The Banlieue Burns

If revolutionary theory is to be a force, not only to interpret the world, but also to change it, it must be more than a mantra to be repeated regardless of the specifics of the situation. It must be able to analyze and to interpret as a guide to future understanding. The civil disturbances which swept France in October and November of 2005 were not new occurrences. Similar ‘negotiations by riot’ have taken place in the U.K. and the U.S. in recent memory on a number of occasions. The task for revolutionaries is to seek to situate this uprising within such patterns and to reasonable anticipate how these actions affect working class politics. Regrettably, within sections of the revolutionary milieu, the old dogmas about the “need for a revolutionary party” surfaced without much analysis.

Such knee-jerk expressions do not advance the understanding of the period of history we live in. We believe that in the decadence of capitalism, the deepening of the real domination of capital, and the continued displacement of living labour from the productive process, such riots are not only likely, but inevitable. As Marxists, we seek to explain not only the cause of such upheavals, but also the nature of them, and to see how this revolt might be tied to a broader revolt against class society.

Some of the questions we need to ask are why these explosions happened, who were the rioters and were they a part of the working class, and lastly what is the significance of these actions? The answers sketched in this brief article, cannot be conclusive in these areas, but we can make some preliminary conclusions.

What Happened?

For three weeks, France saw angry and often violent protest. Images of rioting youth, riot police, and burning cars filled the media images (often the same images as the newspapers sought to increase their circulation). Nevertheless, it was the most visibly impressive and widespread insurgency since the days of ’68. On October 27, 2005, within hours of the deaths of two youth of North African origin, 23 police cars were aflame, and youth from the northern Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois were pelting police with bricks and stones.

It is hard to know what would have happened if on the day after the deaths, the right-wing Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy had not referred to the rioters as scum and denied the police were chasing the youth. After all, close to a hundred cars are burnt every night in France. However Sarkozy did make his infamous comments, and for 22 days, riots covered France: Besides the suburbs of Paris,

300 towns also saw riots; 10,000 cars were burned with a nationwide wide high of 1,480 on November 6-7; almost 3,000 people were detained for questioning (1,000 of them minors); 126 police and gendarmes were injured in the events. By November 17, the authorities announced a return to normal, although the state of emergency proclaimed on November 9 remained in effect until January 4.

Yet despite the violence, we should recall, that it was largely violence against property: Police, cars, bus stations, postal vans and dozens of public buildings were set on fire or attacked. In such situations, innocents inevitably are harmed: The two most publicized acts of violence being a 61 year-old man who died from a beating by a hooded youth in Saines, and a handicapped woman who suffered severe burns when she was unable to escape from a bus which had been set on fire. While there is no excuse for these actions, it should also be remembered that the state’s score was two bodies.

Who Were The Rioters?

Those involved in the riots were said to be young of various national origins and spread across France. As the riots spread, they became a focus for other grievances across France (they were even to inspire copycat actions in Belgium, Germany and several other European countries).

Clichy-sous-Bois is a banlieue (suburb) approximately 10 miles from the centre of Paris. Yet, while it is a suburb of Paris, Clichy-sur-Bois is clearly separate; the Paris Metro does not serve the town, and the nearest rail link is in neighbouring La Raincy, approximately 4 KM away. The town dates back to the middle ages, but it was not until the 1950s and 60s that urbanization began to take place with the creation of mass social housing projects, designed to provide decent housing for the waves of immigrants settling in France. While the planners’ vision was of spacious housing away from the crowded inner city, the result has been something like the world grimly depicted in Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 film La Haine. The population of this and similar communes suffer the daily challenges of unemployment, racism and boredom.

The population of these cities has been fed by large scale immigration, but this is not a new phenomena. In many cases, those involved in rioting were not immigrants, but the sons and daughters, as well as grandsons and granddaughters of immigrants; however, for many among the broader French population, they are still considered immigrants or North Africans, not yet fully French instead; they represent, the ‘other,’ the dark, the North African, the Muslim.

In addition to the daily racism, employment within these towns is chronic. Official statistics place the unemployment rate as 1.5 times higher than Paris. And here too racism is a factor. According to a BBC report, unemployment for university graduates in France is around 5%; however, for graduates of North African origin, the figure is an astonishing 25.6%. The leftist organization SOS Racisme conducted a sting operation sending identical resumes with “European” and “North African” names and received many more responses for the former than the latter. The French state offers tax incentives for companies to locate within the suburbs, but this does not necessarily translate into jobs for the community. A “non-French” name or an address from the wrong neighbourhood is often enough for the application to be passed over in favour of a more respectable one. It was reported that at a community meeting in Aulnay-sous-Bois, few expressed sorrow at the burning of a Renault dealership, since it employed no local people and was seen as parasitic.

The youths who took part in the rioting were alienated, isolated and angry. But they saw results: The news media quoted one youth as stating, before the rioting, the police always referred to him by the informal “Tu”, but after they used the more respectful “Vous” form of address. Because the riots were largely spontaneous and leaderless, many leftist commentators were dismissive of the events. While many organizations produced statements or allegedly distributed leaflets (to whom one wonders?), some seemed to feel that the apparent yet unspoken demand for inclusion into society meant that the riots were simply a way of blowing off steam, and that they posed nothing of significance. Does this mean that a strike which is controlled by the unions and which demands nothing more than better health benefits and wages means it poses nothing of significance? Its class basis is clear. Only armchair revolutionaries can expect to out of poverty and racism textbook revolutionary struggle perfectly formed like Athena emerging from Zeus’ forehead.

Was this a Working Class Uprising?

In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels wrote of capitalism creating its own gravediggers. In this, they meant that the very conditions of capitalism presupposed a class which having no other choice to survive, sold its labour power to the capitalist class. Yet, through the requirement in drawing workers together, a collective consciousness was created as men and women defined their common interests against those with different common interests. In turn, this consciousness led to the formation of trade unions, and mass working class political parties. The development of the Fordist system of production was accompanied by a mass industrial working class. However, with the collapse, the overcoming of Fordism and the dispersal of global production, sometime called globalization, capitalism has broken up those old patterns of working class solidarity. This pattern is nothing new, and has happened time and time again throughout capital’s rule. As new patterns of work emerge, new patterns of solidarity arise.

What is different in the latest evolution of capitalism is the development of joblessness on a mass scale (even though, the U.S. rust belts of the 1980s are a similar pattern). For the dwellers of the French suburbs, joblessness is not a temporarily displacement from work as during a downturn or a recession. These youth are not simply displaced from the world of work, they have never been a part of it. Most have had to be content to exist on the margins of employment. While they are the sons and daughters of some of the most exploited, least protected elements of French society, they are not at least in a technical sense a part of the world of work. Yet, the rioters are clearly a part of the working class by their status in society, having nothing to offer except for their labour power, even if there are no buyers.

But if no leaders stepped forward, there were plenty of youth willing to express their frustration with the French state, with the police, with the local businesses which would not hire them. Moreover, if actions speak louder than words, the voice of the rioters did present demands in their choice of targets. By primarily attacking symbols of the French state, the police, the fire fighters, the postal vans, the rioters also seemed to protest the harassment at the hands of the police, the changing welfare policies of the state and to demand not to be treated so badly. Yet, we must also be clear, that attacking other workers cannot be supported as a tactic of the class struggle. As collective action creates a collective consciousness and solidarity, it remains to be seen what effect the riots will have over this section of the working class and to class in general.

What are the perspectives?

The events of October and November raise many questions for revolutionaries: Questions about new forms of struggle, about the recomposition of the working class, and how those excluded from traditional work forms fit into working class struggle.

Many leftist commentators issued leaflets supporting or defending the riots against the state repression, but simply noted that the rioters had little social power and ended with a call for the revolutionary party. A part of this analysis was the notion that the riots had no perspective and could only end in either bloody repression by the state or fizzling due to exhaustion. In the end, it seems to have been a combination. While the state presence might have capped some of the incidences, it is clear they were not in a position to extinguish them right away. While the state used the riots to increase law and order legislation and the police presence, it was also clear they were unable to contain the rioters until the riots burned themselves out.

In the short term, there will be commissions to discover how this could have happened, and what can be done to prevent it happening again. There will be calls by the right for more law and order and repression. The demands can take one of two forms. The demand is to protect French society and promote a secular “French” identity. Besides demonizing the “non-French” elements, such as the campaign against the headscarf (and thus strengthening the cultural nationalists), it also makes a cult of French democracy, and attempts to bind people to the democratic capitalist state. The approach of the left will be to argue that France needs to develop a more multi-cultural identity and will call for money to be spend on community centres, ping-pong tables and make-work jobs, as well as some mention of community control over policing and democratizing the state.

Both solutions see the problem of the riots as being one of a national identity. Both tend to divide those who took to the streets away from class along racial lines. These ‘solutions’ will strengthen the hands of both the right who see these ‘immigrant’ communities as a threat to French society, and the cultural nationalists within the immigrant communities, in this case the Islamists, who were largely impotent and struggled unsuccessfully to assert control during the uprising.

Of course, the heart of the problem is not mentioned, nor can it be. It is a class based problem. In previous issues of Internationalist Perspective, we have analyzed capitalist society as decadent, and in a phase called the real domination of capital. One consequence of this is that because of the needs of capitalist production, capital must continually expel living labour from the productive process, thus continually creating ticking time bombs like the French banlieue. But this is not simply a French problem, it is a global one. And unless the struggles of these sections of the working class can find ways to link their struggle with the broader working class milieu, there will be no end in sight.


February 28

Post Script

Less than three months after rioting and social unrest engulfed the French suburbs, the French ruling class is face to face with another huge social upheaval. If it is simplistic leftist logic to see the current struggles as a direct result of the events of last year, it is equally foolish to deny any connection between them. Famous graffiti from the days of May 1968 had it that the only reasonable demand was to demand the impossible. Social struggle and revolutionary actions are never reasonable... until they are. Then the impossible becomes the only reasonable course.

The introduction by the Villepin government of the CPE (‘First Hiring Contract’) was intended to make the conditions of employment of young workers more precarious in order to increase the rate of exploitation of French capital. Unfortunately for de Villepin, the plan has met with the opposition of hundreds of thousands who correctly see that their lives will be worse should the government succeed in its goals. The upheavals of last October and November have made this resistance easier.

Earlier we wrote, “And unless the struggles of these sections of the working class can find ways to link their struggle with the broader working class milieu, there will be no end in sight,” but it is clear from the current struggles that the reverse is equally true.

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