'We Will Not Be Thrown Away!'
Even a Sorbonne degree is no protection from the relentless "daily racism" that many feel permeates French society. Mohammed Konate, a Sorbonne law student who was born in Ivory Coast, says the color of his skin would put him at the back of the queue for jobs. Others say CVs are thrown in the bin if they come from troubled banlieues. Yamina, a Moroccan law student at another prestigious Paris faculty, says: "A nonwhite woman? From the banlieu? In a head scarf? I don't think the odds are stacked in my favor, do you?"
In 1968 police brutality played a major role in transforming what started as spleen-venting by a few hundred privileged but radical students into a mass movement that threatened to turn French society on its head. Last autumn the riots in the suburbs were sparked by the deaths of two teenagers who were electrocuted after running from police and hiding in an electrical substation. At a March 28 demonstration, new banners appeared, demanding Justice for Cyril Ferez, a 39-year-old trade unionist lying in a coma since he was struck, according to witnesses, by riot police after a Paris protest on March 18. Pictures of him joshing with the riot police one minute and lying unconscious on the ground the next have stirred protesters.
There is a feeling that France is dancing on a volcano: that if there is a death, if someone is martyred in the protests, things could really erupt. Graffiti on the boulevards of Montparnasse, not far from the huge steel barrier the army erected to seal off the Sorbonne, says One Cop, One Bullet. Sarkozy has warned that the protests could light the kindling of unrest among violent kids from the suburbs. He has poured riot police into the center of Paris, where students have also attacked police, telling his officers to arrest as many people as possible, but warning they will be "judged on their cool." He has broken with his potential presidential rival, de Villepin, in preaching compromise and dialogue, but the young protesters have so far judged him only on the police. The multiracial groups of teenagers from the suburbs who watched plainclothes police grabbing and frisking their counterparts in hooded tracksuits at the March 28 protest clenched their fists in silent rage. The spray paint on the walls of the Latin Quarter reads Put Sarkozy to the Wall.
Outside the metal fortress that surrounds the Sorbonne, where police riot vans still line the cobbled streets, Alexandre Duclos, a 25-year-old PhD student in philosophy, is on the twelfth day of a hunger strike as we go to press. He has tried student sit-ins and street protests; now he is taking a drastic measure against "the army's occupation" of the Sorbonne. "It's not the police--they do their work, they obey orders," he says. "The question is, Who is giving them those orders? This society is extremely fragile. When have you ever seen a sight like this? A Western European army taking over a university, shutting it down and sealing it off behind a steel wall? This movement isn't just about resistance to change and employment law. This society has failed."
The French postmodernist philosopher Jean Baudrillard has spent his life warning of the dangers of the "media simulated" reality we take for truth. But he saw last autumn's riots and the burning cars as "a sort of eternal flame, like that under the Arc de Triomphe, burning in honor of the Unknown Immigrant," an anger that won't go away. President Chirac may not have a plane waiting on the tarmac, as de Gaulle did to flee in 1968, but it remains to be seen whether his party can calm the storm.