Thursday, December 01, 2005

Wallerstein on France: 'rebellion of the underclass'

Commentary No. 174, Dec. 1, 2005 "The French Riots: Rebellion of the Underclass"

France had a rebellion of its underclass in November 2005 that lasted for about two weeks. Groups of young people across France, mostly of North African or Black African descent, set fires to cars and hurled rocks at police. In some ways, this was the kind of uprising that has been occurring throughout the world in recent decades. But it also had particular French explanations. It exploded like a phoenix. It has been suppressed by the force of the state. It is far from over.The immediate story is very simple. Three young men saw police stopping other youths and asking for identity cards. This happens routinely in France to young people of "color" who live in the de facto segregated high-rise dilapidated housing of "les banlieues" (the suburbs, which is where France's ghettos are located). These housing complexes are home to largely unemployed, undereducated youth who have few prospects for jobs, for upward mobility, or even for non-work activity (sports, cultural centers). These youth run away from identity checks primarily because they are often pointlessly taken into custody, where they are frequently harassed and remain in police stations for many hours until their parents come to bring them home.In this particular case, the youths jumped a wall and landed in an electrical complex, where two of them were electrocuted. This was the spark to the rebellion. It was a rebellion against poverty, joblessness, racist behavior by French police, and above all lack of acceptance as the citizens they mostly are and as the cultural minority they feel they have the right to remain. The French government seemed primarily concerned with repressing the rebellion, and eventually it succeeded. The fact that the Prime Minister and the Minister of the Interior are fierce rivals for the future candidacy for president of the governing party ensured that neither of them was going to seem soft on rebellion and thereby give an advantage to the other.

It always amazes me that people are surprised when underclasses rebel. The surprising thing is that they do not do it more often. The combination of the oppressiveness of poverty and racism with lack of visible short-term or even medium-term hope is surely a recipe for rebellion. What keeps rebellion down is fear of repression, which is why repression is usually swift. But the repression never makes the anger go away. Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin says that this uprising was not as bad as that in Los Angeles in 1992 in which 54 people died and 2000 were hurt. Perhaps not, but that is hardly a basis for boasting.

Throughout the world today, the metropolitan areas are filled with people who match the profile of the rebels in France: poor, jobless, socially marginalized and defined as "different" - and therefore angry. If they are teenagers, they have the energy to rebel and the absence of even the minimal family responsibilities that might restrain them. Furthermore, the anger is reciprocated. Those who are in the more comfortable majority fear these young people precisely for the characteristics they have. The better off feel that the poor youths tend to be lawless and well, "different." So, many of the better off (perhaps not all) tend to endorse strong measures to contain these rebellions, including exclusion totally from the society, even the country.

France in some ways is an exaggerated version of what we find elsewhere - not only in North America and the rest of Europe, but throughout the South in countries like Brazil, Mexico, India, South Africa. Indeed, it is hard to think of a country where this issue does not exist. The problem with France is that too many of its citizens have long denied to themselves that this is a French problem as well. France defines itself as the country of universal values, where discrimination cannot exist because everyone can become a French person if they're ready to integrate fully. The reality is that France has always (yes, I said always) been a country of immigration. In the days of the Ancien Régime and even in the first half of the nineteenth century, the non-French speakers (50% up to the French Revolution) migrated to Paris and other northern cities. Later it was the Italians, the Belgians, and the Corsicans. The came the Poles, and then the Portuguese and Spaniards. And in the last 40 years or so, massively the North Africans, the Black Africans, and the Chinese from what was formerly French Indochina.

France is a multicultural country par excellence still living the Jacobin dream of uniformity. The number of practicing Catholics is zooming down while the number of practicing Muslims is increasing daily. The major consequence of this has been a hallucinatory debate for over a decade about what to do about young Moslem girls who wish to have their hair covered when they go to school. The racist right saw the wearing of the foulard as an affront to Frenchness, and if truth be told, to Christianity. The classical left (or at least a large part of it) saw it as a challenge to sacrosanct laicité. Both sides combined to outlaw the foulard (and in order to be balanced, Christian and Jewish "large" symbols too). So, a certain number of Moslem girls were expelled from school. And the matter was thought to be solved, somehow.

What was remarkable about this rebellion this time in France is that it did not focus on religious issues. For example, it did not result in anti-Semitic tirades. Because France has a large number of poor Jews who live in the same housing complexes, there have been Muslim-Jewish or rather Palestinian-Israeli tensions for the last two decades. But that issue was shelved. The French rebellion was a spontaneous class uprising. And like most spontaneous uprisings, it could not be sustained for too long. But also like most rebellions, the possibility of recurrence will not disappear unless the gross inequalities are overcome. And it does not seem that too much effort is being made by French authorities (or for that matter by authorities elsewhere in the world) to overcome inequalities. We are in an epoch of accentuating, not alleviating, inequalities. And therefore, we are in an epoch of increasing, not decreasing, rebellions.


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