The revolt of the French estates

The revolt of the youth on the estates of cities right across France reflects a deep malaise within French society, especially among the most downtrodden layers. You cannot coop up unemployed immigrant youth in the dreary estates on the outskirts of France’s cities, leave them without hope, oppressed and discriminated against, and expect life to continue as normal. This eruption of violent protest is an indication of a wider movement that will affect every layer of French society in the coming period, particularly the working class and its organisations. The riots in France have continued to grow over the last few days. And now they have spread to over 200 districts. Thousands of cars have been burned; hundreds of offices and shops have been vandalized. The CRS (compagnie républicaine de sécurité – French riot squad) and the police are overwhelmed, demoralized, and exhausted by the ordeal. The estates of France’s large cities have now become battlefields.

The immediate cause of this revolt was the death of two youth who, fearing that they would be caught in the net of yet another police raid, took refuge in an electrical installation. But beyond this tragic incident, the scope and extraordinary vigour of this movement can only be explained by the effects of unemployment, poverty, and social and racial discrimination, which have accumulated over decades. It is also a reaction to the cynicism of that parasitic and corrupt class which sits at the summit of the “Republican order”, which daily pours its scorn on the “scum on the estates”, and whose reactionary mentality is perfectly embodied in the provocative, disdainful and aggressive language of Nicolas Sarkozy.

No effort has been spared in stigmatising the revolts and in hiding the real reasons behind their fury. The rioters are all supposed to be hooligans, criminals, and even idiots manipulated by gang leaders. In fact, they are nothing of the kind. What is happening is an uprising of the youth – not of the gilded youth, but of the most oppressed, the most downtrodden, and the most desperate youth. The bourgeois are shocked by their methods? These youth are not “civilised” enough? But could it be that the explanation for their rude manners (according to the tastes of the bourgeois) is to be found in the fact that they have for the most part grown up in absolute misery, not to mention police brutality!

Is there even one of these youth who has not been the victim of poverty or discrimination? Yes they are full of hatred. However, contrary to what we often hear, hatred is not always a negative thing. Hatred can be a powerful lever of human emancipation when it is directed against the injustice of this evil system.

From the point of view of militant communists and trade unionists, there is much that can be said about the methods used by these youth in revolt. These are not the methods of the workers’ movement. They are missing the mark. We cannot approve of the destruction of schools, nurseries, businesses or even vehicles. But such activities are in the nature of this type of mobilisation. Before the emergence of the first trade union organisations in the 19th century, there were many cases of workers in despair who destroyed factories and machines, or attacked property indiscriminately. But the youth we are talking about do not know the world of work – and many of their parents are themselves excluded from it. In many of the districts the employment rate is around 40%. Amongst the youth themselves, many disapprove of such actions – but different from striking workers, who have organisations and the authority to make collective decisions, they have no means of stopping them.

Be that as it may, the attitude of the government and the media towards such destruction is completely hypocritical. They shed crocodile tears. We understand perfectly the anger of the workers and the families who are suffering as a result of this destruction. These workers and families have nothing to do whatsoever with the social causes of the riots. They are themselves the victims of capitalism. But it is necessary to say one thing: even if these riots were to continue for another twelve months, they would not be able to destroy as many businesses, jobs, or public services as the vandalism of the hooligans – dressed in suits and ties, but hooligans all the same – who sit on MEDEF (Movement of French Enterprises) and the UMP (Union for a Popular Movement).

De Villepin and Chirac have called for a restoration of “order”. De Villiers has also called for order, and has recommended sending in the army to put down the rebellion. But what kind of “order” are we talking about? It is the order of a republic that is rotten to the core, based on racketeering and corruption. It is an order where a small number of big capitalists submit the whole of society to their hunger for profits and power. It is an order where the youth are supposed to passively accept their lot in life, where the workers submit meekly to the laws of the market, where the rich grow richer while poverty and precariousness become generalised. The implacable hostility of Sarkozy towards the “estates”, blithely presented as the breeding ground of Muslim fundamentalists, criminals, or even terrorists, is nothing but the other side of his hostility towards the workers of the SNCM (Société Nationale Maritime Corse Méditerranée), the RTM or any group of workers that attempts to struggle against privatisations and social regression.

This rebellion ties in with what is brewing within the French working class. It is a challenge to the trade union movement, to the Socialist and Communist parties, who must not ignore such an important movement. If asked to choose between these courageous, combative, defiant, youth in revolt – despite all their faults due to their political inexperience and their lack of organisation – and the hardened representatives of capitalism who have sent the CRS against them, we have no problem in deciding where we stand.

When François Hollande [a leader of the French Socialist Party] refuses to demand the resignation of Sarkozy, under the pretext of not wanting to encourage the riots, he does nothing but encourage Sarkozy himself. Having said that, the resignation of Sarkozy is not enough. We must demand the resignation of the whole government – that is to say the immediate calling of new parliamentary elections.

The youth do not need moralising speeches, but an audacious and revolutionary programme of action, as implacably opposed to capitalism as capitalism is opposed to us. The “blind” riots of the type we are witnessing, are not only the direct result of the impasse of capitalism; they also flow from the failure of the 15 years of Left governments we have had since 1981, in which the representatives of the PS (Socialist Party) and the PCF (Communist Party of France) were content to pass a few minor reforms that did nothing to change the rapacious and reactionary character of capitalism. The last government of the Left even carried out a large-scale programme of privatisations, which Chirac, Raffarin, and de Villepin have simply continued since 2002.

Today, our task as Communists is to patiently explain to each youth, straight and to the point, to each worker, to every unemployed person and pensioner that capitalism means permanent social regression, and that there is no other means of reversing this tendency as long as the banks and big business remain under the control of the capitalists. We must extend our hands in solidarity to these youth in revolt; explain to them that no riot, no matter how large and widespread, will be able to solve their problems. We must invite them to get organised with us, to consciously prepare and seriously struggle for the overthrow of capitalism.

The representatives of capitalism will supply the truncheons, the teargas, and the handcuffs necessary for the “re-establishment of order”. But they cannot resolve any of the problems that crush these youth. Indeed, these riots will inevitably end by fading away. But their deep-seeded causes will remain. Amongst the youth who are braving the brutality of the CRS today, will be found a good number of fighters for the cause of socialism – as long as we address them in a language they understand, a revolutionary language.

In the last analysis what is being prepared is a revolution. The capitalist system is absolutely incapable of meeting the needs of the people. Its existence has become incompatible with the social conquests of the past. Its representatives attack the working class, the unemployed, and the pensioners. Unemployment, uncertainty and misery are on the rise. At the moment when de Villepin speaks of easing the “suffering” of the youth, the government and MEDEF are launching a new attack on unemployment benefits. The revolt on the French estates is a concrete expression of the sharp tensions that have built up within French society. These riots are further proof – together with many other factors – that France has entered an epoch of profound social instability, in the course of which the workers of this country will have to face up to the challenge of putting an end to capitalism.

Paris, November 8, 2005