France: teenager murdered by police – the workers' movement must intervene!

At the time of writing, the Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin, is delighted with the results of the fifth consecutive night of riots, which was “calmer thanks to the resolute action of the forces of the 'order' [the police].” This statement is very relative. In response, let's put things into perspective. The fifth night was perhaps "quieter" than the fourth and, above all, than the third. But in relation to the “100 days of appeasement” announced by Emmanuel Macron on 17 April, it was still very agitated! (Note: this article was originally published 29 June and has since been updated. Read the latest version in French here. – 03/07/23).

Moreover, Gérald Darmanin should be wary of “the resolute action of the police”, because a new police murder would seriously complicate the advent of a “peaceful” France, as ordered by the Head of State.

The murder of Nahel M (a 17-year-old French-Algerian) by a police officer in Nanterre on Tuesday morning has sparked a powerful wave of indignation and anger across the country.

The video of the incident clearly illustrates what happened: the police officer deliberately murdered the young man, who was not threatening anyone. He was shot in the chest and medics failed to revive him. Such events are not uncommon: there were 13 such police killings following routine traffic stops last year alone.

Unaware that he had been filmed, the policeman tried to claim that Nahel was threatening to kill him. This is the regular strategy of police officers who commit such “accidents”: they lie, confident in the complicity of the police and judicial institutions.

But the video does not lie. It is a spanner in the works for the state, a piece of raw truth that ridicules arguments like the “presumption of innocence”, which reactionary journalists have been coming out with for the past two days.

Everyone understands that, without this video, the police officer’s claims would probably not have been questioned – and that for lack of videos, many murders perpetrated by police officers in similar circumstances have been buried under a heap of lies and complicit silence.

Fearing a repeat of the 2005 riots, triggered by the death of two youths who were electrocuted to death after being chased by police into a power station, the government said it was “shocked” by the video, promised that justice would be done and called for “calm”.

To no avail. On Tuesday night, clashes broke out between hundreds of young people and the police in Nanterre and other towns in the Paris suburbs. By Wednesday evening, the clashes had spread to many towns, not just in the Paris suburbs but nationwide.

Murderous system

The riots could spread over the next few days. Nahel's murder is far from the only cause of people’s anger. But it is serving as a catalyst, a spark that has ignited huge reserves of explosive material that have been built up over the years through humiliation, discrimination, stigmatisation, state racism, police violence, unemployment and misery of all kinds.

As in 2005, the government and its media outlets are shedding crocodile tears over burnt-out cars and buses. They see this as an opportunity to mobilise public opinion against the young rioters, who are being subjected to intense police repression. The young people arrested will probably receive harsh sentences to “set an example”. The right and far right will try to make political gains out of the situation – in the name of “order”, “security” and even, of course, the (bourgeois) “Republic”.

In this context, the left and the trade union movement must not confine themselves to the role of observers and commentators. We need to give events a clear class content. The organisations of the workers' movement must do everything they can to mobilise all young people and workers in a massive struggle against the bourgeois state, against the government and against police and judicial repression of young people.

Massive demonstrations and rallies must be organised in working-class neighbourhoods to give this youth revolt the most organised, conscious and effective expression possible. This would enable the entire population of these neighbourhoods – and not just the youth – to take part in the movement. At the same time, it would take the wind out of the sails of reactionary politicians who harp on the “violence” of the rioters and try to turn public opinion against them.

The link between the police’s harassment of young people in the poorest neighbourhoods and the government's anti-people policies must be established, explained and hammered home.

Millions of people have been mobilising against the government’s policies since January. The government and the police are two aspects of the same problem, the same system of exploitation and oppression, the same domination of a class of rich parasites over the overwhelming majority of the population.

It is this capitalist class that sows misery, unemployment and chaos. It is this same class that controls the state apparatus, the police and the judicial institutions. It is also this class that owns and controls the major media, one of the central missions of which is to constantly spew racist propaganda, under any pretext.

It is therefore against this class and its system – the capitalist system – that the workers' movement must strive to direct the anger which is exploding, once again, among the most oppressed young people in the country. There is no doubt that if the labour movement speaks revolutionary language to these young people, they will respond with enthusiasm and energy.

“Refounding the (bourgeois) police"?

Unfortunately, the leaders of the left and the trade union movement are not at all up to the task. They have not taken the slightest initiative to try to give a more organised and politically developed, more conscious expression to the anger of the young rioters. They did not attempt to mobilise other sections of the youth and workers. At worst, they “condemn the violence” – in unison with the government, the right and the far right. At best, they chatter on the subject of a “Republican police overhaul”.

For example, a confederal press release from the CGT, on 1 July, “ condemns the violence” (of young people) and, in an attempt to distinguish itself from the right, proposes to “refound our republican police and its link to the population, with the commitment to substantive work in terms of training, management and law enforcement directives.” This is what all the wisdom of the reformist leaders of the most powerful labour union in the country boils down to: the objective of “refounding our police” – sorry, our “republican” police!

“Our” police? The CGT police ? The police of the workers, the exploited and the oppressed? The word “our” alone betrays a fatal confusion. For all intents and purposes, let's remind the confederal leaders of the CGT (and France Insoumise) of some basic truths. In a capitalist regime, even a “republican” one, the police – like the army and the judicial system – are at the service of the bourgeoisie. It is the police of the bourgeoisie, and of that class alone. The police are one of the main pillars of its state apparatus, whose fundamental function is to defend the power and privileges of the ruling class.

Aware of this role, the arch-reactionary leaders of the police unions do not fail to sharply remind the bourgeoisie of their function when the latter, fearing an uncontrollable social explosion, is forced to publicly criticise the “excess of zeal” of the police. This is precisely what we are witnessing. Hence the double discourse at the top of the state: on the one hand, the government said it was "shocked" by the video of Nahel's murder; on the other, he warmly congratulates the police and hands plaudits to the leaders of the National Police Alliance, UNSA-police and other far-right organisations.

The class struggle will intensify under the impact of the deep crisis of capitalism, with the inflation and the drastic counter-reforms that the French bourgeoisie needs. The latter will therefore also need a police force firmly determined to intimidate, repress and terrorise the masses. And this is the moment that the leaders of the CGT choose to turn to the ruling class and suggest that they “refound our republican police”!

The leaders of the CGT and France Insoumise are right to demand the repeal of the Cazeneuve law of 2017 regarding the "licence to kill". But it should not be imagined that the repeal of this law would put an end to police killings. Because of its objective role under capitalism, the police are inevitably a breeding ground for hardened racists and reactionaries. Generally speaking, the bourgeois police cannot be “refounded” in a progressive direction. The bourgeois police must be smashed, pulverised, at the same time as the bourgeoisie will be driven from power, its means of production will be expropriated and society will be refounded on a socialist basis. Any other perspective is reformist chatter that sows dangerous illusions in our class.

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