Editorial: The Unemployed Riots in France
Following the death in the last week of October of two teenagers electrocuted while trying to avoid a
police identity card check, riots broke out in the suburb of Paris where they lived. These soon spread to other suburbs of Paris and then to those in other cities of France. Police were stoned, cars set alight and fire engines attacked, night after night,for three weeks.
Most of the rioters were the children or grandchildren of workers who had come to work in France from its former colonies in North and West Africa. This led some to see the riots as another aspect of some Islamic attack on “Western civilisation”. Predictably, the notorious French racist politician, Jean-Marie Le Pen, said it was all due to immigration.
Actually, in a sense, it was a revolt against “Western civilisation”, but not by Islamists. It was a revolt by
unemployed youth, living in rundown estates with the worst amenities, against the fate capitalism has imposed on them. Certainly, most of the rioters were nominally Muslims and the children of recent economic migrants, but essentially they were workers who had been thrown on to the scrap heap even before they had had a job.
Insult was added to injury by the French interior minister talking about people on the estates as “riff-raff” and
about “cutting out the gangrene” and “cleaning by pressure hose”. He maintained he was only referring to drug
dealers and petty criminals but this was not how it was perceived on the estates.
Capitalism needs a reserve army of unemployed, to exert a downward pressure on wages as well as a source of readily-available extra labour-power that can be called upon during the expansion phase of the capitalist economic cycle. In addition, there is always a surplus population who, for various reasons, are never going to be
employed. The level of state “benefits” paid to these non-working sections of the working class is fixed more by political than economic considerations, basically by what the state can get away with without provoking riots.
In France the state has evidently pushed a section of these workers too far. The result has been a revolt against the state as represented by the police, the fire brigade and public buildings. The French state has replied in kind. Sending in more police, declaring a state of emergency, imposing curfews, handing down severe sentences including deportation to countries convicted rioters are supposed to have “come from” but have never been to.
Of course, in the end, the state will win andthe riots will be put down. After the repression, however, the state will spend a little more money to improve amenities and job prospects on the estates, the price of avoiding further costly and damaging unemployed riots.
But what a comment on capitalist civilisation! In a world which has the potential to provide a decent life for
everybody, a section of the population is driven to riot just to get a slightly less small pittance to live on.
Rioting, though perhaps understandable, is not the answer. What is required is not blind rage but that the quite legitimate rage of these victims of capitalism should be accompanied by an understanding of the situation capitalism has put them in. Capitalism causes – in fact, requires – some workers to be surplus to requirements and suffer above average social exclusion.
Once this is understood, then it will be realised that the constructive thing to do is to work for a new society in
which having to obtain money, by hook or by crook, to acquire what you need to live will be a thing of the past.
A society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of life where enough for all will be produced since satisfying people’s needs will be the sole aim of production. A society where everyone will be “socially included” because we’re all fellow human beings.
At first there was NAFTA, then there was FTAA – or rather, there wasn’t, because talks to establish the Free
Trade Area of the Americas have got bogged down in disagreements. The North American Free Trade
Agreement, between the US, Canada and Mexico, came into force in 1994. Its declared aims were to eliminate trade barriers between the three countries involved and increase investment opportunities. In fact, it is far more about investment than trade, allowing US and Canadian factories to be moved to cheap-labour areas in Mexico and opening up further chances for privatisation. But it was always seen as a first step only, and the FTAA, which would extend to most of Central and South America and cover 34 countries, is the logical conclusion, originally intended to come into effect at the start of 2005.
The FTAA has many opponents. The nasty right- wing super-nationalists in the John Birch Society
(see www.stoptheftaa.org) view it as part of the ongoing abolition of the United States, opening up borders to all sorts of criminals, terrorists and other undesirables, doing away with US sovereignty and creating a European Union- style integrated political unit. This isolationist conception does not fit in with that of the rulers of the US, however.
There have also been opponents from the ‘left’, largely from the anti- globalisation or global justice
m o v e m ent s (www.globalexchange.org/campaigns/ftaa/, for instance).
They point to the effects of NAFTA in cutting wages in Mexico and increasing threats to the environment and public health. FTAA, they claim, will just be the same thing, writ larger.In early November the Summit of the Americas was held in Argentina, partly to see how FTAA could be put back on track after the rulers of some countries objected to it.
In the meantime, smaller groupings have been pushed forward, such as the Central America Free Trade
Agreement (due to start in January 2006) and the Andean Free Trade Agreement (which is still under negotiation). The US is also particularly interested in expansion of the Panama Canal, which carries 14% of
US foreign trade, so that it can handle more and bigger ships.
But the Summit did not give the green light to FTAA, despite Bush’s threats and arm-twisting. A handful of
countries stood out against it, including Venezuela, where oil resources give the rulers a bit of bargaining freedom (see the November Socialist Standard). So now things are being left to the meeting of the World Trade Organization in Hong Kong in the middle of this month.
The Argentinian Summit was marked by protests and police crackdowns, together with the usual populist anti-
American pronouncements from Presidents Chavez of Venezuela and Lula of Brazil. Clearly, many workers are
unconvinced that a policy is in their interests just because it suits Bush, his fat-cat backers and the American capitalist class in general. But nobody raised the real issues about the way society is run.
The truth is that arguments about ‘free trade’ or ‘fair trade’ or any other kind of trade completely miss the point. All variants on trade accept the idea that food, clothing, housing etc. should be bought and sold rather than freely available. They also accept that the earth should belong to a small class of owners rather than being the common property of all its people.
They all accept the existence of capitalism rather than rejecting it entirely as Socialists do.