Media : French ‘riots’ : weird Guardian article


Richard Moore

    They shot at the police, killed an innocent man, trashed
    businesses, rammed a car into a retirement home, and
    torched countless cars (given that 400 cars are burned on
    an average New Year's Eve in France, this was not quite as
    remarkable as some made out).

    The riots in France run all these risks and yet have still
    managed to yield a precarious kind of progress. They
    demand our qualified and critical support.

Very interesting. I wonder how the Guardian would be
reporting similar incidents in Birmingham. We're being
invited to embrace the rioting, as an essential element of
democratic expression. Not that I'm of contrary mind
myself, as I have written in a previous posting... but
from the Guardian? ...while in the UK the police are
cracking down on yob drinkers, ASBO's* are all the rage,
and the police have shoot-to-kill policies?


* ASBO: Anti-Social Behaviour Order : you go to jail if
your dog frightens your neighbor's cat again.


Published on Monday, November 14, 2005 by the Guardian/UK 

Riots Are a Class Act - And Often They're the Only

    France now accepts the need for social justice. No
    petition, peaceful march or letter to an MP could have
    achieved this

by Gary Younge 

'If there is no struggle, there is no progress," said the
African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass. "Those
who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation
are men who want crops without ploughing up the ground;
they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want
the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters ...
Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and
it never will."

By the end of last week it looked as though the fortnight
of struggle between minority French youth and the police
might actually 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 (given that
400 cars are burned on an average New Year's Eve in
France, this was not quite as remarkable as some made

But shield your ears from the awful roaring waters for a
moment and take a look at the ocean. 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 unrepresented (mainland France
does not have a single non-white MP), their aim has been
simply to get their plight acknowledged. And they

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 ¤1,000 (£675) lump sum for jobless people who
returned to work as well as ¤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
neighborhoods," 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 also 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 charged with protecting
communities fail to do so or actually attack them, it may
be necessary in self-defense.

After the 1967 riots in American cities, President Johnson
set up the Kerner commission. It concluded: "What white
Americans have never fully understood - but what the Negro
can never forget - is that white society is deeply
implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it,
white institutions maintain it, and white society condones
it." How else was such a damning indictment of racial
discrimination in the US ever going to land on the
president's desk?

Following the inner-city riots across Britain in 1981,
Lord Scarman argued that "urgent action" was needed to
prevent racial disadvantage becoming an "endemic,
ineradicable disease threatening the very survival of our
society". His conclusions weren't perfect. But the kernel
of a message black Britons had been trying to hammer home
for decades suddenly took center stage. A few years later
Michael Heseltine wrote a report into the disturbances in
Toxteth entitled It Takes a Riot.

Rioting should be neither celebrated nor fetishized,
because ultimately it is a sign not of strength but
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

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
organization that will articulate their aspirations.

If Kerner and Scarman are anything to go by, 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.

"During the 80s, everyone was desperate to have a black
face in their organization to show the race relations
industry that they were allowing black people to get on,"
says the editor of Race & Class, Ambalavaner Sivanandan.
"So the people who made this mobility possible were those
who took to the streets. But they did not benefit." The
same is true of the black American working class that
produced Kerner.

Given these uncertain 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 at
that point 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 target
of the state's secular dogma over the hijab.

Finally, violence polarizes. 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 any gains that may arise. Le Pen also lurks in the

The riots in France run all these risks and yet 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.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005 

© Copyrighted 1997-2005 


"Apocalypse Now and the Brave New World"

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