maandag, november 07, 2005

'L'Intifada Française' - Between Ramallah '00 and Paris '68

The press across Europe are saying the 'immigrant' youth (in quotations for the obvious reason that though they are young Frenchmen of the third or fourth generation, and many may not even speak the Arabic of their fathers or grandfathers, they are eternally immigrants) of the French banlieues, or suburbs, are 'trying their hand at revolution'. The talking heads on the news discussion programmes are calling Clichy-sous-Bois - the suburb in northeastern Paris where the unrest began after two young men died, accidentally electrocuting themselves when they hid from police in an electric substation - 'Ramallah-sous-Bois'. Der Spiegel refers to the youths as 'urban guerillas' and 'generation jihad', while Newsweek feverishly asks whether 'the riots [will] swell the ranks of jihadists in Europe' and calls the events the 'beginning of jihad in Europe'.

This is all more than a bit over the top, and drips with the very undisguised racism that is the cause of the disturbances. As S.O.S. Racisme, the French anti-racist organisation notes and denounces in a press release yesterday, the press 'have presented the events as a civil war, describing the participants as savages, with some even calling the riots the "Intifada of the banlieues".' While the last eleven days and nights have seen France's worst domestic unrest since 1968, with some 4,700 vehicles set on fire - 1,400 last night alone in riots that have now spread to the suburbs of most of the country's large cities - as far north as Lille and to Nice in the southeast, as the always perspicacious Lenin, of the blog Lenin's Tomb, notes, situations such as these tend to go 'up like the rocket, [and] down like the stick'. These days of rage are unlikely to last, much as May 1968 itself lasted but a few days whatever its remembrance in the French popular imagination.

Nonetheless, the commentators, even if they articulate themselves through the orientalist prism, alight on the heart of the matter: Europe, like anywhere else in this deregulated, unemployed, privatised, pulverised, atomised, lobotomised cosmos, where the slavering corybantic market fundamentalists would yet privatise the heavens and lay off Saint Peter and the Archangel Gabriel if they thought it would enable them to compete better with Estonia's flat tax, sits atop a powder keg of righteous anger, the predictable product of gross inequality and racism both within its borders and in its relations with the developing world.

The French suburbs - les cités - are overcrowded ghettoes where the descendents of workers brought to France to alleviate the post-war labour shortage live in a violent, boring poverty not dissimilar to that experienced in other European immigrant quarters and American 'projects' and barrios. The oeuvre of the most popular comedian in France, Jamel Debbouze, whom non-French audiences will know from his appearances in Amélie and Spike Lee's She Hate Me, is entirely based around tales of poverty and police brutality in the banlieues. His recent hit spectacle includes a hilarious running gag on middle class teachers sent to teach in the ZEPs (zones d’éducation prioritaires) who fear their pupils, and, most presciently, being chased by les keufs. American journalist Doug Ireland, who lived in France for ten years, where he worked as a reporter for left-wing daily Libération, describes les cités on his blog in a posting entitled 'Rebellion of a lost generation':

[T]hese high-rise human warehouses in the isolated suburbs are today run-down, dilapidated, sinister places, with broken elevators that remain unrepaired, heating systems left dysfunctional in winter, dirt and dog-shit in the hallways, broken windows, and few commercial amenities - shopping for basic necessities is often quite limited and difficult, while entertainment and recreational facilities for youth are truncated and totally inadequate when they're not non-existent.

Crime follows such economic dislocation like regret follows a kebab, but rather than tackle the economic root of the problem, comme toujours, the French interior ministry's response, under the diminutive-but-martial minister and pretender to Chirac's crown, Nicolas Sarkozy, has been what S.O.S. Racisme calls 'l’extrémisme sécuritaire': violent, 'zero tolerance' crackdowns, that unfortunately are massively popular amongst the usual hang-'em-high suspects.

UK-based campaigner Naima Bouteldja, writing in today's Guardian, recounts how earlier this year the level of police repression and racism resulted in Amnesty International criticising 'the "generalised impunity" with which the French police [have] operated when it came to violent treatment of young men from African backgrounds during identity checks.'

Sarkozy reacted to the initial riots in typical fashion, describing the rioters as vermin and scum, although, as both Bouteldja and Ireland note, something has been lost in translation. Says Ireland:

'"Sarko" made headlines with his declarations that he would "karcherise" the ghettos of "la racaille" - words the U.S. press, with glaring inadequacy, has translated to mean "clean" the ghettos of "scum." But these two words have an infinitely harsher and insulting flavor in French. "Karcher" is the well-known brand name of a system of cleaning surfaces by super-high-pressure sand-blasting or water-blasting that very violently peels away the outer skin of encrusted dirt - like pigeon-shit - even at the risk of damaging what's underneath. To apply this term to young human beings and proffer it as a strategy is a verbally fascist insult and, as a policy proposed by an Interior Minister, is about as close as one can get to hollering "ethnic cleansing" without actually saying so. It implies raw police power and force used very aggressively, with little regard for human rights…"[R]acaille" is infinitely more pejorative than "scum" to French-speakers - it has the flavor of characterising an entire group of people as subhuman, inherently evil and criminal, worthless.'

This, together with the tear-gassing of a mosque, only aggravated the situation.

The paternalist left has abandoned them at best, and at worst actively participates in racist and Islamophobic attacks disguised as a defence of la laïcité républicaine, and the far left is only marginally better. The left must remember, as in New Orleans, globalisation is not merely a question of class, but explicitly one of race (and, one might add, gender).

It is true that this abandonment of the field allows fundamentalists to fill the void, just as a similar attitude by social democrats to their traditional (white) working class constituency opens the door to the far right, but it is not true, as not a few have been reporting, that the riots are a product of Islamist agents provocateurs. First of all, it should be noted that the rioters are not just 'beurs' - French verlan for Arabs - but also black youth. Secondly, to be sure, the riots are anger uncorked, but there is also an explicit political aspect to their actions: "We'll stop when Sarkozy steps down," said a Strasbourg rioter, according to the Guardian. Liberation's interviews with the youth published today show how 'encore et toujours' the anger reduces to Sarkozy. 'C'est nous qui allons passer Sarkozy au Kärcher, c'est l'erreur de sa carrière. [It is us who will Karcherise Sarkozy. He's made the error of his career.]' says one thirteen-year-old. Another pair declare quite perceptively that Sarko's provocation was simply to put 'l'insécurité', or crime, back on the agenda ahead of the 2007 presidential elections.

There is a line that runs through the recent strikes - economic, political and general - of France, Belgium and Italy, the movement against Agenda 2010 and vote for the Linkspartei in Germany, and the vote against the neo-liberal European Constitution in the Netherlands and France, and, yes, even the election of the socially conservative but fiscally semi-Keynesian PiS in Poland - and the French riots. This reaction to neo-liberalism is uneven. It cannot in all regions and at all times be called progressive - no one is celebrating these riots - and in parts (particularly in Poland) is incoherent, and can just as easily swing over to the far right or Islamists if the left does not take a lead, but it is nonetheless the inescapable product of years of rightist economic retrenchment combined with, in the case of the French riots, festering racism and exclusion.

All those who believe in a 'social Europe' must address this unrest. To turn Thatcher's commandment on its head - We have no alternative: we must not merely protect but expand Europe's social provision, or else the fires of Paris' suburbs will spread right across the continent, one day or another.

Above all, the French anti-neo-liberal left must act with urgency within the next few days to attempt to channel this justifiable anger into a constructive direction and connect it to the wider dissatisfaction with neo-liberalism. The LCR and the PCF would do well to organise demonstrations across France against police brutality, for an end to l’extrémisme sécuritaire, for reinvestment and jobs in the banlieues, for the integration of their inhabitants into French society, and, in particular, calling for Sarkozy's resignation.

Nous sommes tous indésirables. Nous sommes tous racailles.


Update: The arson has spread (to a quite limited degree) to Brussels, with five cars set on fire near Gare du Midi (à deux pas de chez moi, eek), and Berlin, where another five cars were set alight in the Moabit quarter.