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Making a Difference

The Sixth Republic?

What is happening in France? A friend of mine who lives in Paris emails me:

Just got back to Paris here from Siberia and I'm astonished to find myself in the midst of mounting political violence, whose peak it seems is as yet some way off. For eleven nights in a row ever increasing numbers of cars have been torched in the suburbs of major French cities — and most spectacularly among these, Paris — in eloquent and photogenic protest at the appalling lives these suburbs generate for their almost exclusively immigrant populations. The French philosophy of excluding any but the monied and native, or very monied and foreign, from the centre of their lovely towns has an obvious British counterpart in Oxford. [We both know Oxford.] What is exciting about the present riots is:

a) that they are genuinely political and, so far as I can see, legitimate: the inhabitants of these suburbs are burning their own cars, schools and possessions (and not, so far, people) because they (rightly) believe them to be emblematic of all that their situations trap them to: crime, joblessness, helplessness, voicelessness, boredom, alienation and the awful horror of grotesque concrete tower-blocks. They are political in Plato's sense: of ceasing to fight for space within a pre-existing and deviant order, and instead going to the outside and forcing that order to reform.

b) they are well organised: the targets are apposite, and discipline among the activists remarkably strong (witness 5000 car burnings and just one or two isolated, and possibly unconnected, personal attacks).

c) they are going to continue, one suspects, for as long as the political establishment presumes to deliberately and systematically misunderstand why they are occurring. At the moment, the governmental call is for 'above all, the return of good order'; scant mention is yet to be made of even the possibility of making some effort to correct the absurd embedded racism of France's so-called meritocratic power-structures, whose professed egalitarian ethic could not be further from practical truth. Headlines moronically blurt out: 'how long will this go on?' as if it is the temper tantrum of an infant, not the organised scream for help of an entire and dismembered portion of society. Senior ministers have been threatening longer jail-terms of all things, in blackly comic, American justice style.

d) the immigrants may soon be joined in the pillage by a host of left-wing organisations. Since the riots of 1968 made the error of not going far enough and thus resulting in minimal long-term change, there is implicit consensus that for this action to be justified it must be pursued to its natural extreme: all-out civil disobedience, until the government falls. While official opinion seems to be that this political activity will quickly run its course, there is evidence that it is steadily mounting and indeed heading from outside the city into the centre. I have noticed in my very central quartier here that there has been a steady and ominous thickening on street corners and among shadows of determined looking folk from the banlieues (it reminds me a little of Hitchcock's The Birds). I look forward to their expressing themselves, with appropriate respect for human life, through the media of bonfires and chaos.

So anyhow, this is just to let you know that France is much closer to gaining its sixth republic than anything in the western media is likely to have you think. The unrest may indeed go international (Denmark has already seen the first glimmerings of revolt). I just hope it doesn't lose its focus and political rigour as the coming weeks unfold, for its efficacy relies on the precision of its message: we will no longer tolerate living in a political and economic concentration camp.

I had thought to quote from Ed's email more selectively, but there's too much food for thought in what he says — and I share his reactions to the French Establishment's stance. In another email, Ed adds, 'It seems to me to be bad journalistic practice to emphasise isolated incidents of personal attacks when it is by no means clear that these attacks show any signs of having intensified with this wave of social protest in which attacks on vehicles and so on have clearly gone up by several orders of magnitude …'