by Alana Lentin
It is November 2005 and the banlieues of France are returning to troubled calm. For almost three weeks young men of “immigrant origin”, mainly black African and (Arab) north African, have taken to the streets in the poor suburbs surrounding France’s cities and engaged in an orgy of destruction – burning cars, buses and schools; vandalising libraries, factories and churches; injuring police officers with shotguns and Molotov cocktails. It has felt as if an intifada of rage was exploding across France.
The trigger of the anger on the night of 27 October is by now both familiar and – at this distance – already remote: the death of two young men, electrocuted as they hid in a power substation in the Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-bois. The police have denied the claim of a third teenager who survived by running away that the three were hiding from pursuit by the police.
The effect of this denial, to reject any link between the youths’ death and the subsequent violence, encapsulates the problem that France now faces. Each institution and current of thought has reacted to the explosion by selecting evidence from it that confirms its view. The focus on buzzwords or received ideas – integration and social cohesion, the alleged antidotes to the problems of the “disadvantaged areas”; poverty, unemployment and “exclusion”; the need for people in the banlieues to acquire a sense of local pride; the “zero tolerance” security approach of interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy – is understandable, but also sidesteps the heart of the matter, which is what France itself has become.
A problem of politics
The most echoing silence of all – that of France’s leftwing, anti-racist and human-rights organisations – makes the point. Quick to descend to the streets to demonstrate in support of the Palestinian intifada or against the occupation of Iraq, they have been virtually numb in response to the homegrown “resistance movement” taking its first steps through the concrete jungles.
This lack of response, and the wider malaise it reflects, is rooted in the republican model of integration France has attempted to impose on its post-colonial immigrants. France’s political culture makes it impossible for anyone who does not completely embrace the values of the republic to access the public sphere: foreign residents were not even legally permitted to establish associations in France until 1981. The problem is that defenders of human rights and anti-racists tend to belong to that very French group of “intellectuals” whose lives in the affluent centres rarely coincide with those in the distant banlieues.
France’s public-education system instils a belief that the values of liberty, equality and fraternity are universally accessible through a principle of meritocracy. The logic is that those who fail to find a place in the system are professing anti-republican values such as the much dreaded communautarisme of which France’s religious Muslims (but not Christians or Jews) are accused.
The result is that both left and right in France are unable to see that the uprising of the suburban youth, haphazard and unpleasant as it may be, is not apolitical. Their action mirrors the uprisings that swept through the black ghettoes of the United States in the 1960s-70s and the Brixton, Toxteth and Handsworth urban areas of Britain in 1981. Then and now, the rioters were protesting against the heavy-handed policing of poor, non-white people in neighbourhoods that have become no-man’s-lands, severed from the centres of political, cultural and economic life.
The reason that the French political class finds it so difficult to propose solutions to the deep-seated problems unveiled by the rioters is that it is incapable of listening to their grievances: for it, they are either hooligans looking for a fight or militants in the clutches of radical Islam. The myths of secularism and the rule of law at the base of French political culture make it impossible to think politically about the actions of those who reject both.
Many young people of immigrant origin reject secularist ideology because it clearly discriminates against Islam specifically: culturally, the French state is still clearly Catholic. Neither does the rule of law command any respect when it is mainly experienced as oppressive policing based on a system of racial profiling that targets young black men and beurs. The rioting symbolically tramples on these lofty principles. The government’s response – including the imposition of a curfew and the invocation of a law passed during Algeria’s war of independence (1954-62) – suggests that in the eyes of the state these young men are indeed the “enemy within” they always suspected they were.
The malaise at the heart of the suburbs will not be rectified, as the schemes announced by president and government imply, only by the injection of more cash into the banlieues or even an acceptance of cultural diversity. France, like all multicultural post-colonial societies, must accept and redress the institutionalisation of racist discrimination within its political, social and economic structures.
A concessionary approach from the governing elite – including more community facilities, a promise of the right to vote in local elections, and help in finding jobs – will appease the rioters as little as a tough security one, for its impulse is to infantilise and depoliticise their actions. If anything is to change in France, the political message written in the ashes of the burnt-out cars must be listened to. It says that integration cannot be one-sided. Society must change in order to reflect the realities of the population as a whole, and not just the ideals artificially sustained by myths of the “universal brotherhood of man”. After all, that very ideal was the basis for a revolution in France. Maybe now it’s time for another!
First published: www.opendemocracy.net
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Alana Lentin was from 2003-05 a research fellow at the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford. She is the author of Racism and Anti-racism in Europe (University of Michigan Press, 2004). Her website is www.alanalentin.net