Editorial in the November 2005 issue of the Socialist
newspaper of the Socialist Party, Irish section of the CWI

Riots expose inequality and racism in France

TWO WEEKS of rioting have profoundly shaken the French government and establishment. The riots, which began in the impoverished Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, soon spread to the modern day ghetto areas of 300 other cities and are still continuing as we go to press.

To date 6,000 cars have been burned, and many shops, schools and other buildings have been attacked. The state has responded with a brutal clampdown. More than 1,800 people have been arrested, over 300 have been brought before "fast track" trials which can end in prison terms of up to five years.

Right wing Interior Minister, Nicholas Sarkozy, whose description of rioters as "scum" and "vermin" served to inflame the situation, has also decreed that any non nationals who are arrested will be deported.

Whether or not the riots die down in the short term, this approach will only serve to deepen the anger and alienation felt by the youth in the poorest neighbourhoods of France's cities.

While sections of the right wing press in France and internationally have tried to explain away the riots as an Islamic "jihad", some even suggesting an Al Quaeda link, the reality is more straightforward.

These riots were an expression of the anger of the modern day "wretched" of France, a large number of them of north African descent, who live in the ghettos and who have borne the brunt of the neo-liberal assault on services and on jobs which have been carried out by successive French governments.

Unemployment across the country is just under 11%. But in the areas that have been in flames in recent weeks, the figure is more likely to be in the region of 40%. Those who do get work will end up in the most menial, dead end jobs.

The youth of these areas are treated as outsiders by the establishment and the state and suffer systematic repression and racist abuse at the hands of the police. The rioting began when two teenagers who were chased by police when they ran from a police identity check, were electrocuted when they climbed over the wall of an electricity sub station.

Checks like this are a daily part of life for the youth of the poor neighbourhoods. So too are the racist taunts and insults of the police. It is little wonder that some of the young people involved in the rioting, despite the fact that they grew up in France, described themselves as "not French".

The riots dramatically lifted the lid on the conditions faced by the immigrant communities and the poorest sections of French society which, up to now, have largely been ignored by the media.

They were a spontaneous outburst of pent up rage, but with no clear objective or direction. Burning cars and attacking the few facilities that remain in these areas is no answer to the problems local people face - although what has been destroyed by the rioters is nothing compared to the destruction of schools and other services carried out by this government.

What is needed is a broad mass struggle against the policies of the right wing government. Recent years have seen a series of major movements of the French working class, including strikes and partial general strikes, on issues such as pensions, working hours and other government attacks.

This movement needs also to take up the specific problems of the impoverished north African and Arab communities such as racism and repression. The recent upheaval was not of a specifically ethnic or religious character. But if, over a period, the working class do not show a way out there is a danger that the anger of the most oppressed could turn in this direction.

A political alternative is required. At the moment it is the right wing UMP (Chirac's party) led government who are in power. But before them there was the "Gauche Plurielle" government of the Socialist Party, the Communist Party and the Greens. This government began the neo liberal offensive by carrying out privatisations and attacks on public services.

A new party of the working class, which could link the struggles of the working class and all the oppressed sections of society in the struggle against neo liberalism and capitalism and for a socialist France, is urgently needed.

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