As 2005 drew to an end, the suburbs of cities and towns across France were lit by the fires of a violent social revolt. The rioting and burning in the banlieues that began in the last days of October in Paris prompted President Chirac in a tv appearance on 14 November to address the young of the ‘difficult quarters’ as ‘daughters and sons of the Republic’ and to denounce the ‘poison of discrimination’—though curfews and emergency measures spoke a different language. The Right in power after all has only a limited repertoire. Initially it seemed as if the neoliberal Minister of the Interior and presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy would be paying a political price for his mail-fisted ‘zero tolerance’ policies and insulting abuse of the ‘rabble’; with his rival for the French presidency, the Gaullist Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, the beneficiary. Instead a right-wing backlash has developed, putting Sarkozy in a race with the neo-fascist Front National of Jean-Marie Le Pen (quoted on hastily put up fn posters as having predicted all this long ago) to cash in on the Great Fear that has taken hold of large sections of the French population. Including, one would assume, those millions excited over the opportunity to acquire shares in edf, the French electricity utility, the privatization of which coincided with the rioting.

The plight of the second- or third-generation youth of immigrant descent in France need not be spelled out here. It has been pictured in a range of hard-hitting films—Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine appeared as early as 1995—and discussed in endless reports. Vast sums have been poured into programmes meant to ameliorate the worst conditions. Indeed popular campaigns against racism, church and media support of the illegal sans-papiers, and the multi-racial cast of national sports teams have often been viewed as evidence of French society’s capacity to bounce back from apparent disintegration. Even the government’s decision to outlaw the wearing of headscarves by Muslim schoolgirls was seen by many as a sign of the state’s self-confidence in asserting control.

Yet privatizations and cutbacks, in France as elsewhere, have been working to redistribute services, income and power from the poor to the rich, and swell the ranks of an underclass with nothing to lose. Against a backdrop of Western aggression targeted on the Islamic world, the youngsters of the suburbs with Arab or African family names and deficient education know that they are unlikely ever to have a job in the new world of ‘reforms’. The ill-conceived headscarf decision only added insult to injury; what is the point of enforcing ‘republican’ political equality on those suffering most from growing economic inequality? Impoverishment has now reached the point where many hundreds of stragglers are camping along the route to Charles de Gaulle airport, breathing in the traffic fumes as they huddle under plastic sheeting or cardboard on the narrow strip against the roadside fence that is their lodging. Meanwhile the privatization of edf, nationalized after the liberation from Nazi occupation and one of the last remaining bastions of the communist cgt trade union, is breaking all records. Almost 5 million wealthy French hurried to get a piece of the action at 32 Euros a share, paying in around 7 billion Euros altogether.footnote1 It took the death of two boys in the power sub-station where they had fled (on the run from police chasing them on suspicion of a petty crime) to short-circuit the increasingly disconnected worlds of the rich and the poor and ignite the violence that then tore through suburban France.

Zero tolerance, the policy adopted by Sarkozy, in combination with zero interest in how the poor are coping, has proven to be explosive. What sets apart the French situation from that in the neighbouring countries is not only, however, the violence of the current explosion. There has been a steady tide of broadening popular protest against neoliberalism for at least a decade, from the mass strikes during the winter of discontent of 1995–96 that brought down the Juppé government, and the formation of attac as a network of citizens’ groups in 1998, to the recent bitter struggles against the privatization of the ferry company serving Corsica, and a strike to preserve the railways as a state company. But if the problems facing French society are in many respects unique, not least in the political instinct and militancy of so many of the responses to them, in others they are also to a considerable extent specifically European. It is these that I will address below.

For what is at stake in the current French disorder is, fundamentally, the difficulty of applying neoliberal ‘market’ disciplines to continental European societies that have historically developed under state auspices, in many respects against liberalism (although reliant on capitalist property relations and forms of exploitation)—while, at the same time, collective ability to express discontent has been hobbled by the restrictions imposed on parliamentary democracy in the neoliberal restructuring that began in the later 1970s. The European Union’s hurry to enact ‘market reforms’ in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet bloc only exacerbated long-standing contradictions between liberalization and the tradition of state intervention in several European countries, most acutely in France. The Maastricht Treaty of 1991 is the landmark here. In France, the Economic and Monetary Union negotiated at Maastricht was ratified only narrowly, and it is worth recalling that at the time, the Green politician and author Alain Lipietz warned that in the absence of any real popular mandate, the socially destructive implications of the Maastricht agreement could ignite civil war within a few decades.footnote2