68 + 93 = what?

March 30, 2006 | Affordable Housing, Policy, Politics, Protests

Although Tuesday’s French protests and sporadic riots (how cynical we grow, to dismiss them as ‘sporadic’) may appear an outgrowth of last November’s banlieue insurrections, in fact they are a volatile mix of two polar opposites, as acutely observed by the Washington Post’s Claire Berlinski:


This is the second time in four months that France has been seized with violent protests. And in an important sense, these are counter-riots, since the goals of the privileged students conflict with those of the suburban rioters who took to the streets last November.



Students demonstrate in Paris, Tuesday, March 21, 2006. French student groups, bolstered by a firm show of support from trade unions, led a new protest march Tuesday to ratchet up pressure on the premier to scrap a contested labor law. French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin expressed willingness to soften two provisions of the contested “first job contract”, or CPE, but refused to consider canceling it altogether. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)


The message of the suburban rioters: Things must change.

The message of the students: Things must stay the same.

In other words: Screw the immigrants.


(Among the smaller points largely omitted from the protester’s minds, the contract being protested provides that the employers must pay severance equal to 8% of the time worked (in other words, four weeks’ severance after one year, eight weeks after two years).  Hardly the stuff of serfdom.)


For the moment, however, the two groups are mingling indistinguishably, as the New York Times reported:


PARIS, March 29 — The images are unnerving: hooded, swift-footed youths infiltrating protest rallies in the heart of tourist Paris, smashing shop windows, setting cars on fire, beating and robbing passers-by and throwing all sorts of objects at the riot police.


They are called the casseurs — the smashers.


With more huge marches planned for next week as part of a continuing protest over a new jobs law, the casseurs are the volatile chemical that could ignite an even bigger crisis for the government than the impasse over the law itself.


They create primarily a law-and-order problem, evoking the rioting that gripped the troubled suburbs of French cities for weeks last fall. Pumped up by news coverage, these youths boast of trying to steal cellphones and money and vow to take revenge for the daily humiliation they say they endure from the police.


The housing vector is evident, for thugs and hooligans grow up somewhere, and all too frequently, they are grown in the projects.



The police and independent analysts say that most of the vandalism and violence that has marred the protests has been by young men, largely immigrants or the children of immigrants, from tough, underprivileged suburbs, who roam in groups and have little else to keep them busy.




“In France, we always imagine violence to be political because of our revolutions, but this isn’t the case,” said Sebastian Roch√©, a political scientist who specializes in delinquency in the suburbs.


“The casseurs are people who are apart from the political protests. Their movement is apolitical. It is about banal violence — thefts, muggings, aggression.”


Violence is itself a breed of politics.  By their visibility, the thugs kidnap the politics of moderation:


Last Saturday morning, needing help to move several heavy cartons of books from my apartment in central Paris to a storage room, I hired two movers and a van from the want ads. Students were in the streets protesting the Contrat de Premier Embauche (CPE) — a law proposed to combat unemployment by giving employers more flexibility to fire young employees — and the barricades and traffic diversions made our four-block drive into a half-hour ordeal. As we turned down one obstructed street after another, the movers — both Arab immigrants — became more and more incensed.  “They’re idiots,” said the driver, gesturing toward the ecstatic protesters.



March 28: a group of youths, above, attacked a man, one of several incidents involving violence and vandalism by so-called casseurs, or smashers, officials said.


“It’s us they hurt,” added the second man. By this he meant immigrants and their children, particularly the residents of France‘s suburban ghettos, where unemployment runs as high as 50 percent. And, of course, he was right, as everyone with even a rudimentary grasp of economics appreciates: If employers are unable to fire workers, they will be less likely to hire them. It is now almost impossible to fire an employee in France, a circumstance that disproportionately penalizes groups seen by employers as risky: minorities, inexperienced workers and those without elite educations, like the outraged man sitting beside me.


Right now the heirs of soixante-huit and the children of neuf-trois are philosophical opposites, united by only two things: disdain and disgust for the government, and the heady smell of mass street action:


The same question is now being raised in France: Who rules? This is the second time in 11 years that a popularly elected government here faces dismissal not from the voters, but from the streets. If this does not represent a direct challenge to the government’s power, it is hard to know what would. Should the government fall, the question will have been answered.


And the answer will be the mob. As usual.


There is a disturbing pulsation to this ultra-violence: a flexing of chaos, then its remission, followed by its reappearance in a new and evolving form.


In the current protests, the technology of cellphones makes it easier for the roving bands of youths to coordinate their actions and warn one another about police movements.


Jean-Claude Delage, secretary general of Alliance, a police union, said the police had to deal with “a pattern of urban guerrilla warfare, with highly mobile youth, five or six of them together, linked by cellphones and attacking anyone at all.”


Some of the youths even share instant war trophies: photographs and short scenes of violence and vandalism they have captured on their cellphones.



A cellphone store’s window was smashed Tuesday during a demonstration in Paris against a new jobs law.


There is a real danger that a political movement may be hijacked by its violent radicals, who start by hiding among the law-abiding:


Among those who occupied and vandalized the prestigious Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, witnesses said, there were nonstudents, some who were drunk, and some as old as 40, who brought sleeping bags and advocated anarchy. “You are seeing a return to the idea of legitimate use of violence for political means” by the extreme left and to a lesser extent by the extreme right, Mr. Roch√© said.


Crowds are useful as hiding places and shields against the decent:


Mr. Sarkozy said his concerns about avoiding attacks on innocent people prevented him from authorizing the riot police to move in against troublemakers on Tuesday evening while peaceful protesters were still in the area.


Meanwhile, the crowd is also an observant herd that can be incited to stampede:


The police said that in the protests on Tuesday, for example, they could identify about 1,500 casseurs, most of whom seemed to be suburban youths, and about 300 more who seemed to be “anarchist-leftist” militants. One bearded man who led a small band in taunting the police on Tuesday carried the black anarchist flag in one hand and a flaming torch in the other.


Protest can turn to violence.  Violence can turn to chaos.  Chaos is unpredictable: the French Revolution began with one goal (emancipation),



Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People to Freedom


achieved its antithesis (terror),



and then mutated into its polar opposite (dictatorship). 



How far are we from such worries? 


Here’s hoping that 68 + 93 <> 18 Brumaire.