Liberte up in flames

May 3, 2021


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first_imgCar on burning car symbolises the razing of French democracy to the ground, as violence flares across the republic. Last weekend saw the introduction of curfews by city authorities as part of the emergency legislation implemented by the French government. The fifty year old law was originally brought in as an attempt to counteract the guerrilla efforts during the algerian war of independence, but, as of last week, is now being used for the first time in mainland France.later, the British summer became unusually hot when the northern towns of Oldham, Bradford and Burnley were set ablaze after alleged provocation by the British National Front-inspired race riots.As well as allowing local authorities to put curfews into place, it has some potentially far more unsettling features. Measures can be imposed upon the whole country, restricting people’s movements in even completely unaffected areas. authorities have the power to assume control of the media. police are free to carry out raids on homes as they deem necessary. The latter was intended to act upon suspicion of stockpiling weapons, but is currently in use to freely search for suspected participants in the violence. it is now illegal to meet publicly with the perceived intention of causing disorder. This in practice could mean as little as peaceful protest.Firm and swift action may be needed, but the suspension of civil liberties may go unquestioned by parliament for up to twelve days. democracy is on hold. it is not without irony that France, which still prides itself on its revolutionary principles of liberté, égalité and fraternité and annually celebrates the storming of the Bastille, can dismiss liberté so quickly and show little concern towards the effects such action will have on any remaining sense of fraternité. admittedly, this violence seems to lack political purpose, but the revolution too was first and foremost an uprising against inequality. Britain, at least, seems more consistent. On 5 November, the majority of the population celebrated, once again, the prevention of an attack upon our democracy. in doing so, we ritualistically burned an effigy of our most notorious terrorist to the sound of shouts and cheers. keeping with such aggressive tradition, our government is responding to the risk of terrorism with excessive legislation. while for us fire and explosions mark the preservation of democracy, for France it marks its suspension.The first of the riots took place on the evening of 27 October in clichy-sous-Bois following the deaths of two boys. The teenagers had run into an electricity substation under the assumption that they were being chased by police after being found at the scene of a break-in. authorities have since denied this. Nevertheless, the belief spread that the police were to blame, helped by the silent march which took place two days later where marchers wore tops emblazoned with the slogan ‘dead for nothing’.Regardless of the specifics, the fuel for the fire has been mounting for a long time. Many of the post-war immigrants have never fully integrated into society and since the 1980s the hLMs (habitations à Loyer Modéré), state-provided accommodation, home to large groups from ethnic minorities, have become symbols of social exclusion. Visible monuments to separation between the inhabitants of the cités and the rest of society have also purportedly become the source of discrimination in job application. For years, stories have circulated of employers at interview, on sight of the address on the head of the form, informing applicants from HLMs that the position has already been filled. whether completely true or not, there are undoubtedly still racial tensions in the banlieues of cities throughout France. it could be argued that class provides the greatest social divisions, but the importance of cultural differences must not be ignored either. skin colour or religious symbolism, such as a headscarf, merely supplies a visual stimulus with which to pigeonhole people, typically as criminals and never victims.Hence, it was not with applause that the unsympathetic comments made on 25 October, two days prior to the first troubles, by interior Minister, Nicolas sarkozy, were met. His suggestion to take a “power hose” to areas with high crime was both insensitive and incendiary. after all, it has been his decision to substantially reduce the number of community police officers, only for them to have to return charging in full riot gear.Even François Massenet, secretary general of uNsa-police, the union for French expressed malaise over sarkozy’s comments, which he implied was a part-timer’s response. Too often have the French government responded to situations on a short-term, reactionist basis, rather than considering long-term plans for such enormous problems. But what democratic government is not guilty of the same?Riots are, of course, nothing new. in 1991 the beating of the african-american rodney King sparked race riots in Los angeles. Ten years Indeed, the recent violence has been compared to the events of May 1968, which spread throughout the population gaining support from all demographics. The increasing unrest over the last couple of weeks is, unlike the student revolts, unlikely to spread from its current lone demographic. while people of the same social class and ethnic background may show solidarity in not condemning the random acts of violence, there can be no such support in other areas of society, when it lacks a political or ideological focus. On the contrary, the acts have been solely an expression of anger. There is little political motivation behind beating elderly men to death or setting disabled women alight, although these are only isolated incidents and the far-right have been also been active attempting to incite further divisions along racial fault lines.There are uncanny parallels between the very real and very awful events of the previous weeks and the fictional ones of La haine. in Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 film, a boy dies after sustaining injuries while in police custody. rioting ensues and, ultimately, Vinz, the young Jewish protagonist, seeks his own retribution for the injustice. his anger, or hate, appears slightly self-indulgent, but is, symbolically, uncontrollable and indiscriminate; he does not seem to care who he hurts, employing an us-against-them mentality. The consequences are bloody and tragic. Police react with extreme force.Of course, a policeman’s job in such a situation is of inestimable difficulty and the fictional police are portrayed rather unsympathetically. It has, nevertheless, been alleged that police officers have referred to suspects as “dirty arabs” and told families of children thought to be involved in the violence, in their own homes, to “go home”. This just goes to show what bubbles under the surface, even when tensions are not so high.So, while it remains difficult to discern protest from wanton destruction and aggression, which would seem to support the actions of the French administration, handing over more power to the police is not necessarily a sensible idea. The allegations against police, even if untrue, present more provocation. As one youth is quoted by Le parisien as saying, “More repression means more destruction.”Immigrants who would once have been proud of their individual heritage now often refer to themselves just as Muslims, adopting religion, a potential source of radicalism, as the part of them that binds them with the largest number of people. Feelings of social isolation and hopelessness may lead some to extreme measures, partly because it creates an unbreakable solidarity between themselves and others like them.Media groups fail to agree on whether, as the Le Figaro reports, “tous se disent solidaires des violences urbaines de ces derniers jours” (‘everyone claims solidarity with the instances of urban violence in recent days’) or whether in fact, as patrick Sabatir of Libération stated, “most inhabitants of these ghettos do not approve of their [those involved] senseless destruction”. continued to claim that, since there is no political motivation behind the actions of youths, the violence is purely “blind rage against injustice and inequality”.When even French rappers, such as the social lyricist, shurik’N, disseminate awareness of the ever-present aggression within the cités, it beggars belief that the government are yet to act for the long-term. Not that it is likely that dominique de Villepin listens to rap music in between cabinet meetings, but this fact is, nonetheless, demonstrative of the administration’s ignorance of or, worse still, insensibility to the burgeoning social conflicts in their own country. in fact, it is completely deaf to such problems, as it collects no information about issues such as academic success or failure of distinct social or ethnic groups under the impression that they are preserving égalité. as such, it is impossible to know the full extent of the current divides between social groups and so even more difficult to solve them.Quite simply, the government have, for whatever reason, failed to move for preventative, or at least containing, actions. This is surely a fault of government. They have surely let down the people who they represent. Yet, this is sadly not the case. democracy, far from representing the people, represents only those who elect the government or, in fact, only those who will vote for them next time. with this in mind, long-term plans are rarely implemented. Moreover, social divides are maintained, as some groups will always be neglected by an elected government. even a Labour government, albeit a New Labour government, has increased the gap between rich and poor.So, while we might bandy about the idea of democracy as the route to social freedom, even invade a country or two on our crusade of ideals, let us stop for a moment, perhaps longer, and reflect on the limitations of the system we share with the rest of the western world. Of course, enjoy your personal freedoms, while the wheels of democracy still turn, but appreciate that they are driven by someone else, who can stamp on the brakes at any moment.ARCHIVE: 6th week MT 2005last_img read more