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FRANCE: Unrest spreads among youth, workers of African descent
Gov’t declares state of emergency, orders curfews
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A socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people
Vol. 69/No. 45November 21, 2005


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Unrest spreads among youth,
workers of African descent
Gov’t declares state of emergency, orders curfews
(lead article)
Working people and others, largely of African origin, march October 30 at Clichy-sous-Bois suburb of Paris to protest killings three days earlier of two youth chased by cops. Their deaths ignited the social explosion.

Protests by youth and other working people, largely of African descent, erupted in working-class suburbs surrounding Paris at the end of October. They have since grown in intensity, spreading to some 300 cities and towns throughout France and causing a crisis for the ruling class.

Using a 1955 law dating back to the French war against the anticolonial movement in Algeria, the French cabinet declared a 12-day state of emergency November 8, authorizing local officials to impose curfews, ban public meetings, and conduct police raids and searches for weapons. According to the BBC, this is the first time these emergency powers have been implemented in mainland France.

Some 9,500 cops—including the hated riot police known as the CRS—have now been deployed to confront the protesters. The police have arrested more than 1,200 people. About 6,000 vehicles have been torched during the clashes.

French interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy has ordered the expulsion of all “foreigners” convicted of taking part in the street actions, including those who have residency visas. He informed parliament November 9 that 120 protesters would be deported “without delay.”

The social explosion was ignited by police harassment and brutality. Its underlying causes include racist discrimination in employment, housing, and education facing millions of working people who have emigrated to France from its former colonies in Africa.

The protests began after the October 27 electrocution of Traore Bouna, 15, and Zyad Benna, 17. The two died after trying to escape from cops in the Clichy-sous-Bois suburb of Paris. The youths, sons of working-class immigrants from Mauritania and Tunisia, respectively, were returning home after playing a soccer game when they encountered one of the many police roadblocks set up to harass and check identity papers of local residents.

Adel Benna, Zyad’s brother, told the Washington Post that one of the boys had left his papers at home. Not wanting to be dragged down to the police station, they dodged the checkpoint, scaling a power substation wall to avoid being taken into police custody.

“Young people don’t just throw themselves into an electrical current,” said Adel Benna. “They looked behind them and saw something that made them so terrified, so desperate, they did it out of absolute fear. I hate the police. They are responsible for my brother’s death.”

Government officials dispatched an additional 1,300 police to Seine-Saint-Denis, a northeastern area of Paris that includes the town of Clichy-sous-Bois, where the clashes started. Cops fired tear gas and rubber bullets at hundreds of protesting youth who defended themselves by throwing rocks and bottles. As the conflict escalated, vehicles and buildings were torched.

Immediately after their deaths, Sarkozy referred to the two teenagers as juvenile delinquents involved in robbery and vandalism. Four days later, after the fury these statements fueled among immigrants and other working people across the country, Sarkozy was forced to retract his remark, admitting that the youth had no criminal records.

But then, on November 3, the Interior Ministry released a preliminary report exonerating the officers of any role in the youth’s deaths, the Associated Press reported.

Anger at the cops was further inflamed October 30 when a tear gas grenade of the kind used by the police was thrown into one of the town’s local mosques, forcing some 700 worshipers to flee the choking smoke.

“People are fed up with being controlled by cops, being stopped over and over,” Jean-Jacque Eyquem, a 53-year-old taxi driver living in Clichy-sous-Bois, told the Post.

“It’s the police who are provoking us,” a man who gave his name as Mohamed told the New York Times. Currently unemployed, he had moved to France from Algeria in 1971. “They say integrate, but I don’t understand: I’m already French, what more do they want?” he said. “They want me to drink alcohol?”

Salim Khalil, 25, of Tunisian origin, is a temporary worker at the Peugeot auto plant in Poissy outside of Paris. The protests erupted “because of the lack of jobs, of help and facilities, especially for youth 18 to 25,” he told the Militant. “Sarkozy provoked people, calling us ‘scum,’ we who are excluded from the workforce.”

No affirmative action programs in employment, education, or housing exist in France, unlike the United States where such programs were won by Blacks and other oppressed nationalities, as well as women, as a result of the civil rights movement.

The escalating protests have heightened tensions within the governing Union for a Popular Movement. Sarkozy and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin are vying for the party’s presidential nomination in the 2007 elections. Sarkozy has described youth living in these immigrant housing projects as “scum” and pledged a “war without mercy” against them. Villepin has tried to paint more of a soft-cop picture of himself but has not hesitated in joining the rest of the government in deploying thousands of cops to the affected areas.

The French Communist Party (PCF), which is part of or runs municipal assemblies in many of the towns where the clashes have been erupting, has called for Sarkozy’s resignation. PCF member Olivier Klein, who is deputy mayor of Clichy-sous-Bois, said that instead of the federal government sending paramilitary units like the CRS riot police into these towns a “community policing operation” is needed.

Socialist Party (PS) leader Julien Dray has stated that Sarkozy shouldn’t resign because doing so would give in to the “rioters.” The SP is not opposing the state of emergency either.

An estimated 6 million citizens of North African descent live in France, many in decrepit, segregated, suburban high-rise enclaves, which the government calls “sensitive urban zones.” In these 751 areas, the official unemployment figure is 19.6 percent—double the national average—and more than 30 percent among 21- to 29-year-olds. Actual unemployment in some neighborhoods is substantially higher. Workers’ income in these areas is only a quarter of the country’s average, reported the Christian Science Monitor.

Many who succeed in securing jobs work for the lowest wages with little chance for advancement. “We are all janitors here,” a young man of North African origin who identified himself as Awax told the International Herald Tribune in the town of La Courneuve. “It’s our destiny.”

Between April and August of this year, three fires in dilapidated buildings housing African immigrants killed 48 people, including 28 children.

Derek Jeffers and Jean-Louis Salfati in Paris contributed to this article.
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