Riots In France Don't Mean Le Pen Has The Election

The recent riots throughout France against police brutality have painted a spectacular and grotesque picture of a country coming apart at the seams: the Presidential election threatens to put the final nail in the coffin of liberal democracy while the specter of terrorist attacks looms large, hiding around every Baroque corner.

If you’re watching Vice News or scrolling a bit esoterically through the Facebook ether it certainly must seem as though France is on the brink of a breakdown, and should you be particularly inclined to subscribe to the Daily Mail/Express/Breitbart/Fox News zeitgeist, the End of the World as We Know It is not far away. To be fair, it does all seem to be barrelling towards an inevitable showdown of somewhat apocalyptic proportions, and if you had never seen this side of France before it is probably quite a shock.

However, these things are neither new to French politics and society, nor are they any indication of a systemic failure of the State to control its institutions. Indeed, for those who have spent time watching France, protests, riots, the threat of the extreme right and a particularly skewed version of Islam in the country are very much part and parcel of contemporary France.

The philosopher Michel de Certeau once said, “in spite of a persistent fiction, we never write on a blank page but always on one which has already been written on.” The persistent fiction of ‘La Douce France’ as a harbour for artists, bohemians and intellectuals wading through the vulgar throngs of American tourists obscures the rather cruel reality of what France has become: the shrinking myth of what it means to be French, the persistent exclusion and characterization as ‘immigrant’ of a population that is anything but, and the simultaneous presence of an extreme right wing who have consistently tried to fit the country into its image, only to watch what is solid melt into air.

On the persistent fiction of protests and riots

The riots currently sweeping through at least 20 French cities have ostensibly been sparked by the recent assault of a young man by police while in custody in the Northern Paris suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois. If it was previously unknown, this week’s headlines have done well to remind us: widespread rioting occurred in 2005 in nearby Clichy-sous-Bois, when two teenage boys were electrocuted after fleeing police on a chase that was widely seen as unprovoked and unwarranted. Thus the confrontation between ‘immigrant’ youth and a beleaguered police force is once again front page news, with all of the broad strokes and lack of nuance that painted a similar portrait twelve years ago.

Back then the banlieue, or suburb, became known worldwide as a no-go area that police themselves could hardly enter: then-President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had made his name as a law and order politician (and famously fame hungry hostage negotiator) promised a firm and swift response to the rioters. He called them racaille (scum), and promised to disinfect their neighborhoods with ‘Karcher,' a popular trade name for industrial bleach cleaner. Of course, these were hardly the first riots that had erupted in the banlieue, or cité, as the estate blocks in the specifically poorer suburbs are known: since their establishment, the cité have been the center of continued tensions between police and residents. From the early 80’s, there have been several prolonged periods of rioting and violence in these satellites, in Paris, Lyon and other major cities.

Of course, it escaped most analyses that protests and rioting have a long tradition in France, beginning at least with the 1848 Paris Commune, the Paris Commune of 1871 , and later the 1968 May Riots and onto protest figures (who more than flirted with riots) like Jose Bové, who famously destroyed a McDonalds as a protest against globalization. The extent to which protests, and riots, by groups on the left or right in France have been dissociated and differentiated from protests and riots in the banlieue cannot be overstated. One is heralded and even jokingly referred to as the ‘national sport’ of the French; the other is a plague which threatens to rip apart the very fabric of the Republic. Why do these different events, which are really quite similar events, get such different treatment by both media and history?

On the persistent fiction of ‘immigrants’ and Islam

As an attempt to simplify a rather complicated phenomenon, the riots sweeping the banlieue are different mainly because they are perpetrated by groups and populations that are not ‘French,' but rather ‘immigrants’ with no ties and no adherence to the ideals of the French Republic. In 2005 they were called ‘immigrants’ when they were the third and fourth generation to be born in France. They held French passports, spoke no other language but French, and had never lived anywhere but France. In any other country, they would have been considered citizens of that country; the hyphen discreetly wiped from their identity in a nod towards the great Melting Pot of democracy.

In France, however, such labels are not so easily scrapped. News outlets around the world led their stories with ‘immigrant’ violence, leaving until the third or fourth paragraph that these were third or fourth generation immigrants. Academics and intellectuals lined up their theories about why multiculturalism had failed, all the while ignoring the fact that at some point, France had changed despite its very best efforts. The rhetoric is back in full force: reports of ‘chaos,' indubitably spread by ‘immigrants’ is back in full force.

The fact is, these areas have been a too frequent target of overzealous law enforcement tactics that combine not only the gendarmerie and national police but the CRS (Compagnies Républicaine de Sécurité) which have a particularly problematic history of enforcing colonial law, particularly in Algeria during the 132 years that the country was occupied by France and considered a part of the Republic (by the French, at least). And there should be no doubt that the history of France in Algeria still lingers, and that it colors the policy decisions and narrative that characterize the cité as a zone apart from the rest of France.

Why is this problematic? The historic migration of North Africans to France, which brought workers from the Maghreb to French cities during the first half of the 20th century created a sizeable Muslim population in the country, one which has neither been integrated nor afforded a place within the fiction of a multicultural State. For decades, the identification of French citizens as Muslims has been viewed as a direct assault on the state building project that pretends to depend on the pillar of laicité, or secularism, but which is in reality a discourse that bases itself on a conflation of race, ethnicity, religion, and poverty.”

It should be no wonder that the perpetrators of the most recent terror attacks in Paris were French and Belgian citizens with North African ancestry. This is not a problem of infiltration from abroad, nor is it a recent phenomenon that can be traced to an upstart terrorist organization. These tensions and this anger have existed for generations, and they have been perpetrated by the very state that purports to eradicate it.

On the persistent fiction of the Front National

As if on cue, journalists from around the globe have sounded the alarm that this most recent state of violence will swing the results of the upcoming presidential election firmly in favor of Marine le Pen and her Front National party. The unrest in the banlieue, coupled with a heightened security climate and criticisms of inaction by the current Socialist president Francois Hollande, makes a le Pen victory seem almost inevitable.

But yet, this is not the first time that the FN has tried to exploit the violence in the French cité to their advantage as well as using it to proclaim their place as the party of law and order. In 2005, Jean-Marie le Pen, father of Marine and founder of the FN, claimed that his offices had been ‘submerged’ by requests for party membership and that millions agreed with him that those responsible for violence should be stripped of their French nationality and sent back to their country of origin. However, when the 2007 presidential election came around the elder le Pen received just 10.7% of first round votes. His daughter’s campaign in 2012 received a more substantial 17.9% of votes and did advance to the second round, but was roundly defeated by the Socialist Hollande.

Thus while Marine le Pen may well try to ride this most recent period to victory, and proclaim that the only way out of this cycle is to vote the FN into the presidency, history is not on her side, if French voting behavior is any indication. And for those who cry ‘Brexit/Trump,' French voting behavior is much better documented than in the US or UK, and the FN has been a consistent presence in the French political system for more than 40 years. And while there are murmurs that le Pen might pull the kind of surprise victory that Donald Trump and Nigel Farage were able to claim in their respective political battles, hers is still considerably uphill.

Moreover, she is faced with a challenge that neither one of her playground buddies had to face: an anti-establishment candidate from the left who is just as deft at grabbing his own headlines. Emmanuel Macron’s most recent comments about the ‘crimes against humanity’ that the French committed in Algeria have caused stalwarts like Francois Fillon and Nicolas Sarkozy to clutch at their pearls and call him a traitor, but he may have just found a path towards engaging millions of French voters who have previously felt (and been) marginalized to supporting him.

Of course, it could all go pear-shaped, because after the year we’ve had, who knows anything anymore. But in France, whoever should become the next leader will have as their first task to do away with the persistent fictions that go without saying because they have come without saying, and start facing the facts.

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