On Paris

Another exiled euro-lefty now resident in New Zealand, Joe, had written an excellent piece on the Paris Riots, well worth a read.

I was one of the coordinators of the Irish mobilization to the Second European Social Forum which was held in Paris two years ago, to the day. We had over a hundred people come from Ireland, and it was my job to head over early and co-ordinate accommodation with the ESF organizers there, as well as get the lie of the land and find out where everything was happening...

Imagine the shock when most people coming to the ESF discovered that a lot of the sessions were happening thirty or forty kilometers out from what most of us consider Paris, that beautiful walled medieval city of the Commune, May 68 and the Revolution. I spent the first day going from Bobigny (end of the line) to St Denis, and the hidden Paris of the ghetto-suburbs blew me away. Looking back on it now, the French ESF organizers probably opened Europe's eyes to the hidden reality of 21st century Paris. At the time we thought it was stupid to spend half the day traveling, but now I think it might have been a stroke of genius...

Mile after mile of desolate estate-high rise ghettos reaching out to the horizon. The train stations were all covered with New York style hip hop graffiti, and when I got off at the second last stop (St Denis-Porte de Paris) I got a real shock.

It was Bastille Day, when France celebrates its revolution, and in the middle of this concrete urban bunker that doubled as the town's main square, a bunch of old (white) army veterans were holding up French Tricolor banners gilded in gold with the names of their legions and the battles they had fought inscribed on it. This did not look to me like a progressive bunch of Communards or Sans Culottes. Maybe some of these guys had seen action in Algeria with Le PEn's torturing paratroopers.

Around them were clusters of African and Arab kids, shouting out the names of towns and cities these old men had probably killed people in. Bwtween the two groups were a cohort of fully tooled up CRS riot police, with body armor, Alsatian dogs, tear gas weapons that looked like sawn off shotguns, and huge paddy wagons with armor plating on them. To me it looked like some version of the Orange Order insisting on their right to march provocatively in Derry, aided by their RUC racist police cousins... I remembered the Bob Marley song at the beginning of the cinema verite intro to the film La Haine, with his words "they were dressed in uniforms of brutality" echoing over a montage of riots in Paris.

We went on to meet a lot of the French and European left that week, with these suburbs as an ever hissing background. We crossed a bridge in one suburb where the CRS had massacred hundreds of Arabs in Paris when they attacked a solidarity march during the height of the Algerian War. We stayed with most of the North of Ireland crew in a gym in the old Jewish quarter of Villejuif, which was cleared of most of its Jewish citizens by the Nazis and the Vichy, and was now a bustling Arab section. It had been a stronghold of the French Communist Party, the PCF, and in a nice touch of Gallic solidarity, the old Communist mayor came round one morning and cooked a hundred of us an unbelievable French breakfast! (I'd date the revival of the French left from there!)

SOlidarity with their North of Irish comrades, no problem. But what struck me most about the French left was their lack of contacts with the Arab and African ghettos of Paris and beyond. A group of us North of Irelanders went out to an Arab cafe one night, and I'm nearly sure we were the first caucasian group EVER inside! IN our broken French we talked about the ESF- most of them had not heard about it. But they were amazed to learn that we were against the war, supported the resistance in Iraq and Palestine, hated the Front National and defended the right for Muslims to wear the hijab. We left that Arab cafe late that morning with a lot of new friends! Many of them will have been out fighting this week.

I am disappointed to see that the resurgent French radical left, that has been kicking neo-liberal ass with the defeat of the EU Constitution and the nearly monthly mass strikes, is nowhere to be seen defending the kids of the banluies. If there was a similar uprising here in South Auckland, I have every confidence in the radical workers movement in Aotearoa that we would defend the kids here. The problems are the same in the worlds big cities- poor working class youth, often immigrant and multicultural, lies fuming, festering, and forgotten in huge sprawling ghettos miles away from Sky or Eiffel Towers...

The French radical left needs to engage with Arab and black French youth. Supporting the government's crackdown on the hijab was disgusting, and revolutionaries should really know better.

There is now an uprising, an intifada, in urban France. le Pen's fascists have been along to some of the so called "peace marches", wearing tricolor sashes and talking about the need to clear the ghettos of "scum". In the weeks to come, the French radical left has a major part to play. Will they end up like the old CP in May 68- condemning the students whose bravery fighting the CRS led three weeks later to Western Europe's closest shot to a socialist revolution, with over 1o million on strike? Much better if they'd play the role of the students...
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