While Hollande is arguing for more war, the left needs to focus on building a broad, united movement against war, racism and Islamophobia
Three days after the dreadful mass murders in Paris and Saint Denis, people are struggling to understand, and are expressing their solidarity by donating blood or leaving candles and flowers in the streets, while authorities and mainstream parties are scrambling for legitimacy and positioning. As the names of the victims become public, we all see that we have friends of friends who were killed or injured, even if we were lucky enough to find that people personally close to us were safe. A few left-wing comrades are among the dead, including Mathieu, who co-translated David Harvey’s book into French and Patricia, a trade unionist from the Northern suburbs who had fled Chile during the dictatorship.
The train stations, museums, schools and universities are open again today Monday, but political demonstrations are banned in the Paris region till Thursday, due to the State of Emergency. This ban obviously has a political rather than a security motivation. Although thousands of people rallied in the centre of Paris last night to pay their respect to the victims, they could only do this as individuals. These events are important – people need to be together, and there were encouraging examples of fascist groups being thrown off the rallies in other towns by the crowds. But political organisations cannot demonstrate legally in Paris right now, and this helps to ensure that the official discourse is not contested in the streets, and makes it harder for activists to work out collectively a way forward. In addition, for the moment, left organisations have been nervous about calling for demonstrations even for next weekend.
President François Hollande, as well as declaring the State of Emergency has called for a "war without pity", and has just finished addressing parliament (though no debate or vote is planned, just his speech!). Parliament is sitting in an emergency configuration, where members of parliament and senators are all gathered together (and seated in apolitical alphabetical order rather than each with their own political party). Every symbol of "national unity" is thus being mobilised: Hollande received each party leader separately, including the fascist leader Marine Le Pen, and each was given in this way a platform to give their view of priorities. Le Pen insisted "we’re part of national unity" while demanding all migrants be deported. Sarkozy, from the Republican right said that we were at war and that "everything must change". Few details, but the main thrust is "more powers to the state: the people can trust us". But how can a national unity including Sarkozy and Le Pen be of any help to ordinary workers and ordinary citizens who these monsters want to divide and crush?
Hollande’s rather clownish speech to parliament was peppered with meaningless gesticulation, but promised more bombing for Syria, more money for antiterrorist police forces, and more powers for house arrest and for rapid deportation. Fifty more aeroplanes are being sent over to Syria, and military journalists on the radio are getting all excited about the shape of their wings. The army will be recruiting all year. "We will eradicate terrorism" Hollande repeated five times.
After the attacks, the risk of a racist backlash is real: the fascist vote was already looking to be high at the regional elections in December. Some of us on the anticapitalist left were out leafletting on the Sunday markets, despite the suspension of the regional elections campaign. In my town, a group of Muslim citizens explained to us they were sure that Muslims were going to be blamed even though "we didn’t do anything". The Muslim woman wearing a hijab showed me the pepper spray she carried. "It was a present from my husband. I’ve been physically attacked three times in the last few years, and I’m not counting spitting and insults". Leading cinema director Mathieu Kassovitz, tweeted that Muslims deserved to be all thought of as terrorists if they didn’t organise mass street demonstrations to denounce the attacks. Far-right leader Philippe de Villiers said "this is what comes of lax government and the mosquifying of our country". Left organisations will need to react swiftly and energetically. The anti-racist demonstration in October led by Black and Arab campaigning groups and supported by all those left of the Socialist Party was a fine step forward which will need to be built on.
All political organisations have circulated statements about the attacks on social media and email lists. The Communist Party has so far supported the declaration of a State of Emergency. The Paris CGT, a left trade union federation, issued a statement denouncing "fanatical obscurantism", thanking the police and medical staff for their work, and insisting that the 13 November "must not be the excuse" for restricting political freedoms for the left and trade unions, freedoms which the CGT considered already to be under threat from creeping state powers. It goes on to denounce racism and austerity, and calls for the United Nations to help find a solution in Syria.
Anticapitalist organisations, such as my own group (Ensemble) and the New Anticapitalist Party, rejected calls for "national unity" and denounced the State of Emergency, as well as calling for support for the struggles of the Syrian and Kurdish peoples. Both also denounced any Islamophobic backlash.
Left reformist leader of the Parti de Gauche, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whatever his faults, has done excellent interviews on the television: "Don’t let them divide us by religion, because no religion is guilty in these events" he insisted. "The hate we have to fight is the hate they want to put between us… this has nothing to do with Islam!". He has also criticised the State of Emergency.
ATTAC, the campaign for global justice and against the dictatorship of finance, expressed clear opposition to more bombing of Syria:
"We’re told that « France is at war », but it is not our war: after the American disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan, the current French campaigns in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Mali, Chad, [and elsewhere] only help destabilize these parts of the world and push out the migrants… whose corpses we then see cast up on our shores. Al Qaeda and Isis draw all their inhuman power from these injustices. This war can bring no peace since without justice there can be no peace".
The next weeks will show what the radical left is capable of doing in practice, despite the State of Emergency. This decree, which the president wants to extend for three months, allows draconian powers to government and police chiefs, including those of imposing curfews, banning newspapers and demonstrations, authorising military courts and a long list of other measures. Much of this is government gesticulating: they have to be seen to be doing something, and they hope to reassure a section of the population.
But the threat to Muslims and to the left is significant: the prime minister said this morning that they intended to close mosques and organisations which "attacked the values of the Republic". Existing criminal law against inciting violence, as well as anti-terrorist legislation is quite sufficient to stop people publicly defending terrorism, if such people exist in France. This statement of intent goes much further. Who is to say what "the values of the Republic" are ? These values have been shown to be sometimes Islamophobic: will it be illegal to oppose Islamophobia? Leading Socialist member of parliament Malek Boutih made clear that he hoped the State of Emergency would be used against the radical left: he accused far left communiqués of these last few days (which condemned the attacks as well as condemning French bombing of Syria) as "wanting to make the population feel guilty" and "falling into fascism"! As for Muslims, in the same frightening interview Malek Boutih insisted "we cannot consider that wearing a veil is normal".
The terrorist attacks are likely to lead in the short term to a rise in support for Hollande (who is very unpopular). "National unity" is simple and tempting for people, who do not immediately see that "all together behind our State" means trusting the police not to be racist with their increased powers, trusting the government not to use its new draconian powers against strikes and popular movements, or against the Palestinian solidarity movement. Seeing that the government abandoned last year even the ultra-moderate reform of making police officers give a receipt when doing identity checks on people (never on white people), so as to prevent continual checking of the same citizens, one cannot be optimistic.
This morning (Monday) President Hollande needed pictures of fighter jets on the front page of the newspapers, not candles and flowers, so the French Air Force suddenly discovered a "command post" and a "training camp" in Syria which they had previously missed, and bombed the area flat. It is extremely difficult to get good information, but there is every reason to believe that, as usual, there are civilian victims. Even army leaders recognise that the effect of these raids is symbolic, not military, yet Hollande has just promised many more, much bigger bombing raids
Naturally, horrified, shocked and frightened, we would all like quick and decisive answers to take the terror away. But when imperialist domination in the Middle East over many decades has killed millions and thrown up monsters, this is unlikely to be reversed this week, especially given the clear decision of Western leaders for more of the same. Still, ending the bombing of Syria, stopping selling millions of dollars’ worth of arms to the Middle East, ceasing French support for Saudi Arabia, abrogating France’s anti-muslim laws and doing something to counter racist discrimination in France would be a good start.
These simple measures would begin to counter both the successful recruitment drives of ISIS in Syria, and the turn to terrorism by a small number of disturbed young men in France. While we are at it, all the public safety from terrorism issues in recent years have shown that nuclear weapons are as much use as a chocolate sword in the desert. At least a billion euros are spent every year by the French state on nuclear weapons. That money could certainly be used to make life better in the poor part of town, which at the moment are seeing funding cuts in every area, from hospitals to sports clubs, from homework help circles to free transport for older people.
All in all, we have a billion or so reasons not to trust the French state!
Over the next few days a left political response will be put together. After the huge rallies last January were much utilised by Hollande to proclaim unity with the world’s imperialist leaders, the question of whether anticapitalists should join rallies next weekend causes much debate among us. Nevertheless, there will be mass rallies, whether we go or not: the tiny minority of anticapitalists cannot decide whether there are rallies or not. We can only contribute – no doubt in a minor way – to the political colour of the rallies. If last January, the streets had been abandoned by the left, the rallies might have had a clear Islamophobic tone, rather than the vague humanist tone which dominated. We need to be there, to include in the debate our demands to stop bombing Syria (killing mostly civilians), to defend Muslims here against Islamophobia, and to maintain political freedom in France.
What is needed is a broad movement against war and racism in France, even though the situation is very unfavourable for us right now. To do this will certainly mean that the slow progress made on the French left opposing Islamophobia will have to accelerate, and that organisations and activists will have to concentrate on what can mobilise broadly (against the bombings, against racism, for political freedoms) and not spend too much time on what divides us (being for or against having a minute of silence is not that important!).
John Mullen is a lifelong revolutionary socialist living in the Paris area and is a supporter of the France Insoumise.
More articles from this author
- Where is France Insoumise going?
- French Assembly elections: Bad blow for Macron as polarisation deepens
- Can France's new left alliance make a difference?
- Polarisation in France: fight Le Pen and build the left
- France election: The usefulness and limits of Jean-Luc Mélenchon - long read
- France: Vaccination, Health Pass Protests, and the Left
- A promising fight back against fascism in France