21 July 2014. A World to Win News Service. As the Israeli massacre in Gaza entered its third week, many cities across the globe saw marches and demonstrations in solidarity with the Palestinian people. In France, too, there were protests against the Israeli attacks in about 15 cities on 19 July. But the French government banned the planned march in Paris that day, threatening arrest and up to six months in prison for anyone who showed up at the assembly point in Barbes, the main shopping area in the largely Arab and African neighbourhoods of northern Paris.
Police blockades failed to stop thousands of youth and many others from coming. The encirclement and then brutal attack on what had been a mainly non-violent demonstration only succeeded in fragmenting the crowd into the twisting side streets of a mainly supportive neighbourhood, where they were able to evade and sometimes fight off the police for several hours. Other youth came to join them.
The pretext for the ban was scuffles around two synagogues at the end of another pro-Palestinian march the week before. After failing to prevent the 19 July protest, the authorities and their media mouthpieces tried to politically encircle and isolate the youth who had defied them by labelling it an "anti-Semitic riot", in words echoed by the BBC.
This lie was not, as many people think, an attempt to appeal to Jewish voters or even just a question of French complicity with Israel. Contrary to the popular chant, French President Francois Hollande is not Israel's "accomplice". France is an imperialist power that is now highly active in seeking to consolidate and expand its historic areas of influence, including by sending troops to former colonies in Africa where Islam is widespread. Above all its recent turn toward a more openly pro-Israeli policy has to do with France's own predatory interests and aspirations in the Arab world.
Instead, this lie reflects the dilemma of a state worried about the way hatred for its own and its allies' crimes abroad is affecting those who are most oppressed and exploited in France itself, especially immigrants and their children, who, because of France's historical colonies and sphere of influence, happen to be largely from Muslim backgrounds.
This is what President Francois Hollande was referring to when he warned, in defending the ban, "the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be imported". This is also the meaning behind Prime Minister Manuel Valls' statement justifying the ban as a measure against what he called anti-Semitism "spreading on the Internet, on social media, in our working class areas, among young people who are often directionless, who have no awareness of history, who hide their hatred of Jews behind a mask of anti-Zionism and behind the hatred of the Israeli state".
For a long time in France, like in many countries and including much of the Arab world, efforts to gather people in support of the Palestinians have not had much success, reflecting the decline in hopes of radical change among Palestinians and other Arabs in this country (and globally), as well as more generally in France. But over the past two weeks, night after night of television news showing Israeli explosives killing children in Gaza once again brought people into the streets in growing numbers, creating a worrisome situation for the French government.
France has a well-oiled political set-up in which reformist parties can often lead public outrage into acceptable channels. Some kinds of big demonstrations against the massacre in Gaza have been and will probably be allowed, but the plans for this protest in Barbes threatened to be what the government considered unacceptable and ended up trying to smash an uncontrollable big gathering of youth from immigrant backgrounds and public housing, some secondary and university students and young professionals, as well as low-wage workers and unemployed – and at least as many young women as men.
Some people who had rarely or never taken part in any kind of political demonstration felt that this time they had to be there because they felt a connection between their oppression and the oppression of the Palestinians. The actions of the French government itself worked to bring that out. The ban and the threat of brutality helped turn a slogan once chanted almost routinely at demonstrations into an accurate, if poetic, description of the way many people felt about their own situation and what they wanted to do about it: "We are all Palestinians", in some way fighting the same fight against the same enemies.
While there is plenty of anti-Semitism in France, including among youth of all nationalities, and Jews, Jewish-owned stores and synagogues are sometimes targeted, that was not what this demonstration was about. Its flag was the flag of Palestine, an oppressed nation, and its target Israel and the French government. It was "anti-Semitic" only to those who, like the French Prime Minister, argue that there is no legitimate reason to oppose what Israel is doing to the Palestinians. It was not like the Catholic fundamentalist, homophobic, proudly patriarchal and often anti-republic (in both the forms of fascism and monarchism) – and, by the way, anti-Semitic – massive demonstrations that the "Socialist" president of the French Republic has found much less disturbing than these youth seeking justice.
If the majority of the participants in this banned protest were from an Islamic background, that is certainly not because others were excluded – those who came were welcomed. It was the Jewish Defence League (on their Web site) and not the pro-Palestinians who threatened violence against the small groups in this march who carried banners reading, "Jews for Justice for Palestine". The problem is not that some people feel a special connection with Palestine but that not enough other people recognize the justice of the Palestinian cause, at least not enough to risk what these youth did.
But Islam is exerting a growing attraction among them, and one factor in that is the French state's own policies and propaganda.
It is telling that some reactionary commentators are referring to France's 2005 ghetto youth rebellion as a "French Intifada" and calling for the French government to treat second and third-generation immigrant youth the way Israel treats Palestinians, as an alien element to be walled off and gotten rid of. Yet in that rebellion religion did not play the role that it does among immigrant youth today.
Despite the overwhelming secular character of the 19 July protest, when some people began to chant "Allahu Akbar" (God is great), it was taken up widely. A few people carried Turkish flags to associate support for Palestine with that country's reactionary Islamist governing party. And, like the Islamists, the shamefully few self-defined leftists who participated had nothing better to offer than tailing after Hamas, an organization that was born and still lives for the goal of religious rule and not the liberation of any people.
Some Salafist women university students proclaimed, "We're here to say to Palestine that we have awakened for you." In the face of the last few weeks' events, far too many people are still asleep. But being pulled into religion is not becoming awake.
The fact that these young women and many other youth have adopted Islamic fundamentalism means that they have rejected French oppression and some aspects of the French slave mentality only to enslave themselves to another oppressive world outlook, that of religion. Their hope that Islam offers a way out of oppression is an illusion.
Even before Israel existed French governments tried to cast their colonial mission as a fight to civilize Islamic populations. But the vilification of Islamic populations as a weapon in the hands of the French imperialist ruling class in its moves abroad and at home is only one side of the question. The other side is what it will take for more people to awaken from feeling they have to choose between the imperialist republic and the Islamic "community of the faithful" whose promises are no less a lie.