French crisis Riots are often the only option

Gary Younge

By the end of last week it looked as though the fortnight of struggle between minority French youth and the police might have yielded some progress. Condemning the rioters is easy. They shot at the police, killed an innocent man, trashed businesses, rammed a car into a retirement

home, and torched countless cars. Those who wondered what French youth had to gain by taking to the streets should ask what they had to lose. Unemployed, socially excluded, harassed by the police and condemned to poor housing, they live on estates that are essentially open prisons. Statistically invisible (it is against the law and republican principle to collect data based on race or ethnicity) and politically unrepresentative (mainland France does not have a single non-white MP), their aim has been to get their plight acknowledged. And they succeeded.

Even as the French politicians talked tough, the state was suing for peace with the offer of greater social justice. The government unrolled a package of measures that would give career guidance and work placements to all unemployed people under 25 in some of the poorest suburbs; there would be tax breaks for companies who set up on sink estates; a Euros 1,000 lump sum for jobless people who returned to work and Euros 150 a month for a year; 5,000 extra teachers and educational assistants; 10,000 scholarships to encourage academic achievers to stay at school; and 10 boarding schools for those who want to leave their estates to study.

“We need to respond strongly and quickly to the undeniable problems facing many inhabitants of the deprived neighbourhoods,’’ said President Chirac. From the man who once said that immigrants had breached the “threshold of tolerance’’ and were sending French workers

“mad’’ with their “noise and smell’’ this was progress indeed. “The impossible becomes probable through struggle,’’ said the African American academic Manning Marable. “And the probable becomes reality.’’ And the reality is that none of this would have happened without riots. There was no petition these young people could have signed, no peaceful march they could have held, no letter they could have written to their MPs that would have produced these results.

Amid the charred chassis and broken glass there is a vital point of principle to salvage: in certain conditions rioting is not just justified but may be necessary, and effective. From the poll tax demonstrations to Soweto, history is littered with such cases; what were the French and American revolutions but riots endowed by Enlightenment principles and then blessed by history? When all non-violent, democratic means of achieving a just end are unavailable, redundant or exhausted, rioting is justifiable. When state agencies fail to do so or actually attack them, it may be necessary in self-defence. Rioting should be neither celebrated nor fetishised, because ultimately it is a sign of weakness. Like a strike, it is often the last and most desperate weapon available to those with the least power. Rioting is a class act. Wealthy people don’t do it because either they have the levers of democracy at their disposal, or they can rely on the state or private security firms to do their violent work for them, if need be.

The issue of when and how rioting is effective is more problematic. Riots raise awareness of a situation, but they cannot solve it. For that you need democratic engagement and meaningful negotiation. Most powerful when they stem from a movement, all too often riots are instead the spontaneous, leaderless expression of pent-up frustration void of an agenda or clear demands. Many of these French youths may have had a ball last week, but what they really need is a party — a political organisation that will articulate aspirations.

The rioters will not be invited to help write the documents that could shape racial discourse for a generation. Nor are they likely to be the primary beneficiaries. Given these outcomes, riots carry great risk. The border between political violence and criminality becomes blurred, and legitimate protest risks degrading into impotent displays of hypermasculinity. Violence becomes not the means to even a vague aspiration but the end in itself, and half the story gets missed. We heard little from young minority French women last week, even though they have been the primary targets of the state’s secular dogma over the hijab.

Finally, violence polarises. The big winner of the last two weeks may yet prove to be Sarkozy. The presidential-hopeful courted the far right with his calculated criticisms of the rioters; if he wins he could reverse the gains. The riots run all these risks and have still managed to yield a precarious kind of progress. They demand our qualified and critical support. Power has made its concessions. But how many, for how long and to whom depends on whether those who made the demands take their struggle from the margins to the mainstream: from the street to the corridors of power.