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Two days ago President Jacques Chirac proclaimed the end of the state of emergency which has been in place in France for almost two months. At the same press conference, the president also announced that the law paragraph obliging teachers to “teach the positive effects of colonialism on the former French overseas territories” should be rewritten. The paragraph was implemented in February last year and has made it to the headlines once in a while since then. However, it wasn’t until after the November revolts that mainstream politicians, really started giving much attention to the controversial issue.
“The paragraph divides the French,” Chirac said, “that’s why it should be rewritten.” Would it have been suggested rewritten if it wasn’t for the revolts? And would the notion of a divided French people have been so prominent if it wasn’t for the burning cars making headlines around the world and threatening the tourist industry? It’s no doubt the social fracture, which increasingly has been interpreted as a colonial fracture, has climbed even higher on the public agenda the last months. From the 27th of October and three weeks onwards, France experienced the biggest social revolt since the Second World War, rivalled only by May 1968. On short term, the revolt has had an effect on the president’s speeches, but the interesting research question now is what its long-term legacies will be.
Just before Christmas one of the big news headlines was “it’s better to vote than to burn cars”. A collective of celebrities originating from the banlieues – amongst them a footballer (Lilian Thuram), a rapper (Joey Starr, NTM), a director (Mathieu Kassovitz (link in English!)) and an actor (Jamel Debbouze) – organised a media happening in Clichy-sous-Bois (where the deaths of two boys sparked off the riots), in order to make the young banlieuesards register for an election card. (To have the right to vote, the French born before a certain reform need an election card, which they get by signing up at the town hall).
The next presidential election doesn’t take place before spring 2007, but with the previous one still fresh in memory it’s better to be well prepared. In the infamous 2002 presidential election, 37% of the 18-24 years old didn’t vote in the first round – the round that eliminated the socialist candidate (Lionel Jospin) and gave the French a choice between a candidate from the Right (Jacques Chirac) and the Extreme Right (Jean-Marie Le Pen). Or, between a crook and a fascist, as many put it. (If you google “crook” and “fascist” in French – hence escroc and facho – you get hundreds of sites from around election time, appealing for people to vote for the “crook, not the fascist!”). Many have already started to dread a possible repetition of that shameful affair. But this time, the stakes can be even higher; the choice might be between Sarkozy and Le Pen. (Which according to some radical commentators isn’t much of a choice.)
Back to Clichy-sous-Bois before Christmas: “If we don’t take care of politics, politics will take care of us,” the celebrity collective stated. The youngsters seem well aware of being taken care of by the authorities, but do they believe in the power of the voting ballot? According to newspaper reportages they didn’t welcome the stars very heartily: - To vote for whom? Who represents us? Why weren’t you here earlier, during the riots? One even accused the actor Jamel Debbouze of being “un Arabe de service” (which I think must be an equivalent of Malcolm X’s notion of house negro, the slave who protects the master and his suppressive system even more eagerly than the master does himself. Perhaps coincidentally, it was Debbouze who played the slightly retarded greengrocer assistant in the highly successful The Fabulous Amelie of Montmartre, a character which in fact was the only non-white in a film accused of white-washing France).
Whether it’s thanks to the stars, or just to the riots themselves, the last month it has been more people than usual signing up for election cards. If nothing else at least they can vote against “Sarko and Le Pen”, as quite a few has put it on their way to the townhall. But we’ll have to wait and see if it’s really better to vote than to burn cars.
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