In the early hours of 14 August, police were called to disperse groups of youth, provoking a night of conflict which saw 150 police attacked with fireworks and projectiles. A school and sports centre were burned down, along with dozens of cars.
Although the ritual burning of cars and bricking cops is not unusual in the impoverished suburbs or banlieues of France’s industrial towns, it was the scale and ferocity of last night’s fighting which has made it national and even international news.
Newly elected Socialist President Francois Hollande has said security “is not a priority, but an obligation” – meaning he will deal with it no differently than Chirac did in 2005 – flooding the estates with police and the hated CRS riot squads. From September he will establish 15 ‘priority security zones’ – pouring money into tougher policing rather than investing in real jobs.
But tear gas and batons does nothing to address the underlying issues. With 50% unemployment amongst young people of Black or Arab origin, and over 20% amongst white French youth, the lack of opportunities is made worse by an intimidating police presence. Police regularly conduct sweeps of working class districts, flooding train stations and estates stopping and searching hundreds of young people at a time.
The new government came to power on a promise of ‘growing the economy’ to avoid austerity. But exactly the reverse has happened. France’s economy has flatlined, cuts have not been reversed, and French youth feel they are being made to pay for a crisis they didn’t cause.
Hollande has also failed to make a clean break with the racist policies of the last president. He has continued to round up thousands of Roma citizens, demolishing their camps and deporting them back to Eastern European countries. This is despite the fact that they are EU citizens and have every right to live in France.
Hollande is not worried about the employment or education chances for young people. He now just wants to avoid a repeat of 2005 where riots engulfed France’s major cities for more than three weeks. This is the great danger – there are now millions more youth with no future than then, millions more youth with plenty to feel angry about, and who feel they have nothing to lose by taking out their frustration on a violent and racist police force.