Sat Jul 13, 2024
July 13, 2024

The French Fire

Interview by Fabiana Stefanoni

We interviewed Michaël Lenoir, militant of the IWL-Fourth International in France to understand what is happening in the country following the brutal murder of 17-year-old Nahel, and to take stock of the mobilizations against the pension law.

Michaël, what is the situation in France currently, and what exactly happened between Nahel and the police?

Following the brutal murder of this young man, a huge protest has broken out, particularly in the suburbs. Police checks are becoming more frequent and, under a 2017 law, police officers can use weapons if people refuse to comply with an order. This law has resulted in an increase in killings by police. What happened also refers to the fact that there are many people in France, especially those living in the poorer peripheral areas or suburbs, who drive without a license because in France it is really difficult to get one and then to keep it, also because of the cost. But poor people need a car to go to work. There are many young people who use cars without having a driver’s license: it is a very widespread phenomenon in the suburbs.

I taught for 13 years in working-class neighborhoods where there are many young immigrants and children of immigrants who have always been victims of oppression and racism. But since the time of Sarkozy, a particularly aggressive policy has been initiated towards these young people, and the police have a racist attitude as policemen are largely Le Pen supporters. Many policemen have an aggressive, defiant, and what might be described as a humiliating attitude toward young immigrants in the popular neighborhoods, where they make abundant use of violence.

To have an idea of what is going on, it is necessary to take into account the fact that in these neighborhoods there are policemen who, in order to provoke, ask the same person for his identity card dozens of times, even consecutively. That is why a feeling of hatred towards these racist and arrogant policemen is spreading, particularly among young people, who sometimes do not hesitate to confront the police. On top of this situation, the government has taken a harsh economic policy against these popular sectors, and in particular against immigrants. The armed wing of the bourgeois state has positioned itself placed, in an overbearing manner, in defense of these policies. There are permanent police controls that exasperate these poor sectors. It should be added that every year the number of people killed by the police increases, with a dynamic similar to this one: there have been 13 cases since the beginning of 2022.

I think you have seen the video: the two policemen stop the car and one of them tells the other to “kill him.” One can imagine why this scared young man tried to escape, and instead, he was fatally shot. The official version is that the policemen shot in self-defense, but unfortunately for them a woman nearby recorded everything and we see exactly the opposite: the two policemen were next to the car and one of them can be clearly heard saying to the other one, “kill him.” The bourgeois press and media explained that it was a legitimate act of self-defense by the police, some assured that this young man was known by the police for previous cases of violence, which is a true and proper racist lie.

Images of protests and riots have reached every country in the world. What can you tell us about them?

The news of the young man’s death spread on Tuesday. The media broadcast the official version – that of “self-defense” – but it was a very difficult version to sustain given the video that was being disseminated. The government, clearly finding itself in a difficult situation, reacted with less arrogance than usual. Faced with the video of the assassination, both Macron and the other representatives of the institutions declared that it was necessary to verify in detail what had happened (!). Already on the first day, there were clashes, which grew and radicalized in the following days. There have been clashes with the police in many popular neighborhoods, the youths have been using Molotov cocktails and other improvised devices against symbolic targets such as police stations, and police vans (in one city they burned all the police cars, which was left without cars…), buses, city halls, schools, etc. Numerous neighborhoods have been burned through by fires, with several assaults on supermarkets. It is a real popular revolt.

Government repression has been intensifying. There have been many arrests, there has also likely been abuse and torture, and one demonstrator has lost an eye. Much of the country has been affected, and there have been many cities feeling the repression. A state of emergency has not yet been proclaimed as has been called for by some right-wing sectors, but Macron decreed a transport blockade after 9 p.m. and the news announced that at least 45,000 police and gendarmes have been mobilized. It is likely that repressive measures will be increased. It is a spontaneous revolt, which has no political direction, contrary to what government and right-wing sectors maintain.

Is there a possibility that these protests will join the mobilizations against the pension law?

A union of the different struggles would be ideal, but we have to be honest about where things currently stand: the situation at the moment does not make this objective easily attainable. What we can say with certainty is that today there are better conditions than in the past for a possible convergence of these protests. For instance, compared to 2005 when there was a big revolt in the suburbs because then the workers’ organizations and the left-wing movement were hostile to those revolts. But now there are broad sectors of the workers’ movement and leftist organizations that look favorably on these protests. Obviously, we will see how they develop.

In Nanterre, there was a very participative demonstration. The unions did not call for a strike but the participation was really broad. It should be noted that the media have used shameful, racist language and that they always attack young people. The media represents the interests of the bourgeoisie and says nothing about what these young people suffer on a daily basis.

Hostility against the government and against Macron is growing among the masses. The problem is that we do not have a revolutionary party with a mass influence that can force the unity of the struggles. But interesting situations continue to occur, indicating a positive trend. For example, recently there was an attack on organizations fighting against the privatization of land and water, in defense of the territories, against climate change, etc. (Soulèvements de la Terre). And all of these organizations have been banned, which has provoked protests in response. During one of the demonstrations, all those who intervened made a call to unify the struggles against police violence and expressed their solidarity with Nahel’s family, and many went to demonstrate in Nanterre. There is the objective possibility of unifying the struggles of the workers against oppression, the struggles for the defense of the environment, etc.

You mentioned the workers’ movement. Let’s take a step back. How was the strike day on June 6? Here the media have spoken of a drastic drop in mobilization. Is that really the case?

On June 6, the mobilization was a little weaker than on previous national strike days, but that does not mean that it was insignificant. The unions have declared at least 940,000 demonstrators nationwide (300,000 in Paris alone), although the police always try to reduce the numbers, often ridiculously. There were clearly fewer than the more than three million at the end of March, but still, these are significant numbers. At the same time, there is no doubt that there has been a decline, which is the result of the policy pursued by the trade union leadership. It is important to note that in the demonstrations of June 6, particularly in Paris, we saw important sectors of activists who have no intention whatsoever of giving up and accepting Macron’s pension “reform.” They want to continue fighting to force him to withdraw it. Many think so, especially in those sectors of workers who have organized prolonged strikes and factory occupations.

The problem is that the trade union leaderships, after the big mass demonstrations of May Day, waited more than a month before proclaiming a new day of struggle. In fact, this provoked a partial demobilization, also because in the meantime the government has been promulgating the decrees for the application of the law, which should come into force at the beginning of September. The government continues to say that it is now necessary to move on to other issues, which for them means moving on to other attacks.

It should also be added that on June 6 there were fewer radical actions than in the past, although they were not lacking this time either. For example, in Paris, a group of activists stormed the headquarters of the Organizing Committee for the 2024 Olympic Games. There were also numerous clashes between protesters and police, with the usual police repression. An event occurred that caused a lot of commotion, particularly on social media. In Toulouse, a young demonstrator in her twenties lost consciousness and was forcefully dragged several meters down the street by the police… while she was unconscious! The police did not even allow a doctor from the grassroots union Solidaires to approach her to check on her. He was violently turned away. Within the French police, there is a high percentage of supporters of the extreme right: it is an apparatus that must be totally destroyed.

Explain to us better how the trade union leaderships are acting. What assessment can we make?

I think the best way to understand how the union leaders are acting is to listen to the statements of the union leaders themselves. For example, the general secretary of a Catholic union declared that his union had never seen such a large mobilization of its activists and that for this very reason, it is a serious problem that the government “does not listen to them.”

The general secretary of the CFDT [one of the largest and at the same time politically backward unions*] in an interview was pleased that thanks to these mobilizations the number of its members had grown by 43,000 new members. In fact, they reason like businessmen, thinking only of increasing the number of members without saying anything about the ongoing implementation of the pension “reform.” He declared with satisfaction that “the strength of the union has been demonstrated”… even if the workers will have to work two more years before retiring!

One of the main leaders of the CGT stated that “there will always be a battle against pension reform” but added that “now we must fight for concrete improvements,” referring to the need to shift attention to other demands (wages, etc.). This is a way to sanction defeat on the pension issue. And, among other things, the worst thing is that there is no “concrete improvement” that can be obtained at this moment: the government and the bosses are preparing to give new very hard blows to the workers.

At the same time, there is great anger among the union activists for the fact that they fought hard, lost many days of salary for the strike, invested a lot of energy in the battle, with blockades, occupations, etc… and the union leaders have been lying, as they did after May 1st, waiting until June 6th to re-launch the mobilization. Even the most left-wing trade union confederation, Solidaires, now takes for granted the approval of the pension law: they stress that what happened was not in vain, but speak of the “final stage” of the mobilization. It should be noted, however, that social discontent and anger are far from having reached the final stage.

As for a balance on the situation, we can say that the workers are learning the lesson that the union leaders are unreliable and think only of their own interests. It was necessary to organize an all-out strike: there was a concrete possibility of defeating and even ousting Macron. Let us think only of how the leaders have remained immobile in the face of the strikes in the oil sector. Macron, on the contrary, shows a lot of determination: he has no scruples, and he is ready to do anything to maintain political control.

A similar assessment can be made for the political leaderships: France Insoumise and the Npa are thinking of the 2027 general elections, preparing an electoral alliance, not thinking of relaunching the struggles. Other groups have a very sectarian and self-referential attitude, they hinder a real unitary development of the struggles, and they think only of strengthening their own group. We, as Fourth International, with our militant energies, seek to intervene in the movement to reverse these tendencies.

Article published in, 1/7/2023

*Translator’s note

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