The tragic death of young Nahel in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, murdered by a policeman, set off a firestorm. Immediately, riots broke out in towns and cities across France against this despicable injustice.
The terror of the bourgeois state
As can be seen from the video that immediately circulated on social networks, Nahel was shot in cold blood at point-blank range for a simple refusal to obey. This murder follows a long list of people killed and injured by the police, mostly with impunity.
There has been a real proliferation of spot checks, shameless discrimination and the systematic harassment of young people whose skin colour is a little too "dark". A whole section of the population, often poor and sometimes marginalised, can no longer stand the constant racism to which they are subjected, the arrogant and humiliating behaviour of many cops, or the hate speech they hear morning and night on television and the Internet. The disgusting press release from the Alliance police union declaring itself to be "at war" with "pests" and "savage hordes" illustrates this unbearable reality.
But the vile xenophobic overtones of many cops also allow all the defenders of "democracy" and the "rule of law" to mask the increasingly obvious terror and violence meted out by the entire bourgeois state and its police. Nahel's murder testifies to the growing power of state violence, a thinly veiled desire to terrorise and repress in the face of the inexorable crisis of capitalism, the inevitable reactions of the working class, and the risks of social explosion (riots, looting, etc.) which will continue to multiply in the future.
While this violence is embodied in an ordinary way by the subjugation of the exploited in their workplaces, by the constant humiliations inflicted on the unemployed and all the victims of capitalism, it is also expressed in the increasingly violent behaviour of a significant part of the police, the justice system and the entire repressive arsenal of the state, whether on a daily basis in the "neighbourhoods" or against social movements.
Since the 2017 law, which eased the conditions under which the police can use firearms, the number of murders has increased fivefold. Since this law was adopted by a left-wing government, that of Hollande, the police have been trigger-happy! At the same time, the repression of social movements has steadily increased in recent years, as evidenced by the yellow vest movement with a multitude of people stabbed, maimed or injured. More recently, the fight against pension reform saw a terrible outburst by the police, symbolised by the numerous attacks by the BRAV-M special police unit. Opponents of the Sainte-Soline mega-camps and illegal immigrants expelled from Mayotte have also been subjected to ultra-violent repression. The UN even condemned "the lack of restraint in the use of force", but also the "criminalising rhetoric" of the French state. And with good reason! France has one of the most extensive and dangerous police arsenals in Europe. The increasing use of rocket-propelled grenades, tear gas and riot guns, and the use of anti-riot tanks, etc., tend to transform social movements into veritable scenes of war, against people whom the authorities no longer hesitate to label shamelessly as "criminals" or "terrorists".
The recent riots were once again an opportunity for the bourgeoisie to exercise ferocious repression, sending in 45,000 police officers, elite BRI and RAID units, gendarmerie armoured cars, surveillance drones, riot tanks, water cannons, helicopters... In 2005, the riots in the suburbs lasted three weeks because the bourgeoisie tried to calm things down by avoiding another death. Today, the bourgeoisie must immediately impose itself by force and prevent the situation from getting out of hand. Faced with riots that are far more violent and widespread than in 2005, it is striking with tenfold force.
The more the situation deteriorates, the more the state, in France as everywhere else in the world, is forced to react with force. But the use of physical and legal violence (1) paradoxically accentuates the disorder and barbarism that the bourgeoisie is trying to contain. By unleashing its dogs on the most disadvantaged sections of the population, and by multiplying the hateful and racist rhetoric at the highest levels of government and in the media, the bourgeoisie has created the conditions for a huge explosion of anger and blind violence. In the future, it is certain that the brutal repression of the riots that have shaken France in recent days will also lead to more violence and more chaos. Macron's government has merely put a lid on a fire that will continue to smoulder.
A revolt without perspective
Nahel's murder was the final straw. A huge wave of anger exploded simultaneously across France and as far afield as Belgium and Switzerland. Violent clashes with the police broke out everywhere, particularly in the major urban centres around Paris, Lyon and Marseille. Everywhere, public buildings, shops, street furniture, buses, trams and many vehicles were destroyed by uncontrollable rioters, some as young as 13 or 14 years old. Fires ravaged shopping centres, town halls and police stations, as well as schools, gymnasiums and libraries. Shops and supermarkets were quickly looted, sometimes for clothes, sometimes for food.
The riots were an expression of genuine hatred for the humiliating behaviour of the cops, their constant violence, their sense of impunity. But how can we explain the scale of the violence and the extent of the chaos, when the government initially played up the indignation following Nahel's murder and promised exemplary penalties?
The tragic death of a teenager was the trigger for these riots, a spark, but it was the deepening crisis of capitalism and all its consequences for the most precarious and rejected populations that were the real cause and fuel for the revolt, the source of a deep malaise that eventually exploded. Contrary to the cheap statements made by Macron and his clique, who blame video games for intoxicating young people, or parents who should give their kids "two slaps in the face", young people in the suburbs, who are already victims of chronic discrimination, are being hit hard by the crisis, by growing marginalisation, by extreme impoverishment. Falling back on their individual resources they are sometimes led to resort to trafficking of all kinds. This is the result of abandonment and a lack of prospects.
But far from the violence being organised and aware of its aims, the riots have expressed the blind rage of young people without a compass, acting out of desperation and without perspective. The first suburban riots in France took place around the start of the decomposing phase of capitalism: from the 1979 riots in Vaux-en-velin, near Lyon, to the current ones. As we have pointed out in the past, what all riots have in common is that they are an "expression of despair and the no-future it engenders, manifested in their utter absurdity. Such was the case with the riots in the French suburbs in November 2005 [...]. The fact that it was their own families, neighbours or close friends who were the main victims of the depredations reveals the totally blind, desperate and suicidal nature of this type of riot. In fact, it was the cars of workers living in these neighbourhoods that were set on fire, schools or gymnasiums used by their brothers, sisters or neighbours' children that were destroyed. And it was precisely because of the absurdity of these riots that the bourgeoisie was able to use them and turn them against the working class". (2)
Unlike in 2005, when the riots were relatively confined to the suburbs, such as Clichy-sous-bois, the riots of early summer 2023 are now affecting hitherto protected city centres and even small provincial towns that were previously spared, such as Amboise, Pithivier and Bourges, which have been vandalised. The exacerbation of tensions and the deep despair of those involved have only increased and amplified this phenomenon.
Riots, a danger for the proletariat
Contrary to everything that the parties on the left of capital, led by the Trotskyists of the NPA and the anarchists, may claim, riots are not a favourable terrain for class struggle, nor an expression of it, but quite the contrary, a real danger. The bourgeoisie can all the more easily exploit the image of chaos conveyed by riots because they always make proletarians the collateral victims:
- through the damage and destruction caused, which affects the young people themselves and their neighbours;
- by the stigmatisation of the residents of the “banlieus" as "savages" responsible for all the ills of society;
- by increasing repression, which found a golden opportunity to step up its fight against all social movements, and particularly against workers' struggles.
The riots are therefore an opportunity for the bourgeoisie to unleash a whole barrage of propaganda to further cut the working class off from the young inhabitants of the banlieus in revolt. As in 2005, "the excessive media coverage allowed the ruling class to push as many working-class people in working-class neighbourhoods as possible to see the young rioters not as victims of capitalism in crisis, but as 'thugs'. They could only undermine any reaction of solidarity on the part of the working class towards these young people". (3)
It's easy for the bourgeoisie and the media to manipulate events by conflating the riots with the workers' struggle, the indiscriminate and gratuitous violence and sterile clashes with the cops with the conscious and organised class struggle. By criminalising one, it can unleash ever more violence against the other! It's no coincidence that, during the movement against pension reform, the images played over and over again on TV channels around the world were scenes of clashes with the police, violence and rubbish bin fires. The aim was to make a link between these two expressions of social struggle, which were radically different in nature, in an attempt to convey the idea that both express a dangerous disorder. The aim was to erase and prevent workers from learning the lessons of their own struggles, and to sabotage the process of reflection on the question of class identity. The riots in France were the perfect opportunity to reinforce this confusion.
The working class has its own methods of struggle which are radically opposed to riots and simple urban revolts. The class struggle has absolutely nothing to do with indiscriminate destruction and violence, arson, revenge and looting that offer no prospects and no tomorrow.
Although they may coordinate via social networks, their rioting is immediate and purely individual, guided by the instinct of mob movements, with no other aim than revenge and destruction. The struggle of the working class is the antithesis of these practices. On the contrary, it is a class whose immediate struggles are part of a tradition, part of a conscious, organised project to overthrow capitalist society on a global scale. In this sense, the working class must take care not to allow itself to be drawn into the rotten terrain of riots, onto the slope of blind and gratuitous violence, and even less into sterile confrontations with the forces of law and order, which only serve to justify repression.
Unlike riots, which strengthen the armed wing of the state, workers' struggles, when they are united and ascendant, make it possible to roll back repression. In May 1968, for example, in the face of the repression of the students, the massive movements and unity of the workers made it possible to limit and roll back the violence of the cops. In the same way, when Polish workers mobilised throughout the country in 1980 in less than 48 hours, their unity and self-organisation protected them from the extreme brutality of the "socialist" state. It was only when they put their fight back into the hands of the Solidarnosc trade union, when the latter took control of the struggle, so that the workers were divided and deprived of the leadership of the struggle, that the repression struck so savagely.
The working class must remain wary of the danger posed by indiscriminate violence, putting forward its own class violence, the only violence that can lead to a future.
WH, 3 July 2023
 After the police crackdown, the thousands of young people arrested received very heavy sentences in summary trials.
 "What's the difference between the hunger riots and the riots in the suburbs?", Quelle différence entre les émeutes de la faim et les émeutes des banlieues ?, Révolution Internationale no. 394 (October 2008).