When the “Scum” From the Paris Suburbs Built Picket Lines

For decades, establishment French politicians have painted youths from Paris’s majority-minority suburbs as antisocial “scum.” But the generation of the banlieue revolts are now of working age — and they’ve been at the forefront of the strike to defend France’s pension system.

On 17 February, the draft law on pensions was presented to the National Assembly. On this day, many sectors demonstrated for the withdrawal of the reform in Paris, France, on February 17, 2020. Jerome Gilles / NurPhoto via Getty

The Belliard bus depot makes up a gigantic set of buildings in Paris’s 18th arrondissement, occupying a long segment of Rue Belliard on the border between Montmartre and the northern banlieues. Behind the garage, you can make out the peak of the Sacré-Cœur at the top of the hill, but from outside the front gates, you see the tramlines that connect the portes de Paris — the city’s many entry points.

Belliard is one of twenty-five depots belonging to the Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens (RATP), the Paris transit authority. In France’s longest strike since 1968, over December and January, RATP’s workers mounted more than fifty consecutive days of strike action in order to block the Macron government’s counterreform of the pension system.

Indeed, the Long March of protest that paralyzed the French capital for almost two months — refusing even calls for a Christmas truce — was essentially led by workers from the RATP and the rail workers of the SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français). Although these latter were already veterans of a tough strike battle in 2018, in the defeated fight against rail privatization, they were again active in this latest winter of struggle. But RATP drivers in particular — meaning, in order of wages from bottom to top, bus drivers, tramway drivers, metro drivers, and city express train drivers — have been at the forefront of the action.

Doubtless, the metro drivers’ literally underground action, a strike beneath the streets of Paris, actually did the most to paralyze the capital’s public transportation system. Yet the bus drivers’ strike at ground level has been by far the most visible mobilization, thanks to their intensive picketing. Indeed, while the subway stations were shut down and metro workers met in near-invisible underground general assemblies, the bus depots were instead the focus of carnivalesque picket lines.

Fellow Strikers

At Belliard, the picket line was, for several weeks, an unmissable meeting place for the strikers — almost all of whom are men — and their supporters. It has been a site of celebration as well as struggle. When the party began around 4:30 each morning, depot management had its own discreet presence at the entry, as did the police, who were demonstrably less discreet. “They never miss it,” laughs Faouzi. “You could say they’ve become part of the strike, too.”

A keffiyeh around his neck and an RATP beanie pulled tightly over his head, Faouzi is part of the hard core of strikers at Belliard, thirty-odd faithful who attended the picket every day until the rolling strike came to a halt on January 24. A bus maintenance worker and a member of the CGT union (Confédération générale du travail), Faouzi has been working at the RATP for twelve years, but this is his first strike. He’s not the only one who’s discovered the surprising joys of industrial action through this memorable battle. For in this strike, a new generation of combative and courageous workers has taken center stage.

They are more or less young (but still rarely much over forty), what the press call “of immigrant background,” and from the majority-minority banlieue suburbs. Their tricolor is black, blanc, beur (black, white, Arab) — like the French football team that won the World Cup in 1998. They admit they’d never really thought about the class struggle before, though, in reality, they’ve always been fighting it, day after day.

Christophe, thirty-seven, had jobs all over the place before he ended up at the RATP eight years ago. He’s been an apprentice baker, a postman, a builder, and a warehouse clerk at a Carrefour supermarket. Each time he left his job — or his job left him — it was because he couldn’t accept being pushed around. He joined the strike in pretty much the same spirit, “because with the pensions, again, things went too far.” But when experienced activists laud the strikers for their political audacity, he doesn’t know whether he ought to take it as a compliment: “When people tell me I’m a fighter,” he explains, “or that we’re waging a historic battle, I don’t know what to say. I have the feeling it’s too much. We’re just on strike. But if they say so, perhaps it’s true,” he grins.

But Christophe himself recognizes that “just” being on strike has changed everything. First of all, the relationship between colleagues who had barely known each other — but now identify with each other as fellow strikers.

Picket and Party

Close to 1,150 people work at the Belliard depot. Among the drivers, strike numbers remained steady around 50–60 percent over December–January, with extraordinary peaks of 70–80 percent. Even workers who weren’t on strike for various reasons generally expressed their solidarity with their colleagues. Given the constant presence of the police — invited there by management —blockades of the depot didn’t last long. Indeed, the “forces of order” had no hesitation in using truncheons and tear gas to repress any attempt at blockades, at Belliard as elsewhere. But each strike morning, at most, half of the 230 buses left the depot — and often less.

More than an outright barrier, the Belliard picket has been a meeting point for the strikers and their supporters. These latter, a regular presence at the depot gates, have included students, activists, teachers on strike, and women in yellow vests — as well as more unexpected dawn adventurers. At the depot entrance, the same ritual has been observed each strike day without variation. First came the brazier fire, which had to be lit and kept alive — and shielded from police also trying to use it to heat themselves up. Then came the megaphone calls to non-strikers to help the strike fund (an appeal that many of them have responded to generously). And so, too, the table set up with juice and croissants.

From 8:00 — when the bus traffic coming out of the depot wound down, the police vans left, and management headed back to the office — the mood suddenly became more relaxed, indeed festive. The music was turned up, a few passersby came over to the braziers to say hello, and cars honked their horns in front of the depot. Motorists stopped, raising a clenched fist, to offer the strikers a word of encouragement; sanitation workers occasionally left out wooden pallets for the picket.

Then it was time for the general assembly, which voted each day to continue the strike — and discussed the next actions. Often a barbecue was set up around 11:00, before they set off as a group for the demo. The meal was always inclusive — there were halal and vegetarian options, with or without alcohol — and it was time to start shaking the collection tin again. Some had a real talent for this job, but others hated having to do it.

The days were pretty long, but the strike didn’t tire workers out, or at least it was tiring in a different way than their jobs. Indeed, going back to work at the end of January— at the same time as that month’s paychecks, sometimes for less than €5, started coming in — was harder for many strikers than keeping up the picket had been.

Working-Class “Scum”

For most first-time strikers, their passion for the struggle was directly proportionate to their sense that this was something new.

Walid is thirty-five years old and has three kids to look after. They were the reason he decided to try his luck at the RATP, after various other jobs. He’s only recently discovered the picket line: “Till recently,” he explains, “I’d been on demos for Palestine, like for Gaza in 2009, and I demonstrated for Algeria last year. But never anything like this.”

Stéphane, a driver on the number 60 bus, says he’s never taken part in “this type of struggle.” “I was wary, even if I didn’t have anything against it as such. I’m Martiniquais, and I come from the banlieue. For me, this kind of thing was for whites.”

They were each new to the picket line. But it’s also true that already in the 1980s “immigrant workers” were the leading actors in important — and victorious — labor struggles, notably in the auto sector. Ever since the postwar period, production in the Paris region’s engineering plants has relied on workers hailing from abroad. After 1945, Algerians made up the greater part of the OS (assembly-line workers); in this period, before Algeria won its independence, they weren’t called “immigrants” but the “Muslim French from Algeria.” They provided the greater part of the workforce alongside hundreds of thousands of Moroccans, Spaniards, Portuguese, and sub-Saharan African workers. Together, they swelled the ranks of the working class on both the assembly lines and the picket lines, from Renault to Citroën and Simca.

Today’s strikers belong to a different generation. Often from working-class families that arrived in France in the 1960s or 1970s, they were born in this country and grew up in the suburbs. The France that took in their parents is now “their own,” even if the fact that they live on the wrong side of the tracks (or in this case, the Périphérique highway encircling Paris) has frequently exposed them to the other side of the coin: racism, social oppression, and police violence.

They were perhaps twenty years old at the time of the banlieue revolt in 2005. They may have been rather like the youngsters who then–interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy called the bande de racailles (“gang of scum”) who needed to be “blasted out” of the banlieue as if with a Kärcher jet spray. A few years later, these are the new “working-class scum” whose combativeness and insubordination has placed them at the front and center of the strike.

New Solidarity

Defiance and distrust of traditional union mores was shared among most of the RATP strikers. This led them to organize their own strike committee — the Parisian RATP/SNCF Coordination — that gathered together workers across different unions and different professional branches, thus bypassing their official organizations’ leadership.

The main union at RATP is the UNSA (National Union of Autonomous Trade Unions), but its reputation has weakened in this mobilization, after the national leadership called for the strike to be suspended during the Christmas holidays. Echoing the wishes of rank-and-file workers, the transport branch didn’t respond to this call for a truce.

While many CGT reps have led the fight in the bus depots and now face disciplinary measures and firing threats, the other union in the front line of the bus strikers’ struggle is Rassemblement Syndical. Created just a couple of years ago, this young union has gained legitimacy among bus drivers because of its radical attitude — much in tune with the mood of the strikers. For the same reason, it has also earned management hostility.

Indeed, on the management side of things, imposing order again isn’t going to be easy. The “new working-class scum” is far from defenseless in the face of injustice. It has grown up in subjection to class and racial animus, it has experienced arbitrary treatment, and it has learned how to handle itself and how to do a lot without a lot of resources. “When you’re thirteen and you find out that, whatever you do, you’ll end up being beaten up by the pigs, that even if you’ve not done anything, you’re going to take a walloping, because that’s how things are, finally you know,” explains Khalid, thirty-two, who’s been a bus driver at Belliard for two years, “and wallahi, you’re no longer afraid.”

In fact, it’s no surprise that the alarm signal given by the gilets jaunes last year also attracted a lot of the strikers’ attention. “I saw what was going on in the street every Saturday, and I could barely believe it,” Amadou, twenty-eight, explains. “I thought that it was like back where we are in the banlieue. So, with my buddies, we decided we’d go along to lend a hand.” One year later, this solidarity has been returned by the yellow vests, who strongly backed the strike — and supported the strikers on the picket lines.

Bad Guys, Good Habits

The RATP tried to discredit the strikers by all means at hand. They were punished for being cheeky, accused of speaking in coarse language, of insulting their non-striking coworkers, of not being well mannered. As Hani, a Rassemblement Syndical rep at Belliard puts it — referring to his union, often labeled the “Islamists’ trade union” — “when you need a reason to kill a dog, you say it has rabies.”

But for the moment, indeed rather surprisingly, the “radical Islam” card hasn’t been played against the strikers — yet. Or not openly, at least. Already, back in 2015, the RATP was accused of having become a “den of jihadists” after the revelations that Samy Amimour, one of the Bataclan killers, had driven the number 148 bus for almost two years.

Such a strategy of delegitimizing workers on the grounds that they are Muslims would be nothing new, as far as French political history is concerned. Take the auto sector strikes in the Paris region in the early 1980s, in which Muslim workers played a leading role. At the time, “Islamophobia” wasn’t labeled as such, but the Iranian Revolution was in the air — spreading a general Islamophobic panic.

Hence, Socialist prime minister Pierre Mauroy baptized the stoppages beginning in April 1982 the “ayatollahs’ strikes.” The strikes nonetheless spread from one suburb to the next: the five-week walkout at Citroën in Aulnay was followed by another five-week stoppage at Talbot in Poissy in June, then a three-week strike at Renault in Flins in January 1983. These were followed by further conflicts at Renault-Billancourt, Chausson-Gennevilliers, Unic-Fiat-Trappes, Citroën-Asnières, and Citroën-Nanterre.

The so-called fundamentalists who took part — immigrant workers from Algeria, Morocco, Mali, or Turkey — demanded, among other things, “respect for their dignity” in the workplace. As the 1982 Manifeste des OS de Citroën-Aulnay put it, “We simply want to have the same rights as all workers.” They demanded the right to be treated the same (“we want to vote [freely in union elections], like all the other workers here”) and to be different (“we want recognition of our right to different thought and religion, through the granting of a prayer room and suitable measures for Ramadan”).

For their part, today’s strikers are fighting for a pensions system based on intergenerational solidarity — one in which today’s workers fund payments for current recipients. This is what Macron and the bosses’ vulture-like campaign for “savings” is fighting to destroy.

While the strikers of the 1980s dreamed of “taking the union card of [their] own choosing,” rather than one imposed by their employers, the strikers of winter 2019–20 sometimes distanced themselves from union organizations. They stood for the principle that the “strike should be in the hands of the strikers.” It will be said — with good reason — that this new generation of strikers, for some notable because of their Muslim background, have been “radicalized.” But they’ve been “radicalized” by the strike, and this alone.

Changed Mood

Grève ou crève!” (“strike or snuff it!”), proclaimed some of the placards that streamed through Paris on December 5, the first glorious day of the long protest against Macron’s assault on pensions. According to CGT numbers, this first day of action saw 1.5 million people take to the streets across France. Yet, even in a dispute that lasted for more than ninety days — more than half of them marked by an intensive mobilization — the much-hoped-for general strike never did break out.

In Belliard, as in the other epicenters of the struggle, the banners that were hung in front of the depot entrance have now gone. So, too, have the braziers that blazed through the darkness of the Ville Lumière from 4:30 each morning for almost two months. The large majority of the bus depot workers (like those in other sectors) have gone back on shift, with the promise of catching their breath and getting a little money. This, all with a view to a possible rekindling of the flame of protest, if the strike is resumed in spring.

Since the end of January, the union confederations have proposed to channel the workers’ efforts into sporadic strike days, the most recent of which was called for February 20. The strikers are putting their faith in these weekly rendezvous, but more out of loyalty to their coworkers and for love of the pickets than out of any conviction in the effectiveness of the unions’ strategy.

Now, with the government’s drastic decision to use Article 49-3 of the Constitution to force the pension bill through parliament without a vote — and accelerate the implementation of the reform — the possibility that the protests will end in victory seems to have faded.

Everything Is Transformed

In this context, we might rightly ask what has become of the enthusiasm and the determination that characterized the strike since the outset — the mood that allowed it to continue for such a long time. But it’s not as if the spirit of grassroots revolt has evaporated.

Indeed, it’s a long time since a sense of indignation first took hold among what Sarkozy called the “scum” generation. No wonder that the strike gripped this generation in recent weeks, almost as a second nature — a habit they became addicted to. Everyone knows how hard it is to get rid of good habits. And it’s equally hard to foresee what will happen next.

In the eighteenth century, the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier spoke of the principle of mass conservation — for which nothing is created, nothing is destroyed, and everything is transformed. If we apply this same principle to social movements, there’s no limit on what we can expect. And there is good reason to bet that this new “working-class scum” will have a lasting effect on the future of the class struggle in France.