By Joan Trevor
After 20 days and still counting of urban unrest it is possible from London to draw only a partial balance sheet of what has happened in France and what might happen next.
The riots that began in Clichy-sous-Bois as a response to the accidental deaths of two young men, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traore, in an electricity sub-station spread to other deprived suburbs in areas around and in Paris — and to many towns beyond. Even the right-wing president Jacques Chirac was forced to admit that the rioting has social causes: the social alienation of wide layers of young people, particularly from immigrant backgrounds, having few job prospects because of discrimination. In his national address on 14 November he announced a new training and employment scheme for 50,000 youths from poor suburbs and measures to combat discrimination in recruitment, alongside the usual cant about parents’ obligation to teach their children to respect the values of the Republic.
It seems now that the rioting has run its course. The reasons for this include the police clampdown — nearly 3,000 youths have been arrested, many of them receiving summary and unfair justice; non-French citizens, including people residing legally, have been deported — and mobilisations and interventions by different people, including mayors, political parties, religious groups, musicians, etc, in the suburbs themselves.
The emergency legislation, revived from the French-Algerian war in the 1950s, has been put into force in several towns, though fewer than might have been expected.
Nonetheless, the government is seeking to get an extension for it to last into February.
Mobilisation by the left and far-left against the legislation has, reportedly, been feeble. There have only been a handful of demonstrations: two in Paris mustered 300 and 1,000, a demonstration in Toulouse managed a more respectable 800.
These laws are not being used yet against the left or the trade unions. The government already has enough legal weapons in its armoury to use against the other social unrest that the riots have eclipsed.
The month-long-plus strike on the transport system in Marseille was ruled illegal, and the unions had to call a new vote on whether to strike. A judge deemed that the original reason that had been given for striking was political, not economic, and therefore invalidated the strike.
Moreover, says a friend, “the government is not crazy. It will continue to divide and rule. Why should it treat train workers or electricity workers the same way as young people from the suburbs?”
The riots, it seems, have not frightened the population into supporting the government, although polls show general approval of the clampdown on the rioters alongside an appreciation of the riots’ social causes.
The fascist Front National’s Paris rally, blaming the riots on immigration, attracted only a few hundred people, but their vote will probably still be strong and will likely grow among poor, white residents of the suburbs.