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In late 1991, after violent riots between youths and police scarred the suburbs of Lyon, Alain Touraine, the French sociologist, predicted: “It will only be a few years before we face the kind of massive urban explosion the Americans have experienced.” The 11 nights of consecutive violence following the deaths of two young Muslim men of African descent in a Paris suburb show that Touraine’s dark vision of a ghettoised, post-colonial France is now upon us.
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 its inhabitants are under 20, unemployment is above 40% 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 common in suburban France over the past two decades. Led mainly by young French citizens born into first and second generation immigrant communities from France’s former colonies in north Africa, these cycles of violence are almost always sparked by the deaths of young black men at the hands of the police, and then inflamed by a contemptuous government response.
Four days after the deaths in Clichy-sous-Bois, just as community leaders were beginning to calm the situation, the security forces reignited the fire by emptying teargas canisters inside a mosque. The official reason for the police action: a badly parked car in front of it. The government refuses to offer any apology to the Muslim community.
But the spread of civil unrest to other poor suburbs across France is unprecedented. For Laurent Levy, an anti-racist campaigner, 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, what is surprising is not that the cars are burning but that there are so few uprisings,” he argues.
Police violence and racism are major factors. In April, an Amnesty International report criticised the “generalised impunity” with which the French police operated when it came to violent treatment of young men from African backgrounds during identity checks.
But the reason for the extent and intensity of the current riots is the provocative behaviour of the interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy. He called rioters “vermin”, blamed “agents provocateurs” for manipulating “scum” and said the suburbs needed “to be cleaned out with Karsher” (a brand of industrial cleaner used to clean the mud off tractors). Sarkozy’s grandstanding on law and order is a deliberate strategy designed to flatter the French far right electorate in the context of his rivalry with the prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, for the 2007 presidency.
How can France get out of this political race to the bottom? It would obviously help for ministers to stop talking about the suburbs as dens of “scum” and for Sarkozy to be removed: the falsehoods he spread about the events surrounding the two deaths and his deployment of a massively disproportionate police presence in the first days of the riots have again shown his unfitness for office.
A simple gesture of regret could go a long way towards defusing the tensions for now. The morning after the gassing of the mosque, a young Muslim woman summed up a widespread feeling: “We just want them to stop lying, to admit they’ve done it and to apologise.” It might not seem much, but in today’s France it would require a deep political transformation and the recognition of these eternal “immigrants” as full and equal citizens of the republic.
NAIMA BOUTELDJA is a French journalist and researcher for the Transnational Institute