Libertie, Egalite, Fraternitie, Realite
"A riot is at bottom the language of the unheard."
- Martin Luther King, Jr.
Trouble began when three Arab youths were electrocuted after apparently being pursued by the police. The Federal Secretariat of Alternative Libertaire notes,
Ziad and Banou died of electrical burns in a power sub-station, and a third youth is in serious condition. They thought they were being chased by the police. Will we ever know whether this was the case, whether the police are guilty of non-assistance of persons in danger? Whatever the exact details of how these two teenagers died, their death was the spark. Young people in the suburbs already hated the State which for years has only appeared as police, courts, and (increasingly) prisons.(Those of you aware of the Redfern riots in Australia may wish to draw your own parallels here.) The spark to which the FSAL refer ignited widespread resentment amongst France's immigrant population who had long felt excluded from French society.
Dan spent a year in Paris while studying for his degree and encountered the realities of French inequality. He recalls (in his inimitable capital-free fashion),
french society is very divided. the research department i was working for consisted of an entirely white european research team, whilst cleaners and chauffeurs, were almost entirely black and brown. this is, of course, true in areas of britain too, but i found it more striking in a country where both working class and middle class cultures were alien to me. to cut a long story short, there were some people who mattered and some who were a persistant nuisance, to be tolerated with contempt, or suppressed when they got out of hand. the events of the last few days will have the middle classes shaking in their beds as the downtrodden decide that enough's enough.Dan was also present during the 2002 Presidential Election where Far Right leader Jean Marie Le Pen made it to the second round, beating the Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin into third place and forcing him from the contest. While the fascist fuckwit was given a solid kicking in the final vote, it did not pass unoticed that he secured almost 17% of the vote in a first round contested by no less than 16 presidential wannabes and in the aftermath of a damaging split within his Front National.
This climate of poverty and racism is a potent combination on its own, but the ferocity of the riots seems to have been further fuelled by the response of the government. This response has been led by Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy (below), commonly referred to as "Sarko." Pushing the ambitious and famously hardline minister to the forefront appears to have been a deliberate strategy on the part of President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, based on the belief that his inevitable failure would hurt his nasceant campaign for the presidency.Sarko certainly failed, but Chirac and Villepin may not have accounted for his not inconsiderable ability to fan the flames, exacerbating an already serious situation. Doug Ireland, who lived and worked in France for a decade and is fluent in French, explains:
"Sarko" made headlines with his declarations that he would "karcherise" the ghettos of "la racaille"-- words the U.S. press, with glaring inadequaxcy, 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. I wonder how many Anglo-American correspondents get the inflammatory, terribly vicious flavor of the word in French? The translation of "karcherise" by "clean" just misses completely the provocative, incendiary violence of what Sarko was really saying. And "racaille" is infinitely more pejorative than "scum" to French-speakers -- it has the flavor of characterizing an entire group of people as subhuman, inherently evil and criminal, worthless, and is, in other words, one of the most serious and dehumanizing insults one could launch at the rebellious ghetto youth.The response to this on the part of the rioters was as mild-mannered as you might expect. The Grauniad reports, for instance,
In Strasbourg, youths stole a car and rammed it into a housing project, setting the vehicle and the building on fire. "We'll stop when Sarkozy steps down," said the 17-year-old driver of the car, who gave his name only as Murat.The tear gassing of a Mosque in the northern Clichy-sous-Bois suburb, even if it was accidental as claimed, can hardly have helped to reduce tensions.
I don't want to overstate the potential progressive potential of the riots, but I tend to agree with Lenny that "to have this end up as no more than a futile expression of anger at the government would be tragic - think how many cars would have lost their lives in vain." I realise it might be controversial to suggest this, but I do think that the "race riots" which Britian experienced in the early 80s did have a positive impact, forcing the country to face up to the realities of racism. That isn't to suggest that we live in any kind of multiracial paradise, but I think its clear that we have come a long way. The almost nostalgic way these tend to be remembered by those who were around at the time suggest that I may not be alone in thinking this.
On the other hand, of course, the violence has provided additional amunition for those seeking to whip up animosity against Muslims. The death of Jean-Jacques Le Chenadec, apparently the result of a beating by rioters on Friday night, is only likely to strengthen their hand (Newsweek offers an intriguing comparison here, pointing out that the LA riots in 1992 claimed the lives of more than 50 people). There have been various claims that the riots are coordinated by Islamic extremist groups (they've even been described , although the Union of Islamic Organisations of France, described by Associated Press as "France's biggest Muslim fundamentalist organization" issued a fatwa forbidding all those "who seek divine grace from taking part in any action that blindly strikes private or public property or can harm others." I have yet to see any comment from Le Pen or the FN, but you can guarantee that they'll seek to make political capital out of this. The worrying thing is that they may well be successful.
I make no claims to be any kind of expert in France nor of any ability to see the future. I don't know how this is going to turn out and I'd be pretty wary of making guesses. Like I say, I hope something good comes out of it, but I am not so naive as to suggest it is inevitable. Those of you interested in such things can find translations of articles analysing the riots by assorted French leftists and anarchists here. The rest of you can go and fireproof the garden fence.