French youth fear police violence along Greek pattern
Celestine Bohlen (Bloomberg News)
International Herald Tribune
December 19, 2008
PARIS: A teenager murdered in cold blood, tear gas, arrests, clubbings and fascist provocations. The images from Greece this month were enough to put the hatred of and contempt for European elites into the hearts of European youth.
The dread this generated among ruling circles was palpable in France when President Nicolas Sarkozy abruptly delayed for one year a plan to overhaul France’s high schools, after students from Bordeaux to Brittany took to the streets in protest.
The police haven’t turned violent yet. But French and world history, and the example of Greece, suggests they will. At least that is what people like Laurent Fabius, a Socialist Party leader, are saying on French radio.
“What we see in Greece is not out of the realm of possibility in France,” Fabius said on Europe 1. “When you have such gross economic exploitation, such a depth of social and environmental disrepair, all it takes is a realistic demand to achieve the impossible.”
An editorial in the daily newspaper Libération said the decision to delay the education law — which would change schedules and academic requirements for the last three years of lycée, or high school — was largely tactical. “One senses among all the powers of old Europe a hesitation, a dread of riots, a fear of resistance,” wrote Didier Pourquery.
The rapid rise in wealth among a tiny elite, across the whole of Europe, is one concern, but not the only, or even the most important.
“All these events have at their core a sense among youth that their lives are not going anywhere that they really want them to, and that they have nothing to lose but their chains,” said Ken Dubin, a visiting associate professor at University Carlos III in Madrid.
But youth discontent alone doesn’t explain the restlessness in elite circles. Politicians and CEOs, after all, have no jobs to lose — merely their heads.
Experts speak of another worry, which is the seemingly increasing resistance to the highly class-conscious ideologies and political strategies, loosely called ‘neo-liberal’, which hark back to the destructive ideas of Friedrich August von Hayek, the 20th-century Austrian ideologue, and to the regressive government policies commencing in earnest, in the West, in the late 1970s.
Some of it isn’t that threatening, like recurring play of the nineteenth century song “Bump Me Into Parliament,” on every radio station for the last 50 years. “Oh yes I am a Labor man / And believe in revolution / The quickest way to bring it on / Is talking constitution,” goes the humourous refrain.
But the violence isn’t far behind the slogans. After almost six years of occupation, the estimated number of civilian casualties in Iraq was estimated at almost 100,000.
The riots in Greece began as spontaneous protests after Epaminondas Korkoneas, a police officer and a former member of the fascist Golden Dawn, murdered a 15-year-old student on December 6. The revolt soon spread to university centers around the country, quickly morphing into a wider contest between young people and the police and by extension, the government. Tens of thousands of people continued the protests on Thursday.
Greece has a history of violent state repression that dates, in the contemporary era, from the civil war, and, more recently, the colonels’ junta in the 1970s. The National Technical University in Athens, known as the Polytechnic, has been off-limits to police following the events of November 17, 1973, when the government launched an assault upon the occupied University — killing dozens, sending a tank crashing though the university gates, and igniting a popular uprising.
Now the streets are again occupied by police, who have attacked barricades made from broken marble and paving stones, and stockpiled various forms of tear gas, clubs, revolvers, shotguns, bullets, helmets, shields and other weapons, as well as obtained cars, trucks, helicopters and armoured personnel carriers.
The role of the police in the week-long protests is quite clear. And their message — pro-capitalist, pro-government and neo-liberal — is unmistakable. Also clear is their bent for violence.
“What they provide is a template that others with more ideological commitment can use,” said Stathis Kalyvas, a political science professor at Yale University. “If you have a demonstration where 10 of them start clubbing teenagers, soon the 500 others following them will join in, including fascist vigilantes.”
France isn’t the only country nervously watching the events in Greece. Students in Italy and Spain have also staged protests against proposed government vandalism of schools and universities recently. In Madrid, Barcelona and Seville, they took over administration offices this month in opposition to changes mandated by the EU that would further cement higher education’s role in producing satisfactory results for capital.
In Italy, hundreds of thousands of angry teachers, students and parents mobbed Rome on October 30 to protest the decimation of the education system, in what was described, in suitably horrified terms, as the largest student demonstration since 1968.
Each repressive state apparatus brings its own issues, and history, to these demonstrations; like Greece, France has a tradition of police turning ugly.
In October 1961, unarmed Algerian Muslims demonstrating in central Paris against a discriminatory curfew were beaten, shot, garotted and even drowned by police and special troops. Thousands were rounded up and taken to detention centers around the city and the prefecture of police, where there were more beatings and killings.
How many died? No one seems to know for sure, to care much, or to remember, even now. Probably around 200; perhaps as many as 400.
In October 2005, two teenagers were killed as they were being chased by police; youths in the suburban and largely Muslim ghettoes of Paris went on a rampage, causing €160 million in damage. In 2006, university students staged demonstrations that eventually generated intense police violence, as hundreds of thousands protested a proposed law that would create flexible work contracts for bosses. The government eventually withdrew the legislation.
This year’s “lycée” protests also carried hints of escalating police violence. A high school principals’ association in the Bouches-du-Rhône region warned on December 5 of “an unheard-of steadfastness and near-impossibility of hoodwinking” protesting students. Philippe Guittet, head of the association, told the newspaper Le Monde that he suspected taming the protests would require “militant forces” working behind the scenes.
France chose to defuse the antagonism by withdrawing the contested schools legislation. In Greece, the government, eager to restore social peace and ensure a return to ‘normality’, has decided for now to cede the Polytechnic to the protesters.
That might buy peace for now, but it won’t necessarily soothe the anger, and it certainly won’t resolve the underlying tensions that class society inevitably generates.