16. France, England and inner-city riots

Submitted by Spassmaschine on December 17, 2009

It seems that many leftists have lost contact with the young and the people in the banlieues. This time there were no demands opposed to the State as in the years before. Is this because the young have no more illusions about the French Welfare State or capitalism itself?

Were the riots as destructive as capitalism is ? Were there any tendencies like in Britain in the 1980s, in Toxtexth for example when some youngsters shouted "Longer chains, bigger cages" at left-wing politicians asking for jobs and more welfare?

The separations we summed up in the previous answer are reflected in the sociological divisions within the left and the leftists. Although the CP has declined a lot, it still has strongholds, notably in local government and in its traditional (yet decreasing) power base among blue collar workers, especially where the CGT union is still strong. In those sectors, it suffers from competition from the Trotskyst group Lutte Ouvrière, which tries to take over from the CP in the piecemeal and peaceful defence of the decent common people, and rejected the 2005 rioters as exterior to the "real" working class that won't burn cars. But what LO won't do, antiglobalisers can't do. Their influence lies mainly in middle class elements, and they've proved as unable as everyone else to cash in on those young people who (whether "White", Arab or Black) ask for nothing, no job, no union, no political organisation, no vote, and only (so far) show a capacity for refusal.

Assessing the 2005 events does not mean dismissing them, but realising that, in the present situation, such a conflagration could only produce itself. That's a lot, but nothing comes out of it. It's more of a symptom than a "recomposition" of the proletariat, to use the autonomist term. We're not nostalgic, but thirty or forty years ago, the fathers of those youngsters of (North or Black) African origin managed to go on strike with their assembly line "French" work mates.

The English riots, in 1981 and the following years, came close to a convergence between a critique of work by those that work rejects, and hardline demands by wage earners. (See the excellent Like a Summer with a Thousand Julys). We're not quality controllers of the class struggle, but the 2005 rioting remained within the sociological and geographical confines of their focal point. This is not saying that it will always be so.

If we go for a broader picture and look at the whole dispossessed population of these estates, it's doubtful that illusions have decreased. Some illusions have indeed diminished, about the Welfare State and the reforming capacity of the left. Others are on the increase, for example about the possibility of civic action and civil rights, with more people determined to make use of their right to vote. If there were fewer anti-State slogans than before, it's not because the local proles no longer expect much from the State: it's more to do with the movement (November 2005 and Spring 2006) not reaching the stage when rejecting the State would start to be on the agenda. People still expect a lot from politics, not from the State as it is now, but from a State that would be renovated nobody knows how.