Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

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

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero


3