France: Anti-police uprising of marginalized youth hurls challenge to the entire social order
First published at IMHO Journal.
In response to the police murder of a 17-year-old youth, Nahel Merzouk, in the banlieue [variously translated as working class suburb, or even “inner city”] of Nanterre outside Paris, marginalized youth across the country engaged in nearly a week of clashes on the streets with police. During those nights of unrest, they also attacked and set fire to government buildings, automobiles, and shops. This amounted to the most serious urban uprising France has experienced in decades. It also constituted a danger signal not only to the French dominant classes, but also to all those countries, the U.S. included, that have allowed racially and ethnically marked communities of poverty and exclusion that suffer the double oppression of race and class to continue to exist in their midst.
Death in the morning, Nanterre, June 27, 2023
Nanterre is an impoverished Parisian banlieue that is also the location of Paris Nanterre University, where the historic nationwide student-worker uprising of May-June 1968 began. But where 1968 broke out among relatively privileged student youth and then spread to other universities and high schools and to the working class, the 2023 Nanterre uprising began and was carried out among the country’s most marginalized population: young teenagers, mostly of North African or sub-Saharan African descent, people of color with few economic prospects and who are also subjected to relentless police surveillance and repression, as well as the openly racist scorn of the French establishment.
An example from three years ago:
The word “ensauvagement” has been a favorite dog whistle of France’s far right in recent years, used to suggest that the nation is turning savage. With its colonial and racist overtones, it has been wielded in discussion of immigration and crime to sound alarms that France is being transformed into a dangerous, uncivilized place, stripped of its traditional values. “Behind it, there is an underlying imaginary world, with savages on one side and civilized humanity on the other,” said Cécile Alduy, a French expert on the political use of language who teaches at Stanford University. So it did not go unnoticed this week when sitting ministers of President Emmanuel Macron’s government started throwing around the word themselves, arguing forcefully that talk of France’s “ensauvagement” was legitimate. “Personally, I use the word ensauvagement and I repeat it,” said Gérald Darmanin, the powerful interior minister and head of the national police. (Norimitsu Onishi and Constant Méheut, “A Coded Word from the Far Right Roils France’s Political Mainstream,” NY Times, Sept. 4, 2020).
Such noxious discourse from on high not only poisons the national culture, exacerbating existing racism for opportunistic political reasons, but it also gives a signal to police from their top boss that it is “open season” on banlieue youth, and on those living in similar neighborhoods inside the cities, altogether dubbed quartiers populaires [working-class and marginalized neighborhoods where populations descended from Arab and Black immigrants predominate]. That ideological campaign, combined with a 2017 “anti-terrorist” change in the law – passed under the social democratic government of François Hollande — that allows police to open fire more easily when stopping people for questioning, created the ground for Nahel’s murder on the morning of June 27.
Here are the shocking details: On a sunny morning, Tuesday, June 27, as 17-year-old Nahel drives down the streets of Nanterre, two heavily armed police try to stop his car, probably for the kind of identity check that is so resented by the community; Nahel pulls away but soon gets stuck in traffic; police on foot approach the car again outside the driver’s side at gunpoint and one is heard to say, “I’m going to put a bullet through your head”; the car moves away again as the police shoot him in the head; Nahel dies a short distance away as his car rolls to a stop. Initially, police try to say that Nahel’s car was coming at them and they fired in self-defense. But almost immediately a video surfaces of the incident, showing the true facts. That very day, the youth of Nanterre explode onto the streets, with the news of Nahel’s killing spread further by celebrities like national soccer team captain Kylian Mbappé and Omar Sy, star of the popular Netflix series “Lupin.” So distrusted and hated are Macron and Darmanin among the youth of the banlieues and quartiers populaires, that these politicians’ response to the video — to the effect that the shooting was “inexcusable” and that the officer will be prosecuted – has no impact whatsoever.
The scope of the unrest: Geographic spread and direct targeting of the police
According to government’s own estimates, after five nights of widespread unrest across the country, some 5000 vehicles were burned, 10,000 fires were set in garbage cans, and 1000 buildings were burned, damaged, or looted (Antoine Albertini and Luc Bronner, “Violences: Un bilan sans précédent,” Le Monde, July 4, 2023). These attacks on property show similarities with other spontaneous urban revolts by marginalized youth of color across the developed world, from Los Angeles in 1992 to the UK in 2011.
In addition, as with the most serious of these urban revolts elsewhere, the French uprising spread widely within the national borders, even reaching into the overseas territories (colonies). In the sprawling Paris region, police confined the revolt largely to the banlieues, with some exceptions like an episode of looting in the city center near the Louvre Museum and a “false alarm” about an outbreak near the Arc de Triomphe that saw a mass police mobilization. But in smaller cities the revolt also hit downtown areas and administrative centers.
The 2023 French banlieue and quartiers populaires revolt differed from earlier urban revolts, directed mainly against property either by looting or by destroying buildings, in one major way:
This was because participants expressed a bold combativeness toward the police themselves, as seen in these estimates from the same French government sources: 250 attacks on police or gendarme stations and 700 police officers injured (Antoine Albertini and Luc Bronner, “Violences: Un bilan sans précédent,” Le Monde, July 4, 2023).
In short, this revolt targeted the police apparatus of a modern, technologically developed state directly and forcefully, something that the left-of-center but establishment newspaper Le Monde’s reporters themselves dubbed “unprecedented.” Slogans painted on walls, shouted out, or expressed on social media reflected this attitude as well: “Death to the pigs,” “Vengeance for Nahel,” “A good pig is a dead pig,” “You took a life, we want a cop” (Albertini and Bronner, “Violences”).
Cars not only burned but were set up to form barricades in Saint-Denis, a large Paris banlieue. In Toulouse in the south, a police station was attacked with paving stones, bottles and mortars improvised from firecrackers, a common weapon in the uprising. “It’s war,” shouted a masked youth in Lyons, in central France.
A mass rally attended by over 6000 people near the site of Nahel’s murder took place on June 29, but this kind of expression was not the main form that the protests took. This demonstration was organized by Nahel’s mother as a peaceful action, an injunction that was respected by local youth. Slogans included “Everyone detests the police” or “Darmanin resign,” with some referring to the 2017 law that allowed the police shooting, “L-435-1, you killed me.” A few political and trade union leaders made appearances, but the rally consisted mainly of community members. The fearsome CRS riot police kept their distance for a while, but eventually showed up, blocked the march, and then began teargassing people. As the march was thus ended, youth began to respond, resuming their clashes with police (Antoine Blanchet, “Mort de Nahel: colère, mobilisation et tensions lors de la marche blanche à Nanterre,” actu-Hautes-de-Seine, June 29, 2023).
The awakening of a new social consciousness in the French banlieues and quartiers populaires – especially a burning sense of injustice among the youth over racial/economic oppression and exclusion and a concomitant willingness to go down fighting – can also be connected to the global movement for Black lives of 2020. For that much larger movement also targeted racist police murder, which it made into a global issue, with some demonstrations breaking out in France as well. And its most radical elements called for abolition of the police rather than mere police reform. But the global 2020 mobilization was a mainly nonviolent mass movement that involved many social sectors, and many organizations. In contrast, in the French uprising of 2023, the poorest and most oppressed parts of society hit out on their own, and did so in a violent confrontation with the police apparatus, largely unconnected to any political or social movement organizations.
Another fact frequently noted was the extremely young age of the participants, many of them only 12 or 13, with the average age of arrestees just 17, the same age as Nahel. A teacher in Aubervilliers, another Paris banlieue, summed up what her young students told her: “They say that Nahel could have been one of their buddies. They hate violent police. For them, [the revolt] is the best way to be heard. They say that demonstrations accomplish nothing, that everything has to be broken.” These youth are extremely proficient in the use of social media, both to speak out and to coordinate street mobilizations. One participant in Nanterre expressed pride in the fact that they were finally being heard: “The politicians cannot say they don’t hear us. Our videos are getting 300,000 retweets on Twitter” (“Julie Bénézit et al., “Incontrôlables et jeunes: le profil complexe des émeutiers,” Le Monde, July 5, 2023).
Many also underlined, as noted by anti-racist activist Assa Traoré, whose brother died in 2016 of asphyxiation in police custody, “Nahel is a symbol of all the other that we don’t see,” whose victimizations don’t take place in broad daylight and are not recorded on video (“Aurelien Breeden and Constant Méheut, “French Police Kill Teen Driver During Traffic Stop, Igniting Protests,” NY Times, June 29, 2023). Traoré has become the main organizer of the anti-police-violence group, Committee for Truth and Justice for Adama, founded after 2016. She played a prominent role in France’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations in 2020.
The noted anthropologist Didier Fassin singled out a sense of desperation, of a demand for basic human dignity that is rooted in centuries of the French revolutionary tradition: “Under these conditions, the protests that take place on the streets, even including their destructiveness, cannot be reduced to popular violence vs. police violence, to a vendetta, as a trade union leader put it. They proceed from a moral economy, if one wants to use a term that has served to explain the eighteenth-century uprisings of English peasants against profiteers who increased poverty and provoked famines. The social contract that links member of society together presupposes a minimal respect for human life, above all on the part of officers whose job it is to protect life. When the police kill without justification, this contract is broken” (Didier Fassin, “Mort de Nahel: état de légitime colère,” Libération, June 29, 2023). One doesn’t have to adhere to Fassin’s social contract framework to appreciate the sense of social exclusion and scorn that rains down on the supposedly “savage” youth of the banlieues and quartiers populaires, not only in words but also in deeds, from a society that denies them even “a minimal respect for human life.”
In this sense, their uprising is aiming at human dignity, giving it a profound humanist content.
Underlying causes… and subjectivities
France’s present racial/police regime can be traced over the centuries to colonialism and to repression of the working class, but it also has more recent roots how the dominant discourse in politics and in the media has whipped up public sentiment against immigration, crime, and terrorism, all of which are tied by the dominant ideologies to the banlieues and quartiers populaires.
It is not only a question of public or police attitudes but also of changes in the legal system that have taken France in an increasingly authoritarian direction marked by a growth in police violence. As mentioned above, the 2017 law introduced after several major terrorist attacks has given police more leeway to open fire if the driver of a vehicle does not comply with their demands for an identity check or a search. Nahel’s death has brought out into the open what has been happening since 2017: (1) in the years 2012-16 police fired 119 times in vehicular stops; this rose to 166 for the 2017-21 period, a 40% increase. (2) Deaths increased even more sharply in these two periods, to an average of four per year since 2017 vs. less than one per year in the earlier period (Jacques de Millard, int. by Anne Chemin, “Nous sommes dans une situation où rôde le spectre de 2005,” Le Monde, July 1, 2023).
Alongside this increase in police violence stands the ongoing problem of overpolicing and of racial profiling, with police carrying out identity checks with great disproportionality against banlieue and quartiers populaires youth.
At the economic level, banlieue youth face disproportionate rates of unemployment, and discrimination in job searches based upon the high schools they attend, while their communities often lack good transit connections compared to more centrally located ones. The decline of industrial jobs in the banlieues, which has been accompanied by the decline of leftwing political parties, trade unions, and community associations, has pushed many into lowpaying service jobs or the informal or even illegal economy.
In Nanterre, the unemployment rate currently stands at 18%, vs. 7.1% for France as a whole. At a national level, the 1514 “priority” urban neighborhoods [quartiers], an administrative term for those experiencing high levels of poverty, are demographically younger than average, with a higher proportion of people under 25 (39.1%) than in their respective cities as a whole (29.9%). In 2020, the unemployment rate in these neighborhoods stood at a staggering 30.4% at a nationwide level for those under 30 years old (Thébaud Métais, “Le chômage, mal persistant des quartiers populaires,” Le Monde, July 7, 2023).
As a nineteen-year-old youth from Marseilles declared, “There are no companies coming here and saying we’ll pay you more than minimum wage… here people are supermarket cashiers or cleaners or security guards. We can’t be judges, lawyers or accountants.” Mourad, another young man, stated, “We don’t all have the same rights. Politicians go on the media and say there are no second-class citizens, but it’s not true in reality” (Jenny Hill, “France riots: ‘For the politicians we are nothing’,” BBC Online, July 5, 2023).
Many Marxists stop at this kind of analysis, taking up the underlying causes of oppression like the capitalist economic reality that underpins or intersects with the racial order of domination, demonization, and exclusion. To be sure, it is very important to carry out that kind of investigation, to go beyond concepts like a “bad apple” on the police force, or even a focus on a particularly reactionary politician like Darmanin or Trump. But as Lenin noted a century ago in his Hegel Notebooks, causality is only one side of the dialectic. In part, as he notes, this is because cause and effect can change places: “Cause and effect are merely moments of universal reciprocal dependence… which is only one-sidedly and fragmentarily, and incompletely expressed by causality” (Lenin, Philosophical Notebooks, in Collected Works, Vol. 38, Progress Publishers, 1961, p. 159). Or, as Hegel writes, “Cause… is not yet a subject that maintains itself as such in the course of its effective realization” (Hegel, Science of Logic, trans. George di Giovanni, Cambridge UP, 2010, p. 740 [12:241]). Raya Dunayevskaya, at the time still working with CLR James, singled out this passage in her 1953 Letters on Hegel’s Absolutes. Here, having worked with James to develop the theory of state-capitalism as a new stage of capitalism in the post-World War II era, she did not want to stop at that kind of Marxist analysis of the objective forces, as important as it was. By 1953, she was beginning to use Hegel’s absolute negativity, including his critique of the concept of causality, as the philosophical underpinning for the conceptualization of new forms of subjectivity and resistance to capital in the same postwar era, including emerging concepts like Black masses as vanguard.
In the above type of dialectical sense, the racial and economic oppression experienced by French banlieue and quartiers populaires youth forms not only a “cause” of the 2023 uprising, but that uprising has also upset the very order of cause and effect, as it itself becomes a new “cause” that has the “effect” of injecting new subjectivities and negations into the French social order. Thus, the 2023 uprising was an event that reflects the current French capitalist order, while simultaneously introducing change by threatening that order and by putting forward the possibility of a truly radical change. All this cries out for a creative Marxist analysis that takes this new stage of revolt as its starting point at the same time that it theorizes the intersectionality of race, class, and revolution in an increasingly authoritarian capitalist social order, and not only in France.
Wider solidarities and convergences
In modern France, the notion of a “convergence of struggles” is a standard term in leftist discourse. This has come to the fore again this year, which has witnessed both the January-May mass labor demonstrations and strikes against raising the retirement age and the June-July banlieues and quartiers populaires uprising. When one adds to this the equally massive and consequential Yellow Vests movement of semirural working people in 2018-19, one can say that France has in recent years seen deeper and more persistent social unrest than any other technologically developed country. And while France has declined somewhat in importance from its status as a great power, it remains the world’s seventh largest economy and one of its eight nuclear powers.
As against 2017, when the large leftwing parties joined the “law and order” chorus to support the new policing law that paved the way for Nahel’s murder, 2023 has witnessed a break with that kind of class collaboration. While not resoundingly, the left and the trade unions have extended some support to those participating in the 2023 unrest (Mathieu Dejean and Christophe Gueugneau, “France’s Left Has Finally Woken Up to Racist Police Violence,” Jacobin Online, July 1, 2023).
On July 5, over one hundred trade union, political, and other organizations issued a collective statement, “Our Country Is in Mourning and in Anger.” At a general level, it acknowledged “systemic racism”: “The tensions between the population and the police are longstanding and are marked by a history of prejudice, of violence, of discrimination, of sexism… and by a systemic racism that runs through the whole society and is not yet eradicated” [ellipsis in original]. The specific demands did not go quite as deep, however: abrogation of the 2017 law, police reform and independent monitoring of the police, and a permanent investigating authority to monitor racism throughout the state apparatus. However, they also called for mass participation in the anti-racist and anti-police rallies, especially the July 8 one in memory of Adama Traoré, the Black youth suffocated by police in 2016, which has become an annual affair. Signatories included the more leftwing trade unions (CGT, FSU, some branches of Solidarity) and groups like Amnesty International, the League of Human Rights, ATTAC, Greenpeace France, the Trans Solidarity Organization, the Lyon Yellow Vests Assembly, and several branches of the support committees for Earth Uprising, a radical environmental group just banned by the government after clashes with riot police in March. Although a number of small far-left political parties like the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) signed on, only two of the larger leftwing political parties, France Unbowed (LFI) and Europe Ecology-The Greens (EELV) added their names to even this rather mild statement, with the Communist Party and the Socialist Party notably absent (“Nôtre pays est en deuil et en colère,” Entre les lignes, entre le mots, July 5, 2023; Rémi Barroux and Sandrine Cassini, “A gauche, un texte dénonce un ‘racisme sysématique’ de la société,” Le Monde, July 7, 2023).
The July 8 demonstration, scheduled to take place in the banlieue of Val-d’Oise north of Paris, was banned by the government, claiming that violence could ensue. This decision was appealed by Assa Traoré, Adama’s sister, as well as by several leftwing groups, who promised to demonstrate despite the ban. Nonetheless, the courts upheld the ban. Many noted that the government and the media are attacking the uprising for not using legal and nonviolent means, yet are denying anti-racist protestors those very means. In short, the banlieues have lost their right of assembly. Despite the ban, a brief informal demonstration of about two thousand people took place at Place de la République in central Paris. Assa Traoré, surrounded in a protective cordon by several women elected officials from LFI and EELV, whose presence helped keep the police at bay for a while, gave a short speech: “We are marching for the youth, to denounce police violence. They want to hide our deaths. The neo-Nazi march was authorized, but we were not allowed to march. France cannot give moral lessons. Its police are racist, its police are violent.” After a few speeches, police forced the crowd to disperse. Afterwards, demonstrators marched into the streets, chanting, “Justice for Nahel, Justice for Adana” and “No justice, no peace.” (“Mort d’Adama Traoré: les manifestants défilent depuis la place de la République malgré l’interdiction de la prefecture,” Le Monde online, July 8, 2023). As they wound up their demonstration, riot police from the notorious BRAV-M riot police pounced upon Yssoufou Traoré, brother of Adama and Assa and also an activist, knocking him down and breaking his nose, among other injuries. They also struck journalists who were filming their brutal assault (Abel Mestre, “Questions autour de l’intervention de la BRAV-M lors de la marche pour Adama Traoré,” Le Monde, July 11, 2023).
One of the most moving responses to the 2023 uprising came from outside France, from a people in the midst of their own struggle for survival in the wake of a racist, imperialist invasion and occupation. The Ukrainian socialist group Sotsialnyi Rukh (Social Movement) declared: “The current riots in France are reminiscent of the race riots in Los Angeles in 1992 following the police beating of Rodney King and the murder of George Floyd in 2020. For years, young people have been subjected to racism, discrimination and violence on a daily basis. This cannot continue. As an internationalist organization, Sotsialnyi Rukh declares its total solidarity with French youth in their struggle for dignity and rights. No to racism and all forms of discrimination” (Sotsialnyi Rukh, “Justice for Nahel,” International Viewpoint, July 3, 2023)
Inside France, a militant member of the labor movement, Cédric Liechti of CGT Energy Paris, called for active support: “The youth from the quartiers populaires have exerted such pressure that the government was forced to issue a halfway condemnation of Nahel’s murder; now it is up to us, the world of labor, to join with the youth, who are attacking the same enemy as we are.” This quote appeared in a Trotskyist analysis, which also noted that real labor support would mean going out on strike rather than mere statements from top leaders (Nathan Erderof, “Révoltes dans les quartiers populaires: le movement ouvrier doit construire une riposte d’ensemble,” Révolution permanente, July 1, 2023). At the street level, some supporters of Earth Uprising and other militant groups from the far left were able to mobilize alongside the banlieue and quartiers populaires youth in their clashes with the police apparatus (Rémi Barroux, “A Montreuil, une ‘convergence des rages’ contre la police,” Le Monde, July 2, 2023).
Most dramatic in terms of large political parties has been the stance of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s LFI, which has remained steadfast in its condemnation of violent, racist police actions during the uprising. Alone among the country’s large, established parties, LFI has not backed down from its refusal to join the chorus calling for “calm” amid the unrest, a chorus that runs from police officials to moderate leftwingers and trade union leaders. Instead, it has declared defiantly that “there will be no return to calm if there is no justice” (Mariame Darame and Jérémie Lamothe, “Borne accuse LFI de ne pas se situer ‘dans le champ républicain,” Le Monde, July 6, 2023). Since Mélenchon’s presidential candidacy in 2022 received 22% of the vote, placing third, it is fair to say that LFI represents a substantial slice of the voting public.
More centrist leftwing voices have attacked the uprising, also attacking LFI. Even Communist Party leader Fabien Roussel has underlined that he has, “from the beginning” of the unrest, called “for calm.” When Mélenchon called upon those engaged in the uprising to spare schools, libraries, and gyms as “common goods” of the whole people, former Socialist Party Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve chimed in. Rather than apologizing for passing the 2017 law, he declared in demagogic fashion, “That means what, that everything else can be burned?” Of course, a centrist like Cazeneuve would like nothing better than to break up the New Ecological and Social People’s Union (NUPES), the electoral alliance and parliamentary group that comprises LFI, its largest component, alongside the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, and EELV, and that forms the second largest bloc in the National Assembly. The prestigious left-of-center newspaper Le Monde also piled on, seeming to celebrate the possibility of a breakup of NUPES and the isolation of Mélenchon, who, it lectures, “pretends not to see that the first victims” of the unrest are “the residents of these quartiers” (Éditorial, “Le Trouble créé par Jean-Luc Mélenchon,” Le Monde, July 7, 2023).
One of the most bizarre statements of this sort came from outside France, from the radical philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who advanced the old saw that since workers suffered the most from attacks on property in their neighborhoods, “the victims of the destruction are the poor, not the rich.” Therefore, “In this general situation, the left must assume the slogan of law and order as its own” (Slavoj Zizek, “The left must embrace law and order,” New Statesman, July 4, 2023). Such declarations, on the part of someone who has defended Marx, Lenin, and the legacy of 1917, make for sad reading indeed.
The web of state repression and demonization
To be sure, the loudest voices of attack on the uprising have come from the right and from the Macron government, with little daylight between them as they are attempting to constitute a new “party of order.” Macron cried some crocodile tears at the time of Nahel’s murder, even calling for a possible prosecution of the police murderer, but he and his entire government have limited their critique to that sole officer, a presumed “bad apple.” Not even token reforms of the police or criminal justice system have been broached and while reconstruction funds are promised, nothing has been said about any new initiatives to address racial and class inequality, let alone oppression.
The Macron government has arrested over 3000 alleged participants in the uprising and has promised to seek jail sentences in as many cases as possible. Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti has called for “firm, rapid, and systematic” punishment and is seeking a “reversal” of the presumption that very young arrestees cannot be punished (Julien Lemaignen et al., “Pour les mineurs ayant participé aux émeutes, la justice s’est voulue rapide,” Le Monde, July 10, 2023). In France, the courts can move very fast when they wish to do so, and within days of the uprising, in early July, the youth, who lacked support networks or prominent lawyers, were already receiving what amounted to summary trials and sentences to incarceration or strict probation. Never did the words of the writer Anatole France on the injustice of bourgeois justice ring truer: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread.”
While demonizing the participants in the uprising, Macron’s government has also attacked the left, especially LFI, seeking to eject it from national politics. Prime Minister Elizabeth Borne has stated that LFI “does not place itself in the republican camp,” in short, that it does not support democratic values (Darame and Lamothe, “Borne accuse LFI”).
On the right, an activist linked to neofascist politician Eric Zemmour raised over one million euros in just a week for a GoFundMe appeal to “help” the family of the police officer who killed Nahel, a noxious racist campaign that GoFundMe has refused to take down. Meanwhile a legitimate campaign for funds to aid Nahel’s family has raised only one quarter of that amount (Clément Guillou et al., “La cagnotte du policier mis en examen promue par l’extrême droite,” Le Monde, July 5, 2023).
More ominously, there is a troubling silence from the government in the wake of fascist threats from the largest police union, for example: “Faced with these savage hordes, calling for calm is insufficient. It must be imposed! ….Our colleagues, like the majority of the citizens, can no longer submit to the dictates of these violent minorities. This is… the time… for combat against these noxious elements [nuisibles]…. Today the police are on a combat footing because we are at war. Tomorrow we will be in a posture of resistance and the government should be aware of this” (Alliance Nationale et UNSA Police, “Communiqué de presse: Maintenant ça suffit,” June 30, 2023). In short, the police are not only openly racist, using terms like “savage hordes,” not only want an even harsher crackdown, not only refuse any reflection, let alone responsibility concerning their actions, but are also actually threatening “resistance” against the government itself.
Even in July, a very cold wind is blowing from inside the French state apparatus and not just into the faces of the youth of the banlieues and quartiers populaires. For as the organization For a Social and Popular Ecology (PEPS) noted in its statement calling for disarming the police, “While police violence targets the quartiers populaires, it concerns the whole population. Anyone risks their physical integrity, even their life, because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time, because he or she refuses to comply with a police order, or if he or she dares to make use of the constitutional right to express one’s opinions” (Pour une Écologie Populaire et Sociale, “Pour Nahel: Désarmons-les!” Entre les lignes, entre les mots, June 29, 2023).
Whether the left, the trade unions, the environmental movement, and other progressive forces can be equal to the challenge remains to be seen.
France: Land of deep popular unrest
Over the past four years, France has witnessed three of the deepest and largest popular social movements of any technologically developed country. In the winter of 2018-19, it experienced the massive Yellow Vests movement against economic decline and social injustice in rural and semi-rural areas, a movement that went on for months and even managed to wreak destruction on parts of the posh Champs Elysée. Then in 2023, the most massive a sustained trade union movement since 1968 emerged in order to combat a law raising the retirement age, which had to be rammed through in dictatorial fashion, without even a vote in the National Assembly. And then in June-July 2023, France saw the outbreak of the most massive urban unrest by people of color it has yet seen, whose participants were very young, very determined, and who were targeting the police/state apparatus itself in the wake of a racist police murder.
To be sure, each of these movements has so far been defeated by a combination of obstinacy and force by the Macron government, in office since 2017. But even in defeat, these movements constitute the kinds of forces that could really challenge not just Macron, but the entire capitalist order, and not just in France. It is that that gives sleepless nights to the dominant classes, and that gives us hope.
Kevin B. Anderson’s authored books include Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies and Lenin, Hegel, and Western Marxism. Among his edited books are The Power of Negativity by Raya Dunayevskaya (with Peter Hudis), Karl Marx (with Bertell Ollman), The Rosa Luxemburg Reader (with P. Hudis), and The Dunayevskaya-Marcuse-Fromm Correspondence (with Russell Rockwell).
For source materials and insights, I would especially like to thank Sebastian Budgen, Didier Epsztajn, Lyndon Porter, Patrick Silberstein, and the participants in the international conference that I attended in June 2023, “Marx, Marxisms, Marxists and Race,” Université Côte d’Azur, and especially the conference organizers, Émilie Souyri and Jean-Luc Primon.