On June 2023, in the city of Nanterre, a suburb of Paris, police brutally murdered a teenager named Nahel Merzouk, continuing a pattern of post-colonial violence directed at a sector of the French population that is treated as second-class citizens. In response, thousands of people in the outlying banlieues of Paris and other French cities engaged in several days of pitched revolt, attacking town halls and police stations, looting shops, and defending themselves against the police. In the following reflection, a participant in the movements of recent years looks back on the revolt of June 2023 and the movements that preceded it, exploring the limits they reached and considering what it would take for them to bring about revolutionary transformation.
For further reflections on the same events, you could begin here.
“How much longer will all of this go on?
It’s already been years since everything should have blown up
Too bad unity wasn’t on our side
But you know it’s all going to end badly
The war of the worlds you wanted, here it is
But what, what are we waiting for? What are we waiting for to start the fire?”
-Qu’est ce qu’on attend pour foutre le feu (What are we waiting for to start the fire?), A song by NTM, 1996
0. Riot or Revolt?
During the last mobilization against the pension reform in France (February-May 2023), comrades from the Chilean platform Vitrina Distópica asked whether we were witnessing a revolt in France. At the time, it appeared that, excepting a few hot nights in March following the authoritarian introduction of the pension reform, there was little evidence of a real revolt.
What was occurring seemed to be a French-style social movement, strong but classic—not a revolt that could truly threaten those in power like the Yellow Vests uprising, or the revolts of recent years in Chile, Iran, Lebanon, Hong Kong, and elsewhere.
Nonetheless, it was legitimate to ask whether this mobilization, however it played out, was a sign that we were living through a pre-revolutionary period in France, in view of the succession of several massive and offensive movements across a short period of time (2016-2023).
If the events of this summer confirm the intensity of this period, the choice of the word revolt to describe them is significant. We can use this word not because it is more political than “riot” (which itself has a highly political content), but rather on account of the particular characteristics of this movement. It was dazzling, spontaneous, offensive, and entirely self-organized; the participants presented no limited demands, but articulated a clear desire to “take justice into their own hands” and, above all, to “hurt the state,” as some expressed in the suburbs of Paris.
The greater the humiliation and degradation of living conditions, the more violent revolt is likely to be. The use of violence by the oppressed against their oppressors is both a means of expression and a means of regaining their dignity. Revolutionary violence can be a way for dominated peoples to build a new dignity, as Elsa Dorlin, Frantz Fanon, and Miguel Enríquez have argued.
The role of revolutionaries is not to contain this rage, but to help identify a strategic horizon, articulate objectives, and resist the counterattack of the state and ruling order. To build a force capable of converting rage into power.
II. Breakdown of Mediations
As in the Yellow Vest movement, the violence that the insurgents exercised also shows the weakness of the “mediations” (i.e., intermediary bodies) between these populations and the regime. Here, we mean mediations in the negative sense of institutions that maintain the prevailing social order (the town hall, the police, and sometimes social workers2 and religious organizations) but also in the more positive sense of organized political spaces capable of sustaining righteous anger during the revolt and over time.3
Where local associations or organizations4 do exist, they often struggle to mobilize a broad base, especially when it comes to young people, and they rarely have political objectives beyond their immediate territory.5 This applies in working-class neighborhoods, but it also characterizes the majority of local organizations throughout France. As in other parts of the world, this demonstrates the absence of radical, autonomous organizations originating from or rooted in these neighborhoods with the capacity to act on everyday life and to formulate long-term political objectives and strategies.
Such organizations have existed in the past. Think of the Black Panther Party (BPP), the Young Lords (an organization of Puerto Rican immigrants built on the BPP model), the Chilean MIR and its work in the poblaciónes (working-class neighborhoods in Chile), the PKK and its popular roots in Bakur (occupied Turkish Kurdistan). In France, the Mouvement de l’immigration et des banlieues (MIB) played a pioneering role in the 1990s, linking local struggles with nationwide efforts to combat police violence and to organize working-class neighborhoods on an autonomous basis.
However, since the 2005 revolt, it seems that, beyond some collectives supporting the Palestinian struggle at moments of aggression such as in 2014, the only political and social organizations that have managed to mobilize a popular base in the poor suburbs have been Islamist organizations in their various incarnations.6
In 2015-2016, following the jihadist attacks of the 2010s, an ideological offensive and campaign of state repression targeted Muslims indiscriminately, making no distinction between Muslims, Islamists, and jihadists. Ironically, this considerably weakened spaces in the poor suburbs that also functioned to play a role of mediation and appeasement. At the same time, this indiscriminate repression also increased the anger of many Muslims living in working-class neighborhoods, contributing to the feeling that they were second-class citizens.
III. The Centrality of the Police
Every movement in France in recent years has been suppressed, chiefly by outright repression. This puts the Macron administration in a situation of fear and dependence on the police.
The unbridled neoliberalism that Macron’s administration seeks to implement in France depends on the imposition of police force. Consequently, today, the French state is one of the regimes that most fears its police. This likely explains why the administration did not react to the threats of sedition from the trade-unions Alliance and Unsa police.7 For their part, the police are well aware of Macron’s dependence, and are taking advantage of the opportunity to increase their power and independence.
This situation—which is increasingly common, and inherent in the role that police play in society—suggests that, while it is not impossible that some adjustments to the police might take place at some point, we cannot expect any reforms that will really weaken the institution.
IV. By Comparison
Launched by Black people in working-class neighborhoods in the United States, the uprising in response to the brutal murder of George Floyd quickly drew the participation of a large section of society. The riots expanded into a broader multiracial revolt as anarchists, anti-racists, police abolitionists, and left-wing groups joined the movement en masse along with liberals and people who did not consider themselves “political.” Even the corporate media and various multinational corporations took a stand in response to the leverage that the movement exerted.
In contrast to the events in the United States, but consistent with what occurred in France in 2005, no other segment of French society joined young people in the revolt that broke out in French working-class neighborhoods in 2023.
Ironically, in France itself in June 2020, during the uprising in the United States, a powerful collective, the Truth Committee for Adama,8 organized an impressive and offensive march that brought together nearly 100,000 people in Paris in solidarity. By contrast, in 2023, in response to Nahel’s death, the marche blanche (“white march,” an expression of mourning) organized in his honor drew fewer than 20,000 people. A week after the uprising, excepting the riots, the demonstrations in the country’s major cities (including Paris, Lyon, and Marseille) never exceeded 2000 people.
On account of the spontaneous participation of many social classes and the action of many organized groups, the response to the murder of George Floyd was accepted as eminently political and “legitimate” in the United States and, consequently, around the world. Nahel’s death did not inspire the same reaction.9 The rest of the population didn’t join in, and in France,10 no one was able to give it the political significance that had been ascribed to George Floyd’s assassination.
V. Transnational Revolt
Social divisions prevented the revolt from spreading in France, but the insurgents found support in the working-class districts of Switzerland and Belgium. Similar riots erupted in Lausanne and Brussels without the support of any organization. In people’s consciousness, the boundaries of class and race within French society itself were stronger than the official national frontiers. Living conditions exerted more influence than the mirage of nations.
The success of the demonstration in Paris for George Floyd in 2020 and the riots that followed it, as well as the expressions of solidarity in Switzerland and Belgium for Nahel in 2023, demonstrate the existence of a transnational class consciousness among young people from working-class neighborhoods who are targeted by structural white supremacy.
VI. Revolutionary Conditions—and Obstacles
The succession of high-intensity movements in France has showed that the conditions that could trigger a revolutionary movement are present. At the same time, it has also revealed the factors that are delaying the emergence of such a movement.
Generally speaking, when violent repression extinguishes a revolt, the consequent trauma stifles the rebellious desires of that generation for quite some time. Renewed agitation is only possible when it is not exactly the same people in the street.
In France, while repression has intensified in response to each movement—leaving people with mutilated hands, blinded, or even killed—it has not extinguished the social movements and riots that have followed one another since at least 2016.
This situation is reminiscent of the succession of revolts in Iran: 2009, 2017, 2019 (when something like 1500 people were killed), and the feminist revolution of 2022. What is taking place in France is on a smaller scale, but comparably consistent.
If in France as in Iran, these figures give an idea of the combativeness of the peoples in question (of their heroism, in the case of Iran), we can also explain this repetition by the fact that it was not the same parts of the population that were successively rising up.
In Iran, for example, the movement of 2009 chiefly involved the middle classes in the big cities, whereas in 2017 and 2019, the protagonists were largely from the working classes, and in 2022, they were women and non-“Persian” minorities.11
In France, the movement of 2016 against the loi travail (“labor law”) involved students and politicized workers (the “left wing”). The gilets jaunes (“yellow vest”) movement that began in 2018 was initiated by white working-class people from the margins of France (especially geographically speaking). The movement against the neoliberal pension reform that peaked in March 2023 involved a mixture of those demographics, whereas the revolt that began in June 2023 consisted mostly of young people from the periphery who are on the receiving end of white supremacist violence from the state.
While people from the peripheral neighborhoods received little support in the revolt of summer 2023, conversely, they took little part in the movement against the pension reform or in the Yellow Vests uprising.12
The gulf between these movements does not mean that there is no relationship between them. The powerful social movement of spring 2006 came close on the heels of the suburban revolt of autumn 2005. Likewise, albeit in the opposite order, this summer’s revolt follows the mobilizations of spring 2023. In each case, less than three months passed between the two events. Nonetheless, the connections are not as strong as they could be.
This creates a situation that is volatile, but in which the waves of revolt are dispersed across time and space, preventing the eruption of a tsunami powerful enough to topple the regime.
Still, this multiplication of movements shows that the conditions likely exist for a powerful revolutionary movement to emerge.
“Struggles find their strength in their ability to weave together different fragments of the proletariat. The uprising was successful only because, all over the country, people from all walks of life and communities found their own way to participate.”
-Paper Planes, discussing the movement in Sri Lanka in 2022
In contrast to the situation in Iran or France, looking at uprisings in which one part of the social body takes the first step (be it Indian peasants, Indigenous people in Ecuador, high-school students in Chile, or Black people in the United States) and a large part of the population follows,13 we can see that these are more likely to achieve structural victories.
In the conditions of late capitalism, in which no compromise seems to be possible even in the face of widespread resistance, these victories are often temporary: the promised reorganization of several local police forces in the United States, the fall of the regime in Sudan, the constituent process in Chile, the fall of governments in Sri Lanka and Lebanon. No revolt has yet succeeded in preventing the return to normality.
Still, the revolts that go further offer a hint of what it could take to make permanent changes.
VII. Building the People
With their call for unity, the gilets jaunes, like all the uprisings13 of our time, baffled political spaces accustomed to clear-cut divisions. During that movement, the omnipresence of French symbols was not a reason to stay away so much as a reminder that any popular insurrection today will be “impure” and confusing.
In popular uprisings, insurgents make use of the symbols and spaces available to them. Here, those used by the movement were more reminiscent of the iconography of the French Revolution (1789-93) within popular culture than the signature of the extreme right.
“If we say that “the people” are in the street, it’s not a people that would have existed beforehand, it’s on the contrary the one that was missing beforehand. It’s not ‘the people’ who produce the uprising, it’s the uprising that produces its people, by arousing the common experience and intelligence, the human fabric and language of real life that had disappeared.”.
-To Our Friends, the Invisible Committee
It’s only by accepting that the yellow vests themselves produced their own notion of “the people” that we can understand how, during the attack on the old Stock Exchange on December 1, 2018, we could witness a Le Pen-voting farmer alongside an autonomous activist from Morocco and, most importantly, a fifteen-year-old boy from the poor suburbs shouting: “We are the people… Wallah it’s us, the people!”14
Still, when we took part in the revolt at a roundabout in the Paris suburbs, our exchanges with residents of immigrant background (whether recent or longstanding) showed that many were attracted by the revolt but preferred to keep a certain distance from it. Some feared racist elements, while others explained that they couldn’t or didn’t know how to take part in a movement they defined as “for the French.”
Beyond the instrumentalization by the media and ruling class of the actual presence of racist groups and behaviors, the iconography and reference points of the movement remained almost exclusively Franco-French (flags, the guillotine, May ’68, the Paris Commune, the Council of the Resistance), however subversively people employed them. This was one of the limits that prevented the yellow vest movement from expanding. Calls for “everyone” to be yellow vests were rarely accompanied by the kind of actions that could enable the uprising to involve all the different communities that live on French territory.15
The national character of the majority of revolts in our time only makes it more important to fight against the nationalist tendencies and fascist groups that attempt to profit from unrest. In France, the anti-fascist movement did so physically and successfully within the yellow vest demonstrations, while several yellow vest groups did so politically by articulating egalitarian principles and employing transnational symbols.16
The revolt of June 2023, for its part, was short-lived and without means of addressing other sectors of society, and consequently not capable of experimenting with making new connections. In the end, neither of these movements was capable of building bridges that could close the gulf between the country’s rebels—not during the upheavals, and not afterwards, either.
In other eras, organizations have made it a central objective to establish connections across such gulfs. The Chicago Rainbow Coalition, launched by Fred Hampton in 1969, brought together Black Panthers, Young Lords, the Brown Berets, the American Indian Movement, poor white people recently arrived from Appalachia, and others.
The Wobblies of the Industrial Workers of the World, also in the United States, having built themselves up against the racism of American trade unions, founded a transnational union at the beginning of the 20th century that was capable of uniting Asian, Black, white, and Latino/Latina workers in a network that extended across the world. For its part, the MIR (again) succeeded, quite exceptionally in Chilean history, in creating an alliance between Mapuche and Chilean campesino workers.
More recently in France, spaces as varied as the Adama committee (which issued calls to join the gilets jaunes), Verdragon (a popular ecology space) in Bagnolet, and the Hangar (a squat fighting against gentrification) in Montreuil are trying to create connections between ecologists, working-class neighborhoods, and autonomous circles. The Cantine Syrienne and the internationalist network The Peoples Want, just like the Maison aux volets rouges and its festival, are trying to create common political spaces between exiled persons in France and local populations,17 attempting to extend the classic notion of “people” to all those who actually live in France.
Another relevant example is the gilets noirs (black vests), led by migrants and their French supporters, who responded to the gilets jaunes movement by launching an effort to achieve administrative regularization for all migrants in France, along with decent housing and living conditions. They built connections with groups like the Adama Committee, and with the Popular Solidarity Brigade during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s only by promoting, amplifying, and sometimes uniting experiences of this kind that we could create “the people” in a new sense, overcoming—without denying—the disparities, histories, and differences to build a revolutionary people.
“It’s time for this to stop, make way for joy
So that our youth with a vengeful hand
Burn down the police state first and
Send the republic to burn at the same stake, yeah
Now it’s our turn to throw the dice.”
NTM, Qu’est ce qu’on attend pour foutre le feu, 1996
Thanks to friends and comrades whose feedback and reflections fed this text.
Glory to the insurgents.
We use the word “margin” here in the sense that bell hooks uses it (for example, in her book From Margin to Center)—to describe an oppressed population that holds a unique radical potential. ↩
They themselves often refuse to take on this role: “And we’re between the young people and the police. We are the mediators of the false social peace that the government is trying to establish,” said one local educator. “What do we do?” asked another respected figure in a neighborhood. “Nothing at all. It’s over, we’re not firemen.” ↩
On the causes and strategies used by the French state in poor suburbs, we recommend Julien Talpin’s book Bâillonner les quartiers (“Gagging the Neighborhoods”). ↩
Let’s not forget, however, that since 2005 some groups have succeeded in creating political spaces or important and sometimes subversive forms of political expression. For example, the Echo-banlieue and Bondy Blog media, the Hangar in Montreuil or Verdragon in Bagnolet, Diaty Diallo and her powerful book deux secondes d’air qui brûle, the Adama Committee and the justice and truth network. ↩
There are exceptions, of course, such as the Réseau d’Entraide Vérité et Justice (Truth and Justice Mutual Aid Network), which brings together collectives against state violence throughout France. ↩
Just like the Marxists in the 1970s, Islamists are divided over trends, tactics, and various profound disagreements in France and elsewhere. For example, there are debates between non-violent public groups and jihadists practicing armed struggle, Salafists of various currents, Muslim Brotherhoods, and other groups. ↩
A threatening communiqué written at the start of the revolt to warn the government that the police were scrutinizing the state’s response and were ready to engage in unilateral “resistance” on their own. ↩
A collective created after the murder of Adama Traoré in 2016. ↩
Contrary to the approach of the international media or the United Nations, for example, which questioned the role of the state and police and their structural racism. ↩
This is not to say that it was non-existent. The Paris garbage collectors (most of whom live in the suburbs) spearheaded the pension movement. The gilets jaunes protests saw many residents of working-class neighborhoods and hundreds of young people take part in the insurrectionary nights of December 1 and 8, 2018. However, in both cases, there was little local, continuous presence, with the exception of Champigny, Montreuil, and Rungis in the case of the Paris suburbs. ↩
Think, for example, of the thawra in Lebanon, in which all denominations, usually opposed to each other, stood side by side; soccer fans from Istanbul (Besiktas, Fenerbahçe, Galatasaray) and Santiago de Chile (Colo Colo and the UC) clashing with police during the Gezi uprising and the Revuelta Chilena; or the Aragalaya uprising in Sri Lanka in 2022, when Buddhist monks and queer rebels, Sinhaleses and Tamils, all rose up together. ↩ ↩2
The Arabic word “Wallah,” common among young people from emigrant and working-class backgrounds, means “I swear on Allah-God.” The author personally experienced this scene. ↩
In other revolts, we can think of the deliberate use of the term “azadi” (freedom) in the Syrian revolution as an appeal to Kurdish communities; in Iran, the use of the slogan “Kurdistan, the eyes and light of Iran” used by Turkmen communities; and the use of the Mapuche flag in Chile and the Kabyle flag in Algeria during the Hirak. ↩
We’re thinking, for example, of the yellow vests in Montreuil, Toulouse, and Commercy who, rather than denouncing the Marseillaise or the tricolor [the French national flag], decided to diversify the references present in the movement by organizing discussions on the lessons of the Syrian revolution, the Algerian hirak, and the struggle in Kurdistan; multiplying the Palestinian, black, and rainbow flags at demonstrations; and making banners and tags in Arabic and Spanish (“Que se Vayan todos” or “الشعب يريد إسقاط النظام”). Unfortunately, these gestures remained isolated. ↩
Most of the French examples are drawn from the Paris suburbs, where the author has lived for 30 years. ↩