On Black Intifada in France

Image of French flag.

Image by Anthony Choren.

The police racist killing of children is a regular occurance for decades in France, often triggering burgeoning spontaneous working class insurgencies. The moments after French police killed 17yr old ‘Nahel M’ in the Parisian suburb of Nanterre wasn’t any different. 45,000 riot police, including the infamously brutal BRI special forces, contributed to the quelling of another uprising in France conducted mostly by young working classes of African heritage in the ‘banlieues’ or contained council estates often many miles out of the urban centres. Over two nights of the uprising at least 2,000 insurgents have been arrested by French authorities, the average age of arrestees is 17yrs old, pointing to another generation that will see considerable sections of their neighbours experiencing the French criminal justice system and prisons that will only boost their sense of alienation and confrontation with the French colonial state. Black working class communities across colonial centres in the ‘West’ are seeing multiple generations of the same family in prisons at the same time.The average age of the arestees also indicates how young our children are brutalised by the police and schools. The youth who led the uprising are of African heritage, both northern (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia) and also other regions like from West Africa and other former colonies of the French state. The uprising saw the insurrectionists use fire bombs, grenades and firearms against the state, indicating a further intensification by means of tactics as compared to previous similar uprisings. There is much to explore as to the significance of the uprising by means of class-struggle against capitalist-colonialism and for socialism in the colonial centre in a context of global victories of white supremacist racism and the far-right.

The Colonial State

The wider context to all that happens in French society is that the French state has been a global colonial state for many centuries. Its colonial relationship to the ‘New World’, Africa and Asia has seen many anti-colonial revolutionary movements and ideologies develop in confrontation with it including by Frantz Fanon from the French colonial ‘department’ of Martinique in the Caribbean. The Haitian revolutionary leader Touissant L’Overture believed in the revolutionary republican ideas especially of the radical wing of the French Revolution the Jacobins, but he himself experienced the central colonial contradiction in that project in his own imprisonment until death by French leader Napoleon. In contrast, Fanon lost his allusions in the French republic and went on to become one of its greatest critics.

The victory of the Vietnamese communists at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 inspired and spurred-on the general global anti-colonial revolution but especially the Algerian liberation movement the FLN against French colonialism. What is significant and especially relevant about Fanon here is that an African heritage man who at the time of the Second World War believed and acted-out his loyalty to the ideals of French whiteness as manifested in the official political projection of itself in Fanon fighting in the French army in the war then ends-up in a counter-oppositional space to that by becoming a leader of the Algerian FLN by the 1950s.

Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks (1951) is centrally important to understanding the French uprising as it articulates and explores the complexities of the French colonial white supremacist racist experience of Black people within France. Whereas the Algerians, Vietnamese, Senegalese and others fought French colonialism in Africa and Asia, it was Fanon who by the early 1950s was pioneering the construction of a revolutionary framework of the Black working class colonised experience within the colonial centre. CLR James was doing similarly since the 1930s in the USA and Britain.

Fanon together with CLR James, MN Roy, Ho Chi Minh, James Connolly and Lenin have in the period circa 1920-1951 already developed the theoretical outline and actual movements of what will be called and defined by people like Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture), Huey Newton, Robert F Wiliams and Malcolm X as ‘Black Power’ by the mid 1960s. What we are seeing in the French uprising is the radical display of exactly this Black Power. Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks from 1951 could read like a contemporary account and experience of the colonised human in the colonial centre be it in Paris, Rome, London, Berlin etc.

Fanon understands that global colonialism and the experience of the racialised working class within France is one thing: “European opulence is literally a scandal for it was built on the backs of slaves, it fed on the blood of slaves, and owes its very existence to the soil and subsoil of the underdeveloped world. Europe’s well-being and progress were built with the sweat and corpses of blacks, Arabs, Indians, and Asians. This, we are determined never to forget.” Having stated the global context of French society Fanon argues “The colonised is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country’s cultural standards,” something that is well understood by most Black oppressed people through the constant media and cultural racism, the burgeoning of far-right racism on all levels of society, systemic racism around violent racist policing, overcrowded and unaffordable housing, failing public services and contraction of leisure, culture and sports facilities. To adopt the ‘mother country’s cultural standards’ means to attempt to ignore all this racism and to adopt an outlook that refuses to see the racist and colonial nature of the state and society, ie., a right/far-right position that is the standard counter-position to the just class interests of those who have conducted the uprising.

Algerian & North African Diaspora

North African communities started to make a marked appearance in numbers in Paris by the 1920s and by the 1930s their population in Paris totals around 70,000. French white supremacist mass society treats these communities as hostile and suspicious. The Spanish colonial Rif War in northern Morocco which France joined in 1924 exacerbated North African resentment against European colonialism and racism and increased the confrontation between African and white racist communities. Maurice Papon is Paris’ police chief, Papon is a senior police officer who served under the pro-Nazi Vichy regime and directly assisted in the rounding-up of Jews in Marseilles. Perhaps this is part of the reason that Fanon commented in Black Skin White Masks: “My philosophy teacher, of West Indian origin, reminded me one day: When you hear bad things said about Jews, listen up, they are talking about you.” Papon continues his dehumanisation project from Jews in France to Algerians and North Africans. Papon is a senior colonial police officer in Algeria in the late 1950s who is responsible for defacto policies of torture and extrajudicial killings of liberation fighters and their communities, and brings this practice to Algerian diasporic communities back to Paris. On October 17th 1961 Papon ordered the police to brutalise pro-independence Algerians protesting in Paris resulting in up to 300 killed by Parisian police. This like many other colonial crimes have been officially denied ever since by French society and governments.

The actions of French colonialism and racism in these and other incidents are central parts of what plays into the current politics of the growing right-wing trajectories and those who counter that. Of course, it’s a lot more complicated than this as we see the right-wing in the form of Marie Le Pen and Eric Zemmour recruiting not in small part from migrant working class communities from whom the wider community has contributed to the uprising. Nevertheless, for the right-wing forces the project of denying colonial crimes are also a means to deny the continuities of colonial violence and systemic racism in the periphery and in the colonial centre as racialised working classes experience them. The relationship to Algeria and Algerians in many ways is central to the whole story of modern France, it’s like in a sense that the Algerian war never really ended, indeed the politics of the Algerian war of independence is constantly played out and will be played out as long the colonial structures and behaviours that gave rise to it exist.

What has relatively faded into the background is the universal frameworks of radical socialist anti-colonialism which led the liberation struggles across the ‘Third World’ in the 1960s, that relatively ideological cohesiveness and combativeness has rescinded and instead a confused array of political interpretations in the grassroots communities has emerged. Despite this, the class consciousness of the colonised community within the colonial centre constantly pushes back into that anti-colonial radical socialism by dint of its own class consciousness and even spontaneous demands.

Histories of Uprisings / Communities of Resistance

The history of anti-colonial uprisings within France really starts in September 1979 in the suburb of Lyon, Vaulx-en-Velin following incidents of violent racist policing and other racist attacks against African youth. Incidents of racist police brutality until this time on Black communities in France led to silent marching and other less confrontational political actions. But 1979 and then in Rhône in 1980 sees youth take to more violent collective actions against the French police and state. There is a parallel situation with mainly Caribbean and Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi working class youths across England in the same period of 1979-1981. The first generation migrant communities have grown-up in Britain and France, they don’t have the appreciation of their new lives as their newly arrived parent’s did, their anti-state anger is a result of their own experiences growing up in street-level racism, racist schools, housing and policing: they are ready to take action and did so in an organised manner for the first time in colonial urban centres. It was the generation who heard and saw the Black Power movements of the late 1960s as young children, raised with that consciousness eager to carry-out challenges in accordance with their own class interests. Ever since the 1970s France has seen every few years the state attack and kill young people of African communities resulting in young people rising-up.

The 1990s saw Algeria descend into a civil war around the growing brittle nature of the old FLN state and the new right-wing movement that uses and abuses Islam for its agenda in the form of popular (at the time) Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) and its armed off-shoot the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). The GIA itself was a part of the global political community of which Al-Qaeda (more recently called Jabhat Al-Nusra and its offshoot Daesh/IS) is the most infamous element. The Algerian civil war in the 1990s saw the Algerian state meet the brutality of the FIS/GIA with its own violent repression in defeating the FIS/GIA and total loss of 150,000 people in the conflict. This had a direct impact on relations between African migrant communities in Paris with the relative increase of men with combat experience and firearms in the banlieues. On 19 September 1995 Khaled Kelkal was killed by French authorities after carrying out a number of armed operations for the GIA in Paris. His killing by the special forces unit of the EPIGN was televised in which the French state forces were heard shouting “kill him, kill him!” This led to uprisings in the working class suburban communities of East Lyon. Khaled Kelkal’s own life was largely a story about how he was failed by the racism of the French state and society having been a top grade student who then drifts into petty crime as a result of deprived communities and is targeted for grooming by armed gangs in prison who utilise Islam for their nefarious ends. Despite the horrors of the civil war and its connected political toxicities, part of the net-result of the Algerian civil war of the 1990s was to add to the political sharpness and militancy of Algerian communities across France that then feeds into the intensity and audacity of the strategy and tactics of the uprising. Algerians youth in France play a similar role to Jamaican youth in England: both are central to creating a determined resistance in the 1970s.

Most instances of racist police killings go largely unnoticed and aren’t met by noticeable social reactions by the grassroots impacted. However, every year or two there is a police killing that does lead to considerable social conflagrations including in France. The 1990s into the 2000s saw these patterns and occurrences. One such incident in 1993 saw 17yr old Zairean Makomé M’Bowole shot dead by French police while handcuffed to a radiator in police custody. This is what inspired the seminal film on police racism and resistance in working class communities: La Haine (1995). One of the central themes in that film is what should the insurgent youth to do with a firearm dropped by a police officer during the uprising on the council estate. The issue of the armed nature of these uprisings remains an important part of the political situation and in the uprising that has just occured for a week in France after the police killing of Nahel.

French Colonial State Strikes Again

15 years later in 2011 French president Sarkozy would help lead the mobilisation of similar and actual Al-Qaeda forces in the Nato war on Libya in and also in the Syrian war. Sarkozy actually stood alongside Nato proxy death squads in Benghazi after the forced end of the Libyan socialist state by Nato. This export of colonial and neo-colonial violence in Libya, Syria and other arenas of conflict has seen Western state collusion with proxy forces in the Muslim world. The consequence of this has been to fuel the racist campaign that essentialises Muslims as naturally incompatible with the construct of ‘white Christian Europe’ and the politics of opposing migration as central to the new far-right community.

The French state like others in the West has direct rand close strategic elations with states in the Muslim world who hold similar white supremacist ideoloigies as Al-Qaeda, Nusra and Daesh but then help to directly create a growing anti-Muslim racism as essentialising all Muslims as somehow being equals-to a distorted and false racist violent construct of what Islam and Muslims are. The forces of the right-wing use and abuse Islam attempt to recruit young migrants into their project, and the mirror-image relationship to that is that the forces of the right and far-right in the French state and wider society seek to abuse migrants from Muslim communities and instrumentalise them for racist agenda. This all takes place with no actually existing real anti-colonial socialist politics and movements to navigate through these complexities despite some relatively progressive comments from Melenchon of the left-wing group in the national assembly, La France Insoumise.

Complicating this further is the manner in which the far-right in the form of Le Pen and Zemmour have had some relative successes in gaining political support from the banlieues. The objective and spontaneous mechanisms of capitalist state oppression and resistance to it creates its own defacto navigations through these problems. The colonial / neo-colonial wars in Libya and Syria while depositing a lot of toxic politics and situations to the African working class communities. It also introduces into our communities yet more men with combat experience from these conflicts, the weapons and networks connected, and a culture of political violence which all in-part feeds into the uprising which isn’t ‘Islamist’ at all and does not actually fit the politics of the right-wing in the form of Daesh or Le Pen/Zemmour but it is borne out of and feeds spontaneously an anti-colonial socialist *direction* of class struggle in action. The Palestinian struggle is also a constant source of inspiration and mobilisation for our oppressed communities and youth, and is a lot less confusing than the conflicts in Algeria, Libya and Syria. The political aesthetics of the Intifada is echoed in the street fights and resistance conducted by the participants of the uprisings. The Intifada is Black-led, African-led borth North and West African, pushing towards black liberation.

France had its own three week Intifada back in 2005. The three week uprising following the police killings of Zyed Benna (17yrs old) and Bouna Traoré (15yrs old) which led to the French government imposing a state of emergency still haunts the right-wing in France. The killing of these children by French police in the Parisian banlieue of Clichy-sous-Bois in October 2005 and the uprising that followed it showed the world how the Black working class youth can dictate and control history for that moment, and in so doing telegraph the greater potential power these working class communities have if they were to move from spontaneity to organised revolutionary movements.

Black Intifada Pushes Against Far-Right Agendas

It is exactly this potential power of a socialist-organised working class that the right-wing fear so much. While Le Pen championed the majority white Yellow Vests, she demanded a state of emergency against the uprising. As Macron tried pathetically to control the narrative by means of a one-minute silence for Nahel in the French National Assembly, Le Pen openly derided that posture. While the pension reform movement demanded a basic working class demand against the raising of the pension age, many of these same colonial-left white forces (including the French Communist Party) demanded a violent repression of the uprising and an end to its attack on state bodies and private property. The far-right populist figure Andrew Tate who has manipulated the support of a considerable section of Black working class youth is usually full of commentary but has remained totally silent on the French uprising, perhaps understanding that he cannot support it because of its radical anti-colonial nature that flies in the face of his agenda, but also criticising it would expose his posture as the ‘hard man’s hard man’.

Working class radicalism as shown in the uprising shows a major challenge for the far-right that they can’t really overcome: they want to one the one-hand recruit from these migrant communities, but that relies on successfully delivering the notion that new migrants are an existentialist problem for France and (‘white Christian’) Europe. On the other hand, if the political culture of united working class radical insurrections directly counters the notion that new migrants are a problem, rather the uprising says: we are proud of our new poor migrant working class of which we all are part of and we will unite and fight-back for our collective class interests when one of ours is attacked and/or killed. That is a core part of an anti-fascism that is also anti-colonial and the right-wing doesn’t really have any way into that consciousness. Another major victory against the colonial state and the far-right is that the uprising has shown in practice that attempts to divide North Africans from West Africans, to divide Christians from Muslims, and even divide Africans from many of their white French working class friends have all failed. That the uprising is Black/African working class led, but unites all the working classes who want to be united in an actual militant class struggle against the state. There are tensions arising out of these colonial divisions, but it is honorable and good that the uprising like many uprisings similar to it in the USA and England show that Black working class migrant communities can and will lead the struggle for socialism as initially clearly argued by Lenin and Ho and others circa 1914-1920.

The global far-right is arguing that ‘France is broken’ in light of the uprising, the far-right is trying to argue that Western liberal values as they think it is epitomised in the French colonial republic and body politic is a failed project. When was it a project of functionality and success? It wasn’t ever if one looks into history. This is merely another facet of the far-right’s campaign against the liberal-wing of the Western colonial ruling classes and a not very hidden part of that discourse is that France is broken because of Black migrants, especially Muslim Black migrants. A large part of this global far-right community are those ‘red-brown’ forces aligned to the ‘Eastern’ wing of global fascism which is Moscow and its primary allies. They are also arguing that ‘France has fallen’ or that ‘France has failed’, as a kind of puerile response to the Ukraine war, or petty-political point scoring to say ‘last week you encouraged Prigozhin, this week you had your own problems in the uprising’. These postures remain the politics of racism and the far-right instrumentalisation of oppressed communities for right-wing outcomes and agendas. While they won’t always explicitly blame migrants for that (although they often do), they will not at all argue positively for migrant rights and that this uprising and similar to them are actual the first stages of a socialist liberation movement that seeks to smash the colonial state and replace it was an anti-colonial socialist order.

Post-Uprising: Revolutionary Capacities and Potentials – What Is To Be Done?

For 5 days the French uprising saw African working class communities unite with other working classes to fight-back the state across dozens of cities and towns in France. The actions of the uprising saw some audacious actions such as the bombing of police stations immediately followed by the raid of the insurrectionists. We have seen Black gurban guerillas deploy grenades and firearms at riot/military police lines. We have seen automatic weapons being produced and discharged, other firearms used to neutralise state close-circuit television on council estates. We have seen the raiding of the homes of mayors. The political violence of the working classes, and not the police repression, leads to high-pitched shrieks and denunciations of colonial state and pro-state forces. As Marx reflected, “When our turn comes, we shall not make excuses for the terror.” While not advocating armed struggle as such it’s important to keep sight of the fact that if those who see their children and friends be frequently killed by the state, then one has to contextualise the use of armed tactics in the uprising in this sense and also critique the colonial outrage at the use of such violent means. This all pertains to exploring what stage of the class struggle communities of resistance are in during and in the immediate aftermath of the uprising.

The uprising shows many things: it puts a clear line in the proverbial sand as to who stands with the actual anti-colonial socialist class struggle and who sides with the state. This reflects colonialism and the split in socialism, or as Lenin put it: ‘imperialism and the split in socialism’. Colonialism and imperialism split the left into a pro-colonial camp and an anti-colonial one. Those interested in and/or involved in the working class struggle have a clear political culture defined by the histories of the Black Panther Party and other Black Power formations, the struggle of the Irish against British colonial occupation, uprisings like the ‘George Floyd uprising’, the August 2011 uprising and June 13th 2020 in England, and uprisings like the one in France. This is the actual radical socialist culture in the ‘West’. The communities of resistance show an inclination towards intense moments of class struggle, they are well organised and have a considerable section of support in the community to be able to conduct their uprising, they are well-equipped, they are increasingly experienced in the paramilitary tactics of the uprising, and they can put the entire state and its support on the backfoot for days and sometimes weeks. What remains to be done to advance this struggle to a new level towards the smashing of the colonial state and its replacement with the anti-colonial socialist republic? This is very important for those interested in actual revolution in the ‘West’ to explore and develop the infrastructures necessary at the grassroots in this direction. No one person or network has all the answers and all the aspects cannot be exhausted here. We can, however, attempt to explore some areas.

Conclusion

Does the uprising have demands? Yes and no. It doesn’t have centralised structures and voices making demands, but the demands are clear: we don’t want the colonial killing us slowly or quickly, we reject the state in its entirety. Although the demand is not explicit it is implicit in the sense that the uprising speaks to the dehumanised racist state in which these working class communities are increasingly subjected to. We reject the dehuaminised state in which you place us and we want to live with our humanity,dignity and independence. The danger of having organisations and representatives of any kinds making direct demands is that communities of resistance have seen for decades and generations how the state creates a neo-colonial parasitic class of community leaders, or third-sector/NGO types, of social activism grifters: the uprising militantly and violently rejects these networks of colonial corruption and it enacts the destruction of the entire racket from the state to its curated and generated sell-outs from our neighbours. A sell-out culture and leadership alludes to the need of our communities of resistance to have political organisations and movements and leaderships that are accountable to the grassroots, don’t sell-out and are loyal to the militant class struggle and through these processes we can make demands and exact certain concessions while building by all means necessary for the next uprising, and that the next uprising feeds into this revolutionary process of community mobilisation and mass work (radical ‘serve the people’ programs) drawing in maximum amount of grassroots forces and alliances into these growing infrastructures of grassroots resistance.

Can such organisations and movements develop out of these communities of resistance? The potential is there, there are of course anti-colonial radical socialists at the grassroots across France but the politics of this camp in-general are weak in accordance to the global balance of class forces which sees the politics of the right and far-right hegemonic in both West and the ’emerging’ ‘East’; that we don’t have voices of leadership and revolutionary ideologies that our youth are increasingly engaged with. But speak to any young insurgent about Malcolm X and the Panthers, and you have a captive audience and fantastic conversations that can immediately inform and feed-into radical self-organisation. Perhaps it’s striking how little the politics of the far-right that are so conspicuous especially through social media that just cannot stop the drive of anti-colonial socialist class struggle that as a social-cultural-political spontaneous phenomenon seeks to unite the widest possible residents in our increasingly immiserated working class communities.

Sukant Chandan is a London-based decolonial anti-imperialist activist and analyst. He advocated justice for Libyans in visiting Libya three times during the Nato onslaught in 2011 and reports frequently on English-language news channels based in Russia, Iran, China and Lebanon on which he discusses issues pertaining to the challenges of the struggle to end neo-colonialism. He can be contacted at sukant.chandan@gmail.com.

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