The racist assault of a young man by Paris police has provoked angry protests. Jad Bouharoun looks at the prospects for a nationwide anti-racist movement.
The assault and rape by the police of Théo L, a young black man from the Paris suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois, has sparked angry demonstrations throughout the country. They come in the wake of a sustained grassroots movement demanding justice for Adama Traore, another black youth killed in police custody in the Paris suburb of Beaumont-sur-Oise in July 2016.
Thousands responded to the call of militant networks and staged a protest outside the Bobigny courthouse, where black and Muslim anti-racist activists stood shoulder to shoulder with activists from the far-left to confront the riot police. Throughout the week following the assault on Théo hundreds of locals staged night demonstrations in various suburbs of Paris, often turning into riots after the police intervened. Demonstrators also marched in smaller cities like Rouen, Orléans, Toulouse or Nantes. Public meetings are being held throughout the country to denounce police violence and racism and build for the 19 March demonstration “For Justice and Dignity”.
The latest assault was so blatant in its savagery and racism that it was condemned by the whole political spectrum in this pre-election period, apart from Front National leader Marine Le Pen, who declared her unconditional support for the police. Right wing and centrist candidates Francois Fillon and Emmanuel Macron quickly shifted their focus onto the violence that emanated from some demonstrations, condemning them and promising the cops more funding and a tougher approach to crime. Left wing candidates Benoit Hamon and Jean-Luc Mélenchon promised various reforms to “appease the tensions between the population and the police”.
Meanwhile the Hollande government was busy passing a law that removes restrictions on the use of firearms by the police. A few months before, armed policemen with their faces covered with balaclavas roamed the streets demanding “better working
conditions” — meaning more funds to carry out their dirty work of repression.
Far from being isolated incidents of police misconduct, the crimes against Theo, Adama and many others are deeply rooted in the racial, social and economic segregation that the French state imposes on populations of black and Arab descent. They live in entrenched suburban neighbourhoods, trapped between high unemployment, a lack of social services and rampaging racist cops.
The most obvious, geographic segregation, that concentrates populations of immigrant descent in the suburbs (banlieues) of Paris and other large cities, finds its origins in the evolution of French capitalism since the 19th century.
A major urban upheaval in the second half of the 19th century moved factories and working class neighbourhoods to slum-like suburbs north of Paris, in an attempt to transform the cramped city centre into a modern hub of capitalist accumulation while keeping radical elements away from downtown Paris.
This state of affairs remained relatively untarnished and had been generalised to other large cities by the eve of the Second World War. Like all advanced capitalist economies, France experienced a post-war boom with record high growth rates and full employment. The pressing need for extra manpower was met as immigrants from what were then French colonies of Northern and sub-Saharan Africa were encouraged to move to France. Many of them were settled in hastily built, massive working class housing projects (called the cités) in the banlieues with sub-standard social services.
The economic slowdown that started in the 1970s disproportionately hit the banlieues. Factories moved out and unemployment settled in on a massive scale; social services were cut further, and everything from access to healthcare, public transportation to the main urban centres, higher education and therefore the job market was made scarcer. Brutal neoliberal policies were therefore applied to the banlieues, feeding and deepening the process of socioeconomic ghettoisation.
In parallel, special repressive techniques were developed and imposed on the banlieues from the 1970s. New, relatively independent police units were formed, inspired by policing in the French colonies or African-American neighbourhoods in the US. Under the pretence of crime prevention and community policing, they treat every black or Arab youth as a potential suspect, multiplying ID checks during which racial abuse, public stripping and searching and physical assault are a normal occurrence. Neighbourhoods are frequently cordoned off by the police in mass-scale, military-like operations aimed at stifling revolt and spreading terror.
This was and remains a deliberate policy conducted by the state on behalf of the ruling class. For decades the problem of the banlieues was presented as one of integration: “Immigrants are jobless and live in ghettos because they do not want to integrate” — explicitly suggesting that it was their culture that prevented them from accepting the immaculate values of the French Republic. Left and right wing mainstream politicians and the media had at their disposal the racist arsenal of France’s colonial past, and little revamping was needed to adapt it to the banlieues. Since the 11 September 2001 attacks Islamophobia is increasingly dominant in the discourse around the banlieues, and has been used to cover the marked increase in repression of the past decade, while the economic crisis and cuts have further worsened the population’s situation.
There is, however, a long history of mass resistance in the banlieues. Immigrant workers organised strikes in response to waves of hate crimes in the 1970s, and the Lyon suburb of Vénissieux was the stage of the first mass urban riot in the summer of 1983. It was built upon later that year by grassroots activists who organised the first national anti-racist movement in French history, a weeks-long march on Paris called the “March for equality against racism”. Continuous attempts to organise from below were punctuated by the occasional mass riot, most famously the autumn 2005 riots that spread like wildfire in the northern banlieues of Paris, setting the stage for weeks of open confrontation between the police and the immigrant youths.
Apart from police repression, grassroots organisers in the banlieues faced multiple difficulties. Attempts to “sanitise” the anger of the banlieues, strip from it the radical grassroots content, were present from day one, notably through NGOs sponsored by the Labour-type Socialist Party like “SOS Racisme” and the trade union bureaucracy. They aim to drown the angry voices of the banlieues population in a cacophony of reformist speech and “dialogue” with the police brokered by Arab and black celebrities with no connection to the cités.
The radical left often condescendingly dismissed the banlieues grassroots organisers, as it saw the struggle against specific oppressions like racism to be of secondary importance. This has sometimes led it into accepting the Islamophobic speech around the banlieues, notably when most of the radical left supported the 2004 ban on the hijab in public schools, in the name of women’s liberation.
However, there has been a real attempt to close up the rift between sections of the radical left and the banlieues activists since the imposition of emergency law after the terrorist attacks of November 2015. This law has been used by the state as an opportunity to escalate repression on both the banlieues and the left activists. The main radical left organisations rejected the ban on demonstrations that came with the emergency law, and organised against it on the streets.
The mobilisation against the neoliberal labour law (Loi El-Khomri) in the spring of 2016 saw a new generation of trade unionists and radical left activists face unprecedented police attacks. They had to develop street fighting tactics to establish a balance of power with the cops, and were joined in that by many banlieues youth and activists.
Activists from the radical left took part in the grassroots movement demanding justice for Adama Traore, and are joining hands with the banlieues youth in the angry protests that followed the rape of Theo L by the police.
This convergence is taking shape under police tear gas and flash-balls, and appears to be directly caused by the recent upsurge in repression by the French state. French Marxist Ugo Palheta argues that this upsurge is not only linked to present events but reflects long-term tendencies:
“It is becoming increasingly obvious that the government used the terrorist attacks of November 2015 to impose an authoritarian agenda, around which the principal French parties converge… This agenda is broadly shared by the ruling classes of Western powers since the 11 September 2001 attacks. This ‘shock strategy’ aims to benefit from the stupefaction caused by the terrorist attacks to reinforce the capabilities of the state’s repressive apparatuses while targeting specific populations: Muslims, Roma people, migrants, banlieues population and activists — trade unionists, anti-fascists, greens, and more broadly the radical left.”
This authoritarian tendency underlines a secular decline of French capitalism along with symptoms of a crisis in the hegemony of the French ruling class, particularly among the youth. The short-lived but significant Nuit Debout movement imposed itself in the squares in the middle of emergency law, in parallel and intermeshing with the labour law movement. It showed that a whole generation, new to politics, was openly questioning the validity of capitalism, the role of the police and the state, racism and Islamophobia, just as left and right wing mainstream politicians were urging the nation to “get in line” behind so-called Republican values.
The participants in Nuit Debout came from a much wider spectrum than the banlieues activists, the radical left or the trade unions, showing that general discontent reached further than the ranks of the usual suspects and well into the middle classes.
This is unsurprising given that youth unemployment in France has been hovering around 25 percent for a decade, more than twice the — already significant — French national average of 10 percent. What is more, many young people with higher degrees spend years in precarious, low-paid employment.
This brings us to the ultimate determinant of the French conundrum: the poor state of the economy. According to Michael Roberts, French capitalism is still suffering from record low levels of profitability, having made only a partial recovery in the neoliberal era — in part because of the stubborn resistance of the French working class, leaving the capitalists yearning for a “French Thatcher” who would radically reduce the cost of labour, still among the highest in Europe.
The French ruling class is therefore in urgent need of further neoliberal reforms; the new labour law, imposed by a Socialist government without parliamentary majority, was a first step in this direction. The next president, elected in May, will face pressures to further neoliberal reforms, provide tax breaks for corporations and the rich, cut social services and slash labour rights and unions. Right wing and centrist candidates Fillon and Macron have already promised neoliberal shocks, while left wing Socialist Party candidate Hamon is beginning to yield to similar pressures.
It is likely that an increase in state repression to wipe out any resistance to much-needed (from the vantage point of the bosses) neoliberal reforms, along with state-sponsored racism, Islamophobia and police violence in the banlieues will remain the general theme for the French ruling class in the years to come.
Paradoxically, this has created a crisis of hegemony and opened the door to real alliances from below, notably between the radical left and the banlieues youth.
This situation, dangerous but full of possibilities, offers no guarantee of its own solution.
The fundamental question remains: how can these multitudes of revolts be transformed into a sustained, coherent, mass anti-capitalist movement?
Sections of the radical left like Lutte Ouvrière (LO) show how not to do it: they recently argued that atheist propaganda was necessary as the banlieues youth needed to be won from religion (read: Islam) as a prerequisite to them joining class struggle. In doing that LO are, at best, equating systemic state Islamophobia with the reaction to it, as some youth seek to find refuge in the religious identity for which they feel they are being persecuted. At worst this view by LO is the mirror image of ruling class racism against the banlieues.
Thankfully the other main force on the radical left, the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA), has made its opposition to Islamophobia, racism and police violence a major theme in the campaign of its presidential candidate Philippe Poutou. However, this approach remains propagandist with the NPA choosing to divert its resources towards the presidential campaign instead of building a coherent nationwide political intervention in the growing anti-racist movement. The NPA is therefore standing at the fringes of that movement, proposing a non-racist alternative to which victims of racism should rally; it is a cosmetic improvement of the old approach that simply dismissed racism as a diversion.
More promising examples are found at local levels: small but numerous militant networks across the radical left (including the NPA) are organising local anti-racist and anti-Islamophobia initiatives, public meetings and demonstrations. They are coming together with grassroots organisers from the banlieues and the wider Muslim and black communities. Generalising and coordinating these initiatives nationally with an explicit revolutionary political intervention, while maintaining their grassroots character and expanding their base, is a challenging but necessary task for far-left organisations. The nationwide 19 March demonstration against racism and police violence is another opportunity to further the convergence that began last year.
French Marxist Daniel Bensaid wrote of Leninist politics as that of crises, favourable moments and weak links. Racism is a structural bedrock of French bourgeois hegemony; but the intolerable violence of the French cops and the generalised opposition to neoliberalism are exposing a weak link, and presenting a historic opportunity for revolutionaries in France. The fight against racism, inseparable from that against police violence, should be put where it belongs: at the very organisational core of anti-capitalist revolutionary politics. From a prerequisite to the unity of the working class in France, it could become its springboard for giant leaps forward.