Scum of the French ghettoes, unite!

, by @Alfred, Soopa Seb

The youth uprisings in Seine St Denis (French department 93, North of Paris) do not only tell of their discontent with the disproportionate police operation ordered by government. They also epitomize 30 years of social revendications facing off with conservative attacks. Will we listen this time?

“As long as you burn cars, they will keep sending the cops! We need a social movement that can burn cars, but also has an objective.”
Pierre Bourdieu, statement in the suburbs of Val-Fourré in 2001 [1]

Here we go. After the mainstream media forcefed us, in customary fashion, visions of ghetto apocalypse, testimonies now come from many sources that refute the government propaganda sheepishly relayed by the media. No, the two Clichy teenagers who died electrocuted trying to escape the pigs did not have a criminal record as suggested. No, they had not robbed, or done anything wrong that would have warranted such a chase, contrary to what Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister De Villepin had asserted to cover up the abuses committed by their troops. And yes, the riot police did shoot a tear gas grenade into a mosque where families had gathered to celebrate the Night of Destiny of the Holy Month of Ramadan. Funny how you never hear any of the usual voices of outrage when Muslims are assaulted.

Once again, the Rambos of the BAC and regular police get medieval, flashball in hand, in total impunity, as shows this video taken with a cell phone . No wonder things are going so bad...

One thing is sure, the belligerent declarations of our spirited Minister of Police Sarkozy did not bode well in the spiral of violence, in the parlance of our time, a very fitting image indeed, since pseudo-experts in terrorism were already talking of ghetto intifada 3 years ago!

Organized crime

The latest extreme right wing grunts to come out of Sarkozy’s mouth are but the latest jewels in a year laden with aggressive statements. In a year that also saw its share of social struggle, things could only get worse. Or was this only due to the irresistible need of a trigger-happy Sarkozy to use his newly acquired tasers on restless youth?

Let’s backtrack a little. Remember the subtle intervention of Clément, Minister of Jails, who decided to so completely ignore the Constitution in defending his own little toy, the electronic bracelet, that he elicited a negative reaction (here in French) from his friend the president of the Constitutional Council Pierre Mazeaud. He was following in the footsteps of our Minister to the Colonies, François Baroin, who so valiantly attacked the “taboo” of the right of soil in the French colony of Mayotte [2]
Baroin also seems unaware that France is in blatant violation of international law by its presence in the Comores archipelago [3].

I can’t help but think that people smart enough to get the one and only civil service job where you can get a 70% raise, and surrounded by an army of specialists and experts would make this kind of speech lightly.

Therefore it is quite interesting to put this speech in relation with the law voted last february on the injunction of Foreign Affairs Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, that recognizes a positive effect to French colonization [4].
This law undermined the 2001 Taubira law on the recognition of slavery. This law was already flawed, as Louis Sala-Morins showed, arguing that there was a“gap between the serenely revendicative rigor of Taubira’s original text [...] and the bombast of the text eventually voted on. Clearly: the representative’s text demanded condemnation, remembrance, justice and reparation. Mindwashed by government, the left and the Law Committee translated it into: condemnation, pedagogy and repentance.” [5].

Beyond considerations on the strong colonialist stench of these statements, what could be the motivations of members of government for so fueling the fire?

Divide and conquer

As Bourdieu once said, “le fait divers fait diversion” ("news is diversion."). Is the government hoping that obedient TV newscasts opening daily on burning cars will make us forget about other matters such as the privatization of EDF [6]? The promotional campaign for the deed tries to make us believe that privatization can make us all shareholders in the company. But wasn’t this PUBLIC company ours already? Wasn’t it built and developed with our tax money, with the sales tax that unemployed, welfare recipients and hoodlums alike pay any time they buy something? Maybe De Villepin and his minions think they can make us forget their New Job Contract and the two-year tryout period it supposes?

The times are difficult for the government after the losses they suffered in different elections, including the resounding beating taken at the referendum for the European Constitution. With new elections coming soon, what could be easier than dividing the working class in order to avoid joint demands? How better to undermine a social movement than in letting lose the old demons of fear and wariness among people living together? How better than in sewing these seeds between so-called good working Frenchmen and bad, lazy foreign immigrants, between ghetto youth always equated to hoodlums, gangsters and "ghetto scum", and on the other side responsible adults eager to protect their four-wheeled private property? Between the unemployed and the flexibly subdued workers?

It reminds me of the early times of slavery in America, when, according to Howard Zinn, "Only one fear was greater than the fear of black rebellion in the new American colonies. That was the fear that discontented whites would join black slaves to overthrow the existing order[...]. As Edmund Morgan sees it:
There are hints that the two despised groups initially saw each other as sharing the same predicament.
" [7]

Get your priorities straight : focusing on insecurity will not serve anybody, as it didn’t in the disgusting presidential campaign of 2002 (which saw French fascist leader Jean-Marie Le Pen face off with Chirac in the second round of the elections). It will stifle our aspirations to discuss social problems and more and more obvious inequities. The left, in power from 81 to 95, and from 97 to 2001 has nothing on our right-wing demagogues. This left carries the responsibility of abandoning the population of the projects, after harvesting their votes to reach power [8]

Masterless men

Growing with no hope of finding a job-unemployment being used as a threatening tool to tame employees and make them more flexible-,in areas which always suffer first from the lack of interest of public services obsessed with profit (they are all bound to be privatized), these men and women make me think of the masterless men described by Christopher Hill in his book The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution [9] Masterless for often being unemployed, they involuntarily were free of the chains of labor, and therefore constituted a kind of anomaly, a potential factor for the dissolution of society. The author describes more precisely the factors for the appearance of these strange people and how they were perceived in 16th century society:

"The fluctuations of the early capitalist cloth market brought wealth to a fortunate few, ruin to many. The inefficient and the unlcukey went to the roads. They caused considerable panic in ruling circles during the sixteenth century, but they were never a serious menace to the social order. Vagabonds attended no church, belonged to no organized social group.
[...] such men were almost by definition ideologically unmotivated: they could steal and plunder, but were incapable of concerted revolt.
[...]they presented a security problem, no more.
" [10]

If our situation is obviously different, analogies can be drawn, especially on the analysis of the governing class: with no ideology, these groups potentially dangerous to established order only constitute a security problem.
What is the state of political awareness in the French projects? What is the collective reaction to the major economical and social attacks they’ve had to suffer? I cannot help but make a parallel with an organization that some will probably find far fetched, if not outright off the mark: the Black Panther Party. Clichy sous Bois is not Watts! Yet...

All the Power to the People !

The Black Panther Party for Self Defense was founded in 1966 by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, California, following the many uprisings of the year 1965 in Harlem, Chicago, Detroit, and in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. Contrary to what was then commonly offered by social movements to face unemployment, dismal housing, police brutality, access to health services and education, the two friends inscribed their action in a process of community-based socialist development.

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Membres fondateurs du Black Panther Party

Another common mistake about the Panthers is that they were trigger-happy madmen. They actually set up many socially minded activities, such as screening for sickle cell anemia [11], or the famous Free Breakfast for Children Program. They also set up groups to survey police activity, who would follow police officers on patrol and monitor arrests and detentions. These different initiatives were based on their Ten Point Program:

- 1. We Want Freedom. We Want Power To Determine The Destiny Of Our Black Community.
- 2. We Want Full Employment For Our People.
- 3. We Want An End To The Robbery
By The Capitalists Of Our Black Community.
- 4. We Want Decent Housing Fit For The Shelter Of Human Beings.
- 5. We Want Education For Our People That Exposes
The True Nature Of This Decadent American Society.
We Want Education That Teaches Us Our True History
And Our Role In The Present-Day Society.
- 6. We Want All Black Men To Be Exempt From Military Service.
- 7. We Want An Immediate End To
Police Brutality And Murder Of Black People.
- 8. We Want Freedom For All Black Men
Held In Federal, State, County And City Prisons And Jails.
- 9. We Want All Black People When Brought To Trial To Be Tried In
Court By A Jury Of Their Peer Group Or People From Their Black
Communities, As Defined By The Constitution Of The United States.
- 10. We Want Land, Bread, Housing, Education,
Clothing, Justice And Peace.


This fire starting in a cotton field [13]

Almost fourty years later, (the text was written on october 15th 1966), the similarities between the Panthers’s demands and those that could be made in French projects is striking, with the important difference of the community-exclusive language used in the first version of the Program. In 1972, a second version would be written that would emphasize class struggle by mentioning oppressed communities [14].

The Appel des indigènes de la République (here in French), or Call of the Republic’s Natives [15] could have been such a program, but it wasn’t based on confronting authorities. Rather it meant to develop autonomous initiatives through local activities , without expecting anything from political or religious authorities, when the latter tend to defuse the most radical social demands [16].
Nevertheless, the conclusion of this text, calling for all the oppressed and the exploited to fight together towards a truly universal and egalitarian social democracy [17] suggests interesting possibilities.

For if the gradual rise in power of the may 68 movement was gained through the alliance of student and worker organizations, a truly meaningful, innovating and radical social movement can only be reached when the different organizations start listening to those who have to live through and suffer first-hand the conservative measures taken by successive governments in the past years. The new uprisings have to be put in the perspective of other recent social struggles and actions such as the boarding of the Pascal Paoli by the sailors of the Société nationale CM or the transportation strike in Marseilles that has now been going for over a month.

How those movements will latch on the youth uprisings in Seine St Denis, or whether joint actions can be expected still remains to be seen. In the meantime, there is one demand : All Power to the People !


[1Personal translation from the documentary [La Sociologie est un sport de combat (see here in French)(Pierre Carles, 2h26’, 2001)

[2see here in French.

[3see earlier article.

[4see Olivier Lecour-Grandmaison’s article in Libération (in French) on Algeria Watch.

[5Personal translation, from Louis-Sala Molins, preface to Rosa Amélia Plumelle-Uribe’s book, La Férocité blanche, Albin Michel.

[6Electricite De France, the public power company

[7From A People’s History of the United States, Harper and Row, 1990.

[8the staggering unemployment statistics for Seine-St-Denis, 14%, that so far the mainstream media has managed not to mention, are available in French [here-].

[9Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1975.


[11a genetic disease that mostly affects African-Americans. See here.

[12See also the PBS website.

[13Translated from Ils nous aiment comme le feu, by Frecnh rap group La Rumeur

[14See here.

[15a recent inititative by a vast array of people to address race issues in France from the point of view of « natives’ as the old colonial term goes.

[16A role once held by the catholic church in France, which has now spread to Islam since Sarkozy set up the French Council of Islam (Conseil Français du Culte Musulman). Listen here in French from the radio show Là-bas si j’y suis.

[17Personal translation from the original text.