April 2006   
Mass Arrests and New Repressive Laws in France:
No Collaboration – Cops Out of the Unions!

Demonstrators Demand:
“Free Our Comrades!”

Police in Place de la République, Paris, March 28. (Photo: thibautcho.free.fr)

After more than two months in the streets, mobilizations are continuing across France against the vicious law establishing a “First Employment Contract” (CPE) that would let employers dismiss young workers (age 26 and under) without cause for up to two years. After the mammoth marches which brought out millions to protest, youth and workers together, the initiative has shifted to “operations coup de poing” (“sock it to ’em,” or quick strike actions) in which protesters converge on a road or rail line to halt traffic.

On Thursday, April 6, a couple hundred demonstrators blocked the rails at Paris’ Gare de l’Est in the early morning; the crowd growing to 500 moved on Saint-Lazare station, a commuter train depot. swelling to more than 5,000. The protest then headed to the Garde du Nord, where for an hour and a half they shut down rail traffic, holding a picnic on top of a Thalys express train. While students called for “hugs and kisses,” the police responded with riot clubs. At Orly airport outside Paris, access roads were blocked by scores of protesters. On Friday, students attempted to “hold the Council of State for questioning,” while scores of sans-papiers (undocumented immigrants) sat down outside La Santé prison.

Meanwhile, caravans of CRS riot police race  around Paris with sirens blaring, occupying the Latin Quarter, sealing off the National Assembly, even if no demonstrations are in sight, mainly intending to intimidate. Throughout France the mobilization has continued. On Thursday, in Caen (Normandy) in the northwest, more than 2,000 occupied the railroad station, while hundreds of demonstrators cut off rail lines at Toulouse in the south, where students and unionists blocked roads into Airbus airplane factories. Rail lines were also blocked for hours by hundreds of demonstrators in Narbonne and Lille, and highways and turnpikes were blockaded outside Nantes, Rennes, Strasbourg, Nancy, Clermont-Ferrand and elsewhere.

The principal demand of this round of demonstrations was to end the repression and free hundreds of youths being held by the police. Altogether since the beginning of the protests, 3,682 people have been held for questioning (interpellés) by the police during and after marches, more than 1,500 have been placed in police custody (garde à vue), and some 600 turned over to the courts for prosecution. More than 220 have been judged in instant “trials,” often within 24 hours of their arrest, sometimes without a lawyer present to represent the accused. At least 60 have already been sentenced to prison terms (from Libération, 5 April and L’Humanité, 7 April).

Similarly last fall, in the course of 22 days of ghetto youth “riots,” more than 3,100 people were put in police custody, 729 tried in on-the-spot trials and 422 convicted. Three out of four youths convicted for “acts of violence” (like throwing a bottle) were sentenced to prison (figures from Yann Moulier Boutang, La révolte des banlieues, ou les habits nus de la République [2005]). This procedure of immediate trials recalls what happened during the May 1968 revolt in Paris, which turned the call to “Free our comrades!” into a watchword of the movement. Now, as the minister of justice demands “a judicial response marked by rapidity and firmness,” the same demand is echoing from one end of France to the other.

The government and the police pretend that mass arrests are the response of police to gangs of casseurs (“smashers”) infiltrating the demonstrations, snatching cellphones and MP3 players, beating photographers, and the like. This picture is utterly false. There were some highly publicized incidents of theft and random violence by bands of largely (but not exclusively) minority youth from the suburban ghettos during a March 23 protest and a few cases since. Students from various schools have since formed contingents with their own marshals to avoid or minimize such occurrences. But the arrests have overwhelmingly come at the end of the marches as riot cops use force to disperse demonstrators, deliberately provoking violence.

The smell of police provocation is heavy in the air as clouds of tear gas waft over the protests. In the March 28 demonstration in Paris, television cameras caught plainclothes policemen wearing stickers of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) mixing in with marchers. LCR marshals confronted them and demanded that the undercover cops remove the badges. Yet a few hours later the same squads were again sporting LCR, Lutte Ouvrière, CNT (anarchist) and other union stickers on their jackets. In addition, a number of cops put on dreadlock wigs to disguise their presence (Le Monde, 5 April). Several of the photographers were beaten not by casseurs but by the police.

How the cops seek to instigate violence could be seen on March 28. At the end of the march at Place de la République, demonstrators were effectively trapped, with four of the six streets leading out of the square sealed off by police vehicles mounted with metal grating such as used to protect G-8 meetings from anti-“globalization” protesters. This left thousands of people milling about in the large square. Squads of cops would periodically charge into the crowd to grab some youths. After a while, lines of police began pushing demonstrators back (although they had nowhere to go, since the huge crowd was still arriving and there was no outlet). Hundreds of cops were surrounding the square, and as dusk fell a water cannon was used to drench the demonstrators.

Union Marshals Do Cops’ Dirty Work

After the previous big demo, on March 18, where a similar police corral led to a couple of cars getting trashed, there was controversy over Interior Minister Sarkozy’s plan to send cop “snatch squads” into the demonstration to grab “troublemakers.” Union officials objected, and said their service d’ordre (marshals squad) would take care of things inside the demo. But, outrageously, what this meant in practice was the union marshals doing the cops’ dirty work. According to a report in Libération (29 March) CGT union goon squads went after some gangs of mostly black and Arab youths from the heavily immigrant poor and working-class suburbs:

“Suddenly the CGT [union federation] pounces on some ‘z’y va’ [referring to bands of ghetto youths], leading with fists, kicks and billy clubs. The ‘rogues’ take some heavy blows. The marshals squad of the CGT Printers Union finishes the job by handing over the troublemakers to the gendarmes stationed on the main streets leading into Place de la République. The collaboration was prepared by the Ministry of the Interior, the Paris Police Prefecture and the union marshals’ squads.”

CGT and other unions ordered their marshals to go after “troublemakers.” Union goons beat youths with sticks and turned them over to police. (Photo: thibautcho.free.fr)

The next day, L’Humanité (30 March), the mouthpiece of  the Communist Party, bragged that “Union marshals and police deployment were able to control violence along the line of march.” The article continued: “At 5 p.m. a line consisting of plainclothes police and union marshals diverts demonstrators arriving at the square. Separate anti-CPE militants and those looking for a fight. ‘We got them like in a mousetrap,’ explained Joaquin Masanet,” head of the UNSA police “union.” More than 500 people were seized by the police that day, “a mixture of overdressed youths, anarchist militants, bystanders and journalists,” admits L’Huma.

This is a disgusting case of the union bureaucracy acting as deputy sheriffs for the machinery of capitalist state repression. It recalls how in the late 1970s the Italian Communist Party acted as finger men for the bourgeoisie against the Red Brigades and union militants in the factories. This is a graphic expression of what the “popular front” means in practice: the reformist, pro-capitalist left acting as guard dogs for the ruling class. This is the logic of organizing “unions” of police, the armed fist of the bourgeoisie. In contrast, revolutionaries demand: Cops out of the unions! Release all those arrested in connection with the protests against the CPE! Drop all charges and annul all sentences against those arrested at anti-CPE protests and during the youth revolt in the suburbs last fall.

The authorities are trying to set poor immigrant youth and white middle-class youth against each other. The oppressors fear that if those they oppress come together in an explosion of discontent with working-class support it could threaten the regime. Yet what their heavy-handed tactics have achieved is to educate a new generation of youth in the harsh realities of the class struggle. Hundreds of thousands of youths have seen which side the cops are on.

Now the government wants to institutionalize its heavy-handed repression. A bill introduced on March 29 by Eric Raoult seeks to reintroduce key provisions of the 1970 “anti-casseurs” law, which was abrogated in 1981 for contradicting the fundamental judicial principle of individual responsibility. Today “collective guilt” is back. Under the bill, organizers of demonstrations where there is violence against persons, or “destruction or damage caused to property” could be jailed for up to two years, even if they had nothing to do with the alleged actions. In addition, protest organizers who fail to order that the demo disperse after such destruction could also be jailed, as well as individuals who continued to participate in the gathering.

After ordering a “state of emergency” during the youth revolt last year, the government of the aging Gaullist warhorse Chirac, his would-be Napoleonic prime minister de Villepin and top cop Sarkozy is reaffirming its bonapartist appetites. While the reformist left yearns for a new “popular front” of class collaboration, the response to mounting repression must be to organize mass mobilization of the working class. Already several regional union bodies have called for a general strike. Councils of workers and students should be organized to prepare and carry out sustained strike action, locally, regionally and nationally. The only solution is a struggle for workers revolution, to sweep away the bourgeoisie’s corruption and violence for good. n

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