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The furious youth in the French suburban housing blocks known as the banlieue are expressing themselves by setting cars on fire. And not only cars: schools, creches, sports centers. So far, they are not using words, at least not audibly. So everyone else is free to speak for them, or against them, and offer his or her verbal interpretation of what these actions mean, or should mean. Since these interpretations differ sharply, there is a polarizing debate going on as to what this is really about and what should be done about it.
I live on the northern edge of Paris, on the non-tourist backside of Montmartre. It is probably the most mixed neighborhood in Paris. It includes Barbès, the setting for Emile Zola’s working class novel "L’Assommoir", which later became the main pole of North African immigration. More recently, there is a large and growing population of sub-Saharan African immigrants, as well as a considerable Tamoul community.The streets are full of life, lots of young children, African grocers, all sorts of shops and people, and despite a certain amount of drug dealing, I feel perfectly safe, even late at night.
This neighborhood is not far from the northeastern banlieue where the riots began. But the banlieue is something else. Its specific nature is one of the factors behind the current outburst of violence. But it is only one of the factors.
It’s easy to pontificate on this subject, and the clichés all come easily to mind. But I would like to try to analyse the situation by examining one by one the factors and arguments relating to this crisis.
1. The rioters themselves.
Only the right, or more precisely the far right, would reduce the problem to the rioters themselves. The National Front is, predictably, describing the situation as "civil war" and calling for the government to send in the Army. This is a very minority position. So far as I am aware, its strongest expression has come from the United States, in an article by Daniel Pipes in the Jewish World Review charactizing the riots as an Islamic "intifada" as a "turning point" in a new religious war in Europe.
Who exactly are the rioters? So far, this is not very clear, since the hit-and-run arson attacks appear to be imitative but unorganized. The rioters are young males, mostly, it seems, in their mid-teens, who identify with the two teen-agers who were accidentally electrocuted last October 27 when, running from police, they scaled a wall and took refuge in an industrial generator. Ironically, in this crucial case the deaths were the result of fear rather than of direct police brutality. This widespread fear of police reflects gratuitous and heavy handed police harassment, but there is also the undisputed fact that in areas with 40% unemployment and large numbers of school dropouts, there has been a proliferation of drug dealing and various forms of petty crime, often in the form of forcing school kids to surrender such items as cell phones. Police toughness has had no visible success in stemming such activities.
The rioting youths seem to be predominantly, but not exclusively, of African or North African origin. They are certainly not all Muslims, and there is no indication that most of them are particularly attached to any religion. Muslim religious authorities condemn the riots, and one has gone so far as to issue a fatwa against the violence, but this seems to serve more to distance the Muslim authorities from the rioters than to influence them.
They are a minority in their communities, and their destructive action is overwhelmingly condemned within those communities, whose members are the ones whose cars or schools or buses are being burned. Nevertheless, there is considerable sympathy in these communities for the anger and hopelessness underlying this explosion of violence. After several nights of such troubles, parents and other citizens are organizing in various neighborhoods to dissuade kids from violence. This is likely to be more effective than the curfews on unaccompanied kids under 16 favored by the right.
The apartment blocks of the banlieue of French cities are similar to those surrounding cities in most of Europe. They were part of the rapid urbanization that occurred during the economic prosperity of the 1960s. They were not built to be "ghettos" but to provide decent housing to the waves of immigrants, both from the countryside and from abroad, drawn by industrial employment. They replaced shanty towns and relieved the pressure on inner city neighborhoods, where working class families were crowded into unhealthy flats with no private toilet. For working people, the banlieue apartments are much more spacious and well equipped than those in affordable neighborhoods of Paris.
There are two things wrong with them. One is aesthetic: they lack the charm of the city, they are monotonous, and they are far away from the pleasures of urban life. But what has turned them into "ghettoes" is the deindustrialization of the past decades. The nearby factories have shut down, and the sons and grandsons of factory workers are jobless. It is easier for those with French names and French complexions to move up into the service sector, and out to other neighborhoods.
Why this difficulty? Because, while racist attitudes are widely and vigorously condemned, and in social terms racial discrimination is probably less practiced in France than in other Western countries (as indicated, among other things, by an exceptionally high percentage of racially mixed marriages), those individuals who are in a position to hire employees, or to rent housing, are less likely to choose someone with an exotic name, or an exotic look, than someone who appears "normal". This is bitterly resented, and the fact that many second and third generation French youth of African origin have made successful careers is no consolation to those who are left behind.
4. The economy.
By any reasonable standard, this is the central factor. If jobs were not so scarce, qualified youth would not be unemployed because of their origin. If public funding for social activities in the banlieue had not been cut back by the current government in favor of a single-minded emphasis on "security", things might be slightly better. But essentially, it is the current worldwide economic model that is at the root of these troubles. Back to that later.
5. The Sarkozy factor.
As the whole world must know by now, Nicolas Sarkozy, former mayor of the opulent Western Paris suburb of Neuilly (nothing to do with the banlieue!), wants to be President of the French Republic. Not a day goes by without seeing him, as Interior Minister, rushing here and there in front of television cameras, busy, busy, busy. His naked ambition borders the pathological. His strategy, however, has been calculated, and until recently has looked ominously successful, as he managed to take over the UMP (Union de la Majorité Présidentielle), supposed to be the party of President Jacques Chirac, and turned it against him.
This strategy has included a move to win over the electorate of the National Front, which hates Gaullists in general and Chirac in particular. The key to this is, of course, emphasizing "security". But cleverly enough, Sarkozy has combined this with a bid to woo French Muslims, and other religions, by taking his distance from French secularism to call for dialogue with religious leaders. This fits with his pro-American neoliberal economic preferences — full throttle privatization and deregulation — inasmuch as the shelter of identity communities is the necessary substitute for the abandoned welfare state.
Enforcing the law is the job of an Interior Minister. But after withdrawal of the "proximity police", put in by the previous Socialist government in order to develop contact with the community (for too short a time to be tested), Sarkozy has favored spectacular raids by heavily decked out police squads that act as provocations. To grab maximum media attention, he has strutted through troubled banlieues announcing his determination to clean up the "rabble" (racaille).
This performance is surely a significant factor in the riots. It also provides a unifying theme for the left: Sarkozy must resign! The conservative government is virtually obliged for the moment to give a show of unity, but whenever it is convenient, one can be sure that both Chirac and his protégé, prime minister Dominique de Villepin, would be simply delighted to throw Sarkozy to the wolves.
6. The Middle East.
Sarkozy, by his choice of trips abroad, has underlined his desire for closest possible relations with the United States and Israel. This provides a second reason for him to be hated by youth in the banlieue, where identification with the Palestinians is widespread and daily images of violence in the Middle East and the war in Iraq have a considerable impact. Perhaps one can guess that had Chirac not refused to follow the United States into Iraq, the banlieue would have exploded earlier and more violently than today. The feeling of exclusion among youth of Arab origin is enormously exacerbated by the spectacle of Western aggression against the Arab world.
* * *
I come back to the economic factor. Dominique de Villepin, in competition with Sarkozy, has taken a more humanist line: restoration of social aids to the banlieue previously instituted by the Socialist government, plus yet another program for job-creation. But since such measures have been taken before without notable effect, one can doubt their efficacy now.
I would conclude by acknowledging that for ruling politicians, the situation is without immediate solution. Order may be restored, subsidies may be granted to neighborhood associations, but no short-term measure can solve the basic problem: the deep rupture between the "winners" and the "losers" in a cutthroat game of capitalist competition. In some ways, these alienated youth in the banlieue, however much they feel left out of French society, are very French in this respect: like angry farmers or workers, they go into the streets with their discontent. This is a gesture that the French tolerate and try to understand to a degree perhaps unequaled in other societies.
But then what? Soviet bloc communism collapsed because it failed to meet the demands for more freedom of the most privileged sectors of the population. American-style capitalism has triumphed worldwide, but it in turn is threatened with eventual collapse because it fails to meet the needs of the less privileged sectors. They are showing that they can retaliate by creating mayhem. The banlieue is not really an isolated world, European countries are more tightly packed than the United States, and there is not enough room for riots to go on without bothering society as a whole. The only real long-term solution must provide integration for all the population.
This fact is largely recognized. The question that is yet to be honestly faced, is: how? Alternating governments try to introduce incentives for private enterprise to provide jobs, but this is clearly not working. Meanwhile, privatization continues, and with it disappears the government’s capacity to effectively provide social services and jobs.
The only answer is to call a halt to the privatization process and return to the mixed economy that was the basis for the European social model, currently being destroyed by so-called "reforms". France is selling off its utilities, from Electricité de France to the autoroute network. Such measures are likely to deepen the social disaster. Advanced industrial economies require governments capable of taking measures to provide a minimum of socio-economic equality, in response to democratic demand, and this is possible only if they possess the necessary economic resources to subsidize indispensible social programs and to stimulate job creation, including the growth of small private enterprise. One can only hope that the current crisis in France, which so far lacks a coherent political dimension, will hasten the political revolt against the neoliberal economic dogma which is plunging the whole world into chaos.
DIANA JOHNSTONE is the author of Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, Nato, and Western Delusions published by Monthly Review Press. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org