From A World To Win News Service:

France: Repression -- and Support for the Rebels

Revolution #024, November 27, 2005, posted at

November 14 2005. A World to Win News Service. After 18 nights of burning cars and skirmishing with police, and a few head-on clashes as well, only one thing can be safely predicted: France is not about to go back to the way it was before.

The revolt broke out October 27, when the police chased two teenagers, Bouna Traore and Zyed Benna, into an electrical power substation and let them be electrocuted. Since then it has flared and ebbed and sometimes flared again in many localities in the Paris region and spread to more than 40 cities and towns around the country. One of the most worrisome incidents for the authorities occurred November 12 in Lyon, the third largest city. Youth from the cités (public housing estates or projects) converged on the historic city center, Place Bellecour, a major upscale shopping area. They fought the police who had been concentrated there to keep them out and burned some stores and stalls. That night also saw fighting in nearby Saint-Etienne, Toulouse in southwest France and Strasbourg in the east.

The authorities say the revolt is dying out, but they are not acting like they expect it to go away. A bill authorizing a 90-day extension of the current temporary state of emergency was sent to Parliament November 14. The law dates back to 1955, when it was intended to stop the anti-colonial uprising in Algeria, then legally a part of France. It was used in France itself in 1961 to repress the movement against the colonial war that began with that uprising. On October 17, 1961 in Paris, many thousands of Algerian immigrants defied the curfew and ban on demonstrations declared under that law and staged a march in support of the national liberation war in. The police were given the order to break up the march and chase down and punish those who had dared leave their homes. It was open season on Algerians. Hundreds of men, women and children were beaten and stomped to death and dumped into the Seine River that night.

Now this same law is being used again, for the first time in France since those days, against the children and grandchildren of those who were killed or injured or rounded up and held in camps, as well as against other people of immigrant descent and in general all of the inhabitants of the cités that replaced the shantytowns of the 1950s and `60s. The curfew is not countrywide, but is being applied in potential hotspots. Under the law, local authorities can restrict people's movements as they see fit. In some urban areas, youth under 16 or 18 are officially banned from the streets after 10 or 11 pm. There are unofficial curfews in many more places against all youth. Police order even elderly people to get off the street.

In a few places, a total lockdown has been declared. For instance, in the suburban town of Evreux north of Paris, the police set up a perimeter surrounding an entire cité of 18,000 people, called La Madeleine. The CRS riot police literally locked the gates to La Madeleine and let no one in or out between 10 pm and 5 the next morning, except for medical emergencies and to go to work. No one was even allowed to walk their dog or come out to smoke a cigarette in front of the buildings. A helicopter painted the sides of the buildings and the sidewalks with searchlights. The same procedure was imposed the following night.

There are a great many cités where the cops avoid entering at night, even in normal times. Now, sometimes the youth throw stones and Molotov cocktails at police and then run to take refuge in an apartment tower. Even if the police chase them inside, people often open their doors to the youth to give them refuge. Support for the youth is far from universal and the tactic of burning cars not always welcome, but in taking measures against whole housing complexes and inflicting collective punishment, the government is helping to make it clear that the target is not just the youth but a whole section of the people, which has helped swing people to the youth's side.

So far, the main public expressions of sympathy for the rebel youth have come from sports figures. A few middle class people have taken action. All demonstrations and unauthorized public gatherings were forbidden in Paris during the weekend. Yet three or more did take place there, including in the overwhelmingly white Left Bank (scene of historic battles between students and police in May 1968) and other very crowded tourist areas. The initiative to defy the ban and call for people to take to the streets to support the youth came from Act Up, the anti-AIDS civil disobedience organization. Housing activists, anti-racist campaigners, supporters of Palestine and others also took part in instant and necessarily brief illegal assemblies up to a thousand strong on teeming street corners, despite the extremely heavy police presence and the strong possibility of injury and arrest.

At the same time, despite gangs of police stationed at every suburban train station and all the main city terminals to keep youth from breaking out of the ghettos, huge numbers of youth from the working-class suburbs and all over flooded into central Paris that Saturday afternoon to enjoy the strength of their numbers and the difficulties of the police to tear gas and beat people indiscriminately there. These dynamic and fluid situations seemed to keep the police somewhat off balance. Central Paris has rarely been so packed, so tense and, for many youth, so much fun, although the situation never quite slipped out of police control. This is exactly the kind of volatile situation the authorities don't want, but the kind of steps necessary to prevent this could cast the shadow of repression on people of all classes and establish a very different kind of climate in the capital.

It is very likely that the curfews and the ban on assemblies will be a central issue in the days to come, because to the extent they are imposed they represent an escalation and broadening of the attacks on the people.

Another central issue is Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy's threat that all arrested immigrants will be kicked out of France if they had no papers or even if they do. Legal experts and human rights campaigner said this would be illegal under French and European Union laws forbidding collective punishment and punishment without due process. But instead of backing up, Sarkozy announced that 120 people would be deported starting November 14 anyway. Such threats do have a dissuasive affect, since deportations are imposed often on people who have lived almost all their lives in France and even those born there who haven't been given citizenship. But while Sarkozy is trying to polarize much of the middle classes against the cité youth, this polarization could go either way. Mass deportations of foreigners have had a particularly bad name in this country since the Nazi occupation. Further, the youth are overwhelming French, not immigrants. Many people recognize this as an attempt to change the subject and paint this rebellion as something other than it really is, a revolt by a section of the French working class. Sarkozy's provocations might help make the stakes of this situation clearer to more middle class forces and help create conditions for them to rally to the support of the rebel youth.

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