. They feel that school is useless and think, “Educated or not, we will end up in the same misery; so why bother studying?” Indeed, the young students can see proof all around them of how diplomas won’t necessarily give them a better life. There are many people with university degrees in the cités who are unable to find a job in their chosen profession. Middle school (ages 12-15), in particular, in France, serves the purpose of tracking people into their future lives – higher education, technical programmes, jobs, or nothing at all. A lot of kids drop out when they reach 16 or even earlier, because there is no point in trying to go on. As a result, the average education level in the cités is low. Although there is some illiteracy among adults, there is almost none among youth.

 Youth Identity in the Cités

The attitude of these youth toward religion is complex and layered, a question most are not willing to discuss with outsiders and seem to have contradictory feelings about. A great many youth identify with Islam, which is no surprise since they are stigmatised as Muslims no matter what their beliefs are. Yet as an Islamic official complained to Le Monde newspaper, “These youth are drop-outs, who have a really weak link with religion. When we tell them Salam aleykum, they answer bon soir.”

They are clearly very influenced by the beliefs and values rooted in the social relations in the societies their parents came from. (In some cases, including people from the Caribbean, these societies are predominantly Christian.) This is particularly clear in the position of women. We found it very difficult to have discussions with women from the cités because they aren’t allowed to hang out and talk to strangers. There is a general phenomenon of “big brothers” dictating the limits of acceptable social behaviour to their sisters (even older ones) and other women. Since it’s a little less difficult for women to find a job, girls tend to be more assiduous in school than boys, and they don’t usually have the same personal confrontations with the police. The situation is especially complicated for many women who feel an obligation to be what they consider loyal to their own community in the face of the racism and hypocritical concerns about the rights of women from official French society and yet are not at all happy with the role they are expected to play.

Islam has been suppressed by the French state in many ways until recently. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the fact that the authorities have permitted the construction of only a couple of mosques in a country with millions of practicing Muslims and more churches than congregations. But even if French politicians use anti-Islam rhetoric in their speeches and adopt racist politics under the guise of secularism, the government isn’t really opposed to the propagation of religion; quite the contrary. It is seeking to maintain its control on the population by teaching imams to preach governmental Islam. Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria used to provide most of the suburbs’ imams, but now quite a few are French, since the Ministry of the Interior created a school for Muslim clerics. In response to upheaval among the youth in recent years and especially now, the authorities are anxious to build more mosques as a way to both control and encourage Islamic institutions.

It does, however, seem very clear that these youth are not willing to submit to religious authority. During the November rebellion, the cité youth didn’t listen at all when imams demanded the restoration of peace.

These youth have developed a sense of belonging to their cité and department. For the media, the cités are places filled with animals, not people; for politicians, the cités and their inhabitants are a problem. For many youth, living in the proletarian suburbs is a matter of pride. Some youth have tattoos showing the number of their department, and you can often see the name of a particular cité spray-painted on a wall. Many areas have their own slang, often a badge of honour, although often a fatal flaw to the ears of a potential boss.

 Mutual Hatred between Youth and Police

For many youth, the sharpest expression of this situation is the police, who don’t even try to pretend that cité youth have any rights. The police consider any young male in a proletarian neighbourhood or with the “wrong” facial features fair game, but the youth are their special target. They constantly stop youth for identity checks, even if they’ve already seen the particular kids’ papers many times before. This is a way to assert their authority and harass the youth. Often they humiliate them and worse, slap them around and occasionally seriously beat them. While the police make no secret of their racism, openly singling out Arabs and Africans for ID checks in central Paris, for instance, they tend to consider all youth from certain areas as the enemy. A group of any combination of young males in a car with department 93 plates stands a good chance of having the police ruin their evening. The police make life hard for them even in their own buildings. Often youth hang out in the lobbies or on the steps because there isn’t anywhere else to go. It has recently been made illegal for three or more people to assemble in public areas of buildings. If the police do show up, they will have batons out, ready to punish the youth on the spot and maybe arrest them as well.

Police and youth do agree on one thing: the police do whatever they want in these suburbs. For example, in the middle of November the police beat a young man in La Courneuve in department 93 because he allegedly insulted them. Two cops beat and kicked him; two others watched without saying anything and a fifth helped write a fake arrest report. The only thing special about this event was that a camera captured the scene and it was broadcast on television. However, even with this solid evidence against the police, all charges were dropped after a few days.

For all these reasons, the youth really hate the police, and that can be seen on the walls of the cités, where anti-police graffiti is very popular.

 The Unfolding of the November Rebellion

 The immediate background to the rebellion came with the intensified police harassment of youth signalled by the provocative declarations of Nicolas Sarkozy, the Interior Minister (and thus chief cop) who declared “war without mercy” against the racaille (“riffraff” or “low-class scum”) in the suburbs. He told the press he would take a Kärcher, a high-pressure water hose most often used to wash dog excrement off sidewalks and streets, to “clean out” the cités.

The spark was the death of two teenagers in Clichy-sous-Bois, a usually quiet proletarian suburb north of Paris. On 27 October, the police chased Zyed Benna (17) and Bouna Traore (15) into a power substation where they were electrocuted. Only a few hours after the tragedy, dozens of angry youth burned 23 cars, a tank truck and a post office, and fought with the police.

In an attempt to calm the situation, the French authorities publicised their own version of the events. Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin assured the press that Zyed and Bouna were delinquents well known to the police and that they were trying to steal material from a construction site. These declarations had – in the end – the opposite effect, since they turned out to be false and were later withdrawn, fuelling popular mistrust of the government.

On 30 October, the police put the icing on the cake when they threw a canister of teargas in front of the crowded improvised Clichy mosque on what practicing Muslims consider the holiest night of Ramadan. Once again, the reaction of police officials was provocative and insolent: they refused to apologise for anything and claimed that even if the teargas grenade was the same type used by riot police, nothing proved it was fired by the police.

In France, there are often small-scale somewhat violent disturbances, often involving burning cars, on Friday and Saturday night. However this time the daily fighting didn’t stop after the weekend. In fact, it started to spread on Monday, 31 October, with the riots in nearby Montfermeil, also in department 93, where the municipal police garage was set on fire.

Starting from this point, the rebellion expanded to other departments for almost three weeks. More than 50 of metropolitan France’s 96 departments were affected, nearly every urban area with the exception of Marseille. At the uprising’s peak (the night of 6 November), 1,408 vehicles were burned (982 outside the Paris region), in 274 different towns. After 20 nights, about 9,000 vehicles had been set ablaze, hundreds of buildings destroyed and 126 policemen injured, although few seriously.

The overwhelming majority of the buildings attacked were governmental (police stations, town halls, law courts, fire stations, schools, post offices, public revenue offices, tax offices, social security offices, youth and leisure centres, deputies’ offices, etc.) and relatively bigger businesses and property (factories, warehouses, car showrooms, shopping centres, banks, stores, supermarkets, fast food chains, media properties, etc.). As the French domestic intelligence service (Renseignements Généraux) wrote in its report, “Everything went as if confidence has been lost in institutions but also in the private sector as sources of desires, jobs and economic integration.”

Even if the rebellion was spontaneous, it doesn’t mean that the fighters were totally unorganised. The daring execution of some attacks – several small police stations destroyed, groups of police ambushed, cars set on fire in the centre of Paris, stores torched in downtown Lyon, etc. – suggest the existence to some degree of small organised groups of fighters. Although the youth mostly avoided frontal battles with the police that they could not win, they waged what the authorities called “guerrilla warfare”, ambushing police with Molotov cocktails, rocks and bottles filled with acid.

The State’s repressive answer was quite naked. Thousands of policemen were called in as reinforcements in the “sensitive areas”. In total, 2,888 rebels were arrested. A state of emergency was proclaimed on 8 November, when the government reactivated a law originally passed in 1955 to repress the anti-colonial insurrection in Algeria and then used in France itself in 1961 to stop a pro-independence demonstration of Algerian immigrants in Paris. At that time it was a pretext for a police riot against Arabs in which hundreds were chased down and murdered in the streets.

This time the state of emergency lasted three months and mainly three of its measures went into effect: the imposition of curfews in some areas, at the discretion of the local authorities, the permission for the police to raid residences at all hours, and the banning of gatherings that could create “social disorder”.

On 8 November, Sarkozy also ordered the expulsion of all arrested foreigners, documented or not. This was part of an effort to politically and socially encircle the youth and portray them as a hostile foreign body to be cut out by radical measures.
A few cités were literally surrounded by police and residents forcibly confined to their apartments. In Evreux, north of Paris, police locked down an entire apartment complex of 18,000 people. Coming downstairs to walk a dog or even going out onto an apartment balcony to smoke a cigarette was forbidden from 10 pm to 5 am. In some urban areas, youth were officially banned from the streets, but unofficial curfews were far more widespread. Helicopters were sent to hover over apartment buildings and intimidate residents.

On 12 November, to further this policy of isolating the suburban youth, all demonstrations and public political meetings were banned in Paris. That weekend police set up battle lines at suburban and Paris train stations, ready to use whatever means necessary to keep youth from pouring into the city centre, as had happened in Lyon. Despite the ban and the hordes of police everywhere, there were at least three illegal and necessarily brief demonstrations in crowded areas of the capital. They were initiated by the anti-AIDS civil disobedience organisation Act-Up and involved housing rights organisers, anti-racist campaigners, supporters of Palestine, and other political movement activists.The repressive forces closely monitored internet and mobile phone communications, which played an important role for cité youth in contacting each other and the wider world. On 7 November, three internet bloggers were arrested for “inciting violent acts”. Popular media-sponsored blog sites were censored and others shut down. It’s also no surprise the French government supported the 2 December European Union bill, which makes it compulsory for phone and internet providers to keep a six-month record of every phone and e-mail communication for possible police consultation.

Ninety-eight vehicles were burned in the whole country on that night, which is in line with the daily average before 27 October, according to senior police officials. Just for the Île-de-France region, the average of burned cars in “normal times” is 100 during the week-end and 40 to 50 during weekdays, said Michel Gaudin, head of the National Police.

 Taking Stock of the Rebellion


Arrest records and eyewitness accounts concur in emphasising the young age of those involved. In the main courtroom in department 93 to the east of Paris, 42 percent of those arrested were under 18 and most of the others under 22. In the adjoining department 94, 63 percent were minors. Many of those seen on the streets were as young as 12. We were told that in general, few young men over 25 took part. Some said these older youth were too worn down or cynical; others that they felt the movement was not serious and organised enough. Another explanation offered is that, although both groups have lost any hope in the future, the older ones are more or less resigned to their fate, while the younger ones have not yet accepted the situation and have more energy to fight against the system.

Most of those involved in the uprising were secondary school students, apprentices, temporary workers and others with no job security, and the unemployed. Very few girls and women took part in the fighting, although they played a prominent role in courthouse demonstrations and other support activities. While the rebellion was definitely centred on Arab and black youth, many white youth were involved. In areas where poverty affects more of the traditional French working class, such as in northern France, many of those arrested were of French origin.

It is very important to note that very few incidents of youth attacking ordinary people were reported, and from the media attention given to those few cases, it seems very unlikely that there were many more. Many youth say that during those three weeks there was very little of the fighting between youth of rival cites, too often seen in ordinary times, or between people of different national origins.

We learned a few things about the relationship between these youth and other people in the cités, including their parents. Although there are different classes and social strata in the cités, including public service employees, shopkeepers, professionals, small and especially would-be entrepreneurs, etc., the government’s repeated calls for “responsible citizens” to come forward against the rebellion produced few takers. It seems very likely that more people in the cités opposed it than the handful shown on television, but during the heat of things the prevailing mood of support kept that minority silent. Among the many people we talked to in the Paris suburbs, most supported the rebellion, but some criticised the tactic of burning cars, while many parents were worried about the danger to their children in fighting the state; the use of violence against the police and state institutions and symbols was not really a major source of controversy.

Another important point is that most youth we talked to did not see the end of the uprising as a defeat; they mostly considered it a truce. A young man in La Courneuve commented with humour, “We had to stop because there were no more cars left to burn. But we’ll just wait some time until the insurance companies buy more cars, and then we’ll start again.”

The rebellion sparked similar actions on a much smaller scale in other European cities, including in Belgium and Germany, and also in French overseas departments like Guadeloupe. In fact, there were hundreds of thousands all around the world watching the rebel youth in France, happy to see cracks appearing in the too-peaceful imperialist citadels.


What the Crisis Revealed


The unity of France’s ruling classes in the face of this rebellion was remarkable, especially in light of the bickering and electoral conflicts that break out among them again and again. The opposition Socialist Party rallied to defend the Interior Minister Sarkozy, and the revisionist Communist Party (PCF) refused to call for his removal, even though Sarkozy is the most widely hated politician in France, especially among many of the people that vote for these two parties. (In 2002, the vast majority of French voters felt obliged to “hold their nose” and vote for the Gaullist President Jacques Chirac to block the candidacy of the neo-fascist Le Pen – and as a result, they ended up with an Interior Minister who, as Le Pen complained, adopted his programme.) It also has to be admitted that for many people thoroughly taken with reactionary positions, Sarkozy is their favourite political figure, for his aggressive style in contrast to the more consensual posture of most other politicians. The position of the entire “political class” was that the first priority was the restoration of “calm”; until then, politics as usual had to be suspended. The Socialist Party voted to support the state of emergency when it was first brought before parliament, and then voted against extending it only after the fighting was over.

The PCF declared that the youth were playing into the hands of Sarkozy, and even called for more police to be recruited and deployed. Asked if the rioters were “victims or criminals”, the PCF answered unequivocally: criminals. “Bad manners and violence are the work of a minority and are spoiling life in popular neighbourhoods”, a PCF youth organisation statement said. “Police and judicial answers are necessary. But since 2002 [when the Right came back into office] the government has dismantled community police forces and reduced the number of police in the neighbourhoods. Sarkozy provokes violence because it serves his plans.” Since many cités are in municipalities run by CP mayors, the revisionist party felt itself a target of the rebellion. The most daring CP figures, those to the left of the official position, condemned “all violence”, of the people and the police alike. The youth revolted in areas governed by the PCF, Socialists and rightist parties alike because none of the official parties make any difference in their lives.

France’s relatively influential “far left” Trotkyist parties were no better. They also saw the rebellion as a disaster. Arlette Laguiller, the perennial presidential candidate of Lutte Ouvrière, said, “The workers have nothing to be happy about with this explosion, and not only because they are the main ones to suffer from it. Youth is the future. But what kind of future can be built by a disoriented youth?”

Some “leftist” activists claimed that the rebels should not be supported because they hit “wrong targets”, and burned down schools. It’s no surprise that youth burn down schools when you hear stories like this one, from a young Algerian woman: “Right now, I’m looking for a school training programme. I went to see a guidance counsellor. She suggested that I become a maid. I’m 17 and she tells me to become a maid – that’s ridiculous!” In fact, even a union bureaucrat realised that “these actions are symbolic. A lot of trust is put in the school system, which is supposed to be a social elevator. To burn it down means that it doesn’t work. [Youth] turn against it because it deceived them.”

Other more progressive leftists who should have known better were reluctant to support the movement because of its spontaneity and its lack of organisation. But there was a basic question of right and wrong involved, one side mainly right and the other all wrong. As the Provisional Organising Committee (Europe) of the World People’s Resistance Movement (WPRM) wrote in a statement issued during the events: “It serves no purpose and is beside the point to dwell on the ‘imperfections’ of their rebellion. This is a spontaneous revolt of those at the very bottom who have taken the stage of history even though they have not yet had the opportunity to fully develop their political understanding, establish their political leadership and define a strategic course. Of course they are making some mistakes and of course the cars parked on the streets of the cités are not the true enemy. But… it is their way – for now – of showing this system, and those who run it, that they do not intend to abide by the rules nor allow their voices to be silenced.”

Talking about the street fighting, a young girl from Beaudottes said, “The youth found a good excuse to do this; they were waiting just for this. It’s normal, they are seething with rage.” Another youth in Garges put it this way: “Whenever we have a chance to screw up the police, we screw them up, because whenever they have a chance, they screw us up.” Even if specific events sparked the uprising, the rebellion was much more than just an answer to them. It took only a week for the movement to spread from Clichy to every corner of France because it was based on dissatisfactions shared throughout the whole country by a lower section of the proletariat. Once again, even the Renseignements Généraux had to admit, “The cité youth have a strong sense of identity based not only on ethnic or geographic origin, but on their condition of social exclusion from French society.” Further, the movement had a clear target: Interior Minister Sarkozy, the police, the state and the whole life and future capitalism offers these youth. The revolt wasn’t directed at white people but mostly at symbols of the system and the state.

In fact, the youth’s rebellion created a very tough situation for the French rulers. Contrary to what usually happens when social or labour movements are giving them trouble, this time the rulers were not in a position to play the “bargaining game”. There were no leftist or revisionist parties, no submissive union, and no social services professionals that the State could use to control the rebels, precisely because of their status as social outcasts.


It’s Right to Rebel!


When events like these happen, Maoists’ starting point and basic stand is that “It’s right to rebel”.

The point is not that communists should tail these youth and support everything they think, but that they should learn from them and combine what is correct in their thinking with the scientific outlook of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism and its understanding of the broader society and the world.

The perspective of building a new society where the oppressed will no longer be squashed but will be allowed to become masters of their own future requires an all-round change – a genuine revolution involving all those who have nothing to lose in the current society and who have the capacity to lead such an epic transformation.

In writing about the even more violent and chaotic peasant movement in China, Mao stressed that the question it posed for every political force was what attitude to take toward it: to oppose it; to mainly criticise it for its errors; or to support it, lead it and try to transform it by bringing out the relationship between this movement and revolutionary goals that could unite the people. Most of the “far left” in France failed this test miserably, since their political vision prevents them from seeing any revolutionary seeds in this upsurge.

The revisionists and Trotskyists base themselves on the traditional French working class and especially those better-off workers (even if only relatively) who have found or at least feel they can realistically aspire to a more secure way of life. But their greatest loyalty is to the system itself – to some hope for an improved version of the status quo (no matter how hopeless that may be these days), but basically nothing radically different from today’s organisation of society in which an elite thinking class and its interests command society and the vast majority are condemned to work blindly and be ruled.

The fact is that these youth are no less part of the working class than the unionised workers in the public services and French industry. As the November events powerfully demonstrated to anyone who will not shut their eyes, no real revolution is conceivable in France and countries like it that does not have these proletarians and people like them at its core, with the potentially enormous power of their rage against the way things are. At the same time, such a revolution is also impossible if they cannot unite broad sections of the working class and the middle classes behind them in a revolutionary project aimed at a different kind of society. It is a fact that there is little hope for a tolerable life for these youth of the lower proletariat in France, and to some degree and in some ways, they know that. It is also a fact that the kind of life and future that French society and the capitalist system offer many more tens of millions of people is not what they would choose if they had a choice. The current feelings and ideas of these proletarian cité youth are contradictory, but many of them are correct. Their interests lie in a radical destruction of the prevailing social order and its replacement by a system that would do away not only with the current state, and the ruling class behind it, but the whole social order on a world scale. But it requires combining what Lenin called their raw elementary destructive force with a scientific outlook.

Clearly this poses questions about how the revolution can accumulate forces and succeed militarily against an enemy whose armed might is far greater than was deployed in November and whose social and ideological strength is based on the existing divisions in society and generations of tradition and habit. Underlying this are even more strategic questions: What are the goals of the revolution? On whom must the revolutionary movement rely to be successful? Who are its friends and potential allies? How to challenge a bourgeois system that has such a powerful state apparatus as France’s? How to conquer political power and organise the new proletarian rule without it being destroyed by a new bourgeoisie?

An extremely serious problem in the November events was the relationship between this section of the proletariat and other strata and classes. On the one hand, these youth saw themselves as fighting for themselves and their families and to some extent for all those who feel themselves to be (and are, in many ways) excluded from mainstream French society – even though France could not function without them. On the other hand, the ruling classes united against them and tried to isolate them from the middle class and other sections of the proletariat. This blockade had to be broken from both sides. Because there was no powerful effort to do that, it’s impossible to tell how well it might have succeeded.

Actually, the government was not able, during these three weeks, to unite broad ranks of middle-class and better-off white workers against the rebellion, and not for lack of trying. It’s hard to know what percentage of the middle strata of workers were supportive of these youth and how many were not hostile, but there were some positive indications. Certainly Sarkozy’s attitude did not win him increased support among other French workers or much of the middle class. In fact, the uncompromising stand of these youth against the government seemed to have the potential to mobilise and unite the extremely widespread hatred for Sarkozy and the no less broad feelings of dissatisfaction and even revolt against what he represents – a system that offers increasingly little hope of meeting the broadest aspirations of the masses of people for a different life than what they endure today.

The few but very dramatic lightning demonstrations defying the state of emergency in November gave a glimpse of some possibilities. This is not to say that the movement should have switched over from fighting to demonstrating – such a switch would have blunted the power of the movement and therefore would not have been supported by the youth. But if the movement had taken up more overt forms of political expression, that might have helped challenge and narrow the political gap between these potentially revolutionary strata opposed to the system and the rest of their potential allies in society, thus contributing to changing the thinking and action of the most active young proletarian male fighters. Other forms of struggle could have developed alongside the fighting in the cités and in support of that fighting, mobilising in particular youth from other strata and classes and more broadly, and including women of the cités who were locked out of an active role. Some potentially very important forces, such as proletarian youth in the universities, who could have both helped bring a broader understanding to their class and helped call forth support from other quarters, were never brought to play any real role at all.

A Maoist communist party with the understanding we are talking about and some roots and organisational strength based on that is needed. We hope that a righteous frustration born of this rebellion, together with the understanding and help of the international communist movement, can make a difference in what happens next time. These events are unlikely to repeat themselves in the same way, but the underlying factors that produced this explosion are still gathering pressure. Indeed, only a few months later, a massive student and youth movement exploded against a new French labour law seen as intensifying social exclusion.



Side bar


...and then a massive student rebellion in March 2006

Only a few months after the rage of France’s banlieues burst into flames, another wave of protests by millions of university and secondary school students thrust the country’s rulers into even deeper trouble. The target of this movement, which started in mid-January, was the proposed First Job Contract (CPE) law that would have allowed the firing of workers under 26 without cause or much notice during their first two years at any job. The government claimed this would help solve the crisis revealed by the November events by encourage hiring of ghetto youth.

Students were outraged that this law would officialize and worsen conditions many of them already find unacceptable. Already they often spend many months as ill-paid interns doing work regular employees used to perform, and years as temporary workers with minimal benefits. The average age at which French young people now get their first long-term job is 32. Rather than “equalizing opportunity”, this law would have further widened the gap between different categories of workers and employees. It was also seen as part of a broader trend of reinforcing precariousness, the elimination of relative job security (never absolute) and other minimal requirements of life such as health care and subsidized housing. Like all European countries, France is shedding the “European social model”, the social contract that bought the acquiescence of much of the working class since World War 2, no matter how difficult their lives have been anyway.

There were repeated demonstrations involving multinational crowds of many hundreds of thousands of people in many French cities, along with mass civil disobedience and some clashes with police. The atmosphere of great ferment and general craving for an alternative to the future offered by capitalism was reflected in the slogan “rêve général” (general dream, a play on the words grêve générale, general strike). The movement’s greatest strength was its broadness in two senses. It combined widespread support among much of French society with increasingly confrontational actions, and drew in youth of all sections of the working class as well as the middle classes.

In November, it was inconceivable that the government would back down at the hands of “the rabble”, as Interior Minister Sarkozy called them. In the face of the spring movement, the unity of the political class cracked. First President Chirac approved the law, then he was forced to essentially abandon it.




Leaflet from World People’s Resistance Movement (France)

A courageous and necessary battle

Young rebels of the cités are waking millions throughout France

This is addressed to you, youth of the cités, all of you whom Sarkozy calls racaille, and to others in France as well, especially those who are listening to you.

Some people say you are going “too far”. How far is “too far” in responding to the state’s top cop when he announces his intention to “clean out with a power hose” a whole section of the people?

This is addressed to you the children of immigrant workers and lower section of workers of all nationalities, especially the people of the cités whose fathers carried concrete sacks to build the France we know today and whose mothers’ tireless mops and brooms kept this country clean. This is addressed to you who are called “hoodlums” no matter what you do, whether working or kept out of work, and either way condemned to a life not much better than that of your parents, who endured so much hardship and humiliation in the hope that you would have it better.

We salute you who will never be content with the best the system has to offer you – like (Prime Minister Dominique) de Villepin’s plan to allow you to leave school at 14 and work as “apprentices” for practically nothing in jobs no one wants. That would only officialise what exists today, when middle school, for most kids, is not a place for advancement but a place of selection where 14-year-olds are told their dreams are over? How far is “too far” in demanding that people be treated like human beings and allowed to develop all that they are capable of, individually and collectively?

The truth is that France has seen far too many years of “calm” in the face of injustice and the kind of “peace” that comes from the oppressed accepting their fate. What’s so good about quietly accepting the kind of life imposed on the great majority of people in France? The whole “political class” (ruling class and politicians) breathes easily when youth fight one another or take drugs and sink into hopelessness. In this rebellion the youth for the most part have not deliberately targeted ordinary people in the cités or anywhere else. Right now violence among the people is at a low point and the spirit of the youth is soaring. Youth are in revolt – not mindlessly or aimlessly, as official society charges, but against a very clear target – Sarkozy and the state he represents, the police and anything seen as representative of the prevailing social order. They are punching holes in the ghetto walls, bringing the whole country fresh air.

The youth deserve the support of all those who are crushed by the system and its republic, all those who tolerate the life they are given only because they see no alternative. This government has launched attack after attack on many sections of the people, including immigrants, the unemployed, strikers and others. There has been opposition, but not strong and bold enough. By standing up against the way things are and those who enforce this order, the youth show their potential as a revolutionary force in society if they stand together with all the people who hate that order – all the exploited, those determined to end the oppression of women, those who truly hate the Iraq war and other imperialist crimes in the world and who really want to save the earth from the profit system. The youth are creating the conditions for a different kind of thinking, where people don’t accept things as they are, in France and the world, and a different kind of social movement than we have seen here in a long time. People all over the world are watching and finding encouragement for their own struggles to liberate themselves.

Not only Sarkozy, and not only the government, but the whole state and political class considers what the youth are doing a “disaster” and an intolerable challenge. They have declared curfews in a few places and imposed undeclared curfews against men young and not so young in whole towns and departments. They are issuing all kinds of threats against the people while hoping that flash balls (a kind of rubber bullet), CRS (riot police) clubs and the threat of mass deportations will be enough to make the youth lose heart. At the same time, they are educating the youth and everyone with eyes to see in a basic truth: the French republic is, in the end, a dictatorship that rests on the clubs of the police and ultimately, if necessary, the guns of the army. France is run by those who own everything, the big capitalist class. They have the final say about everything, and in the end none of the people have any rights that can’t be taken away.

To all of you others who share so much of what these youth feel, the working people of all nationalities and people of all walks of life, right now is the time to stand up for them and stop the government’s attempts to encircle these kids with a reactionary consensus. Speak out for the youth and the justice of their cause – stop the government’s attempts to crush them. Further, many millions of people in France will not tolerate mass deportations of people to punish them for rebelling. The government must not be allowed to carry through on this threat.

The youth’s fury is righteous and needs to be channeled to building a revolutionary movement that can turn the power hose of the people’s anger towards cleaning out Sarkozy, the state and all that is rotten in this society.

Revolutionaries of the world support wholeheartedly the rebellion in the cités. It’s time the young rebels of France take their place in the ranks of the international revolutionary movement!

North, South, East, West, unite the people’s struggles!

wprm Europe: wprm@wprm.org www.wprm.org

and in France, email: mprm_France@yahoo.fr