Or does it Explode?


November 21, 2005 20:38 | by Steve McGiffen

Most of the media is blind to the real reasons for social tension in France - and there is more to come, says Steve McGiffen

BEGINNING on the outskirts of cities, violent rebellion has now reached the centres of Paris and Lyon. Perhaps, by the time that you read this, it will have blown over. Or perhaps it will have flared up again, affecting other cities. One thing is certain, however. The realities of life for those involved will remain substantially unchanged.

The systematic social exclusion which is the real root of the problem is not, moreover, some peculiarly French phenomenon. Unless something is done to reverse the political direction in which much of the world has been dragged over the last two decades, the kind of resistance that we have seen in France in recent weeks will become global.

As a socialist who believes in mass organisation as the basic tool of progress, I would prefer it were otherwise, that resistance would take other forms. Unfortunately, as the young people of France's blighted ghettos can now see, conventional forms of resistance have been tried and have failed, while the wave of destruction which we are seeing has focused the minds of political leaders across the board.

Whether they are being called "scum" by the racist Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy or promised improvements by President Jacques Chirac, they are at least not being ignored. They know that, for 30 years, no effort has been made by governments of either centre-right or centre-left to offer a future to people of Arab or African descent, people who are systematically excluded from employment and decent housing and who are the target of daily racist abuse from the police and others in authority.

As in Britain, workers from colonies and former colonies were encouraged to migrate to the imperial centre in the years of reconstruction which followed the war. Unlike in Britain, the majority were not offered citizenship and many remain dependent on residency permits which, as we have seen in the Sarkozy's plans to expel "rioters" who are "foreign" - many of whom were actually born in France - can be withdrawn at will.

In Britain, newly arrived immigrants generally moved into substandard housing from which it was difficult for them to escape. More than a half a century after the beginning of mass migration from the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent, people whose origins lie in these areas continue to occupy relatively poor accommodation.

In France, however, exclusion from better housing has been visibly more systematic. On their arrival, immigrants were herded into high-rise estates which had been custom-built for them and which lacked all but the most basic amenities. They and their children and grandchildren are still there, while the amenities have, if anything, deteriorated. The work which they came to do has dwindled away, so that people of colour make up a hugely disproportionate section of the unemployed, the precariously employed and the very low-paid.

Yet, while the mainstream media abroad seem to be almost gleefully asking why this should have happened in France, they would be much better occupied in looking to their own societies.

As the Dutch left socialist leader Jan Marijnissen asked his own country's interior minister last week, isn't it just possible that what's responsible is the collection of policies which lead to unemployment benefit systems that assume that workless youths are shirkers? Or annual rounds of tax cuts for the rich? Or the scaling back of socially funded training opportunities, youth clubs, sports centres, restaurants, libraries, evening classes, public transport and a host of other facilities? Sounds familiar, doesn't it? Because the fact is that, driven on by the European Union's neoliberal dictatorship, such policies are being pursued not just by France or the Netherlands but by almost every government in all 25 member states.

As Marijnissen said, "If you lay a fire in the hearth, you shouldn't be surprised if it goes up in flames."

That fire has been set in every country which has submitted to this dictatorship and with inflammable materials supplied wholesale from Brussels and Frankfurt.

Unless this dictatorship is successfully resisted, unless we of the left are able to show that such resistance is possible and that alternatives exist, it is likely that this fire will burn fiercely throughout the continent and beyond. It will not, moreover, spare those countries which have not seen mass immigration. The existence of socially excluded ethnic minorities merely means that neoliberalism's consequences take a particular form.

People of all colours and creeds, perhaps especially young people, have a number of needs which cannot be met by an iPod, a mobile phone - even one with a personalised ringtone - or any other new toy, though it can rankle when you can't afford things which you have been told carry the keys to happiness. Nor can these needs be met by promises of a better world beyond the grave, though even the ultimately divisive solidarity that religion can bring can sometimes appear to make up for the absence of the real thing.

The needs to which I am referring are the need for hope, the need to feel that one is contributing to and being nurtured by something bigger than oneself, something open to all of us, and the need to dream, not as a means of escape, but as a way of visualising a future which is attainable, one better than the present in which we live.

Fifty years ago, the poet Langston Hughes asked a rhetorical question about dreams.

He was referring in particular to his own African-American people and to Harlem, their ghetto in New York City. But he might have been talking about Clichy-sous-Bois or any number of areas of cities in Britain, the Netherlands or almost any other country.

"What happens to a dream deferred?" asked Hughes's poem. "Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?/Or fester like a sore - /And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over - /like a syrupy sweet?/Maybe it just sags/like a heavy load./Or does it explode?"

Steve McGiffen edits spectrezine. His latest book, a new and updated edition of The European Union: A Critical Guide, has just been published by Pluto Press. He lives in France. This article first appeared in the UK socialist daily, The Morning Star. Read more about the Star here

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