Paris is burning

In 1991, after violent riots between youths and police scarred the suburbs of Lyon, French sociologist Alain Tourraine predicted that 'it will only be a few years before we face the kind of massive urban explosion of the American experience'. The 12 nights of consecutive violence following the deaths of two young Muslim men of African descent in a Paris suburb indicate that Tourraine's dark vision of a ghettoised, post-colonial France is now upon us.

November 1, 2005
5 min read

Clichy-sous-Bois, the impoverished and segregated north eastern suburb of Paris where the two men lived and where the violent reaction to their deaths began, was a ticking bomb for the kind of dramatic social upheaval we are currently witnessing. Half of its inhabitants are under 20, unemployment is above 40 per cent, and identity checks and police harassment are a daily experience.

In this sense, the riots are merely a fresh wave of the violence that has become commonplace in suburban France over the past two decades. Led mainly by young French citizens born into first and second generation immigrant communities from the country’s former colonies in North Africa, these cycles are almost always sparked by the deaths of young black men at the hands of the police (whether through direct or indirect involvement), and then inflamed by the scornful response by the government.

The familiar pattern is now being repeated. Contrary to the first public statements of French interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, the two French teenagers of Malian and Tunisian backgrounds who died on 27 October had not been fleeing the scene of a burglary. They were instead part of a larger group of youths who had just finished playing football and were trying to avoid the now constant police identity checks targeted on black teenagers as they rushed home to break the Ramadan fast. ‘We didn’t want to spend an hour at the police station,’ explained one 16 year old who was with the teenagers killed. ‘If you don’t have your ID papers they’ll pick you up and won’t listen to any excuses.’ Tragically, the electrical relay substation in which the teenagers took refuge from the police ended up taking their lives.

Four days after the deaths, and just as community leaders were beginning to calm the situation, the security forces reignited the fire by emptying tear gas canisters inside a local Mosque where hundreds of worshippers had gathered for the ‘night of Destiny’ – a particularly holy night of Ramadan. The official reason for the police action: a badly parked car in front of the Mosque. Having first denied the incident took place, the government then implicitly admitted it, but refused to take any responsibility and still refuses to apologise to the Muslim community. This cued an escalation in rioting.

But the growing spread of civil unrest to other poor suburbs across France – Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse, Rennes, Nantes and other cities – is unprecedented. For Laurent Levy, a founding member of the Movement of the Indigenous of the Republic, a network which campaigns against the ‘oppression and discrimination produced by the post-colonial [French] Republic’, the explosion is no surprise. ‘When large sections of the population are denied any kind of respect, the right to work, the right to decent accommodation, and often the right to even access clubs and cafés, then what is surprising is not that the cars are burning but that there are so few uprisings of this nature,’ he argues.

Police racism and impunity are major factors. A 2004 report from the National Commission of Security Deontology revealed a massive 38 per cent increase in police violence in France, a third of which had a racist motive. In April 2005, an Amnesty International report criticised the ‘generalised impunity’ with which France’s police force operates, specifically in response to the violent treatment of young men from African backgrounds during identity controls.

But the level and intensity of the riots stems ultimately from the openly provocative public behaviour of French Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy, who is renowned for routinely dismissing the inhabitants of les banlieues as ‘yobs’, ‘fundamentalists’ and ‘riff-raff’. His response to the troubles has been to step up this rhetoric, calling rioters ‘vermin’ (racailles) and blaming ‘agents provocateurs’ for manipulating the suburban ‘scum’. His statement that the suburbs need ‘to be cleaned out with Karsher’ (a brand of industrial cleaner used to clean the mud off tractors) has poured oil onto the fire.

Sarkozy’s political one-upmanship on law and order is a deliberate strategy designed to flatter the French far right electorate. It should be viewed in the context of his fierce rivalry with French prime minister, Dominique De Villepin, for the 2007 Presidency. In reality, little separates the two men politically but the fight for the Elysée seems to have left them fiddling and jostling for position whilst Paris burned.

There is no easy answer as to how France can escape this political race to the bottom. In the short term, the government must cease speaking about the suburbs as dens of ‘scum’ that need to be ‘cleansed’. Sarkozy’s lies about the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the two boys, and his provocative deployment of a massively disproportionate police presence in the first days of the riots, have shown once again that he is unfit for public office. But the riots are ultimately not about two deaths or government arrogance. The underlying causes are decades of racist segregation, impoverishment, police brutality and disrespect, all now melding together into a fatal poison.

Incredibly, a simple gesture of regret could go a long way towards defusing the immediate tensions. At a press conference organised the morning after the gassing of the mosque, a young Muslim girl summed up a widespread feeling: ‘We just want them to stop lying, to admit that they’ve done it and to apologise. That’s the only thing that we are asking them to do’. It might not seem much, but in today’s France it would require a deep political and ideological transformation with nothing short of the recognition of these eternal ‘immigrants’ as full and equal citizens of the Republic.

An edited version of this article was first published in The Guardian on 8 October 2005

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