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France: One Year After the Riots
Feature by Jim Wolfreys, November 2006
In the autumn of 2005 the suburbs of Paris burned with anger at racism and poverty. Soon that rage spread across France and led to the most prolonged rioting the country had ever seen. Jim Wolfreys returned to Paris to find out if anything has changed.
On Saturday 28 October around 1,000 people gathered in Clichy-sous-Bois, an impoverished north eastern suburb (banlieue) of Paris. They met to remember the two teenagers, Bouna Traoré and Zyed Benna, who were electrocuted last year as they hid from police after being chased as they made their way home from playing football. Their deaths, and the police's refusal to apologise, set in motion the most sustained period of rioting ever seen in France. Nearly 300 areas were affected by the furious outpouring of frustration generated by years of poverty without respite and the daily humiliations meted out by the police to the poorest sections of society. In the space of three weeks 10,000 vehicles were destroyed, nearly 5,000 arrests made and around £170 million worth of damage done to buildings.
A solemn march left the town hall and went to the electricity sub-station where the boys died, returning to Clichy for a short and tearful series of speeches. I spoke to people there and in the neighbouring towns of the Seine-Saint-Denis area about their experiences over the past year. The role of the media was bitterly condemned by almost everyone we met. On the day of the march Sami told us, "People are wary of journalists because we say something to them and they turn it round to say the opposite. People are wary of everything. I was in the same class as Zyed. Today's been hard for us all. And the police still won't take responsibility for it."
Jamel, from the Bosquets area of the town, agreed. "On the news we keep hearing that the banlieue is going to burn again. But what's in our heads is that it's a year since they died. They were scared and ran away from the police and hid and got burnt to death. And that sort of thing could happen to any kid round here today. That's the kind of pressure we live under." Hassan told us he had come to the march from a neighbouring town "to show solidarity and to show the government - that's watching us - that we're still doing something, that we're here, we exist". According to Sami, "They're waiting for it all to kick off again. But we're not going to do anything. We've marched today and there's no use smashing up cars now."
Their contempt for the media is easy to understand, given the way it continues to dismiss banlieue youth as hoodlums. Diverting attention in this way from the social roots of the riots has been a government obsession. According to interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy, "The primary cause of despair in the banlieues is drug trafficking, gang law, the dictatorship of fear and the abdication of the Republic." The solution? Tougher policing "to eradicate the gangrene".
Nevertheless, last autumn's events put the government on the defensive. It had to reverse the cuts it had made in grants to local community organisations and to promise more investment for the banlieues. It was then forced to withdraw a measure requiring schools to teach children about the positive aspects of French colonialism. By taking on the police, the banlieue youth were also issuing a direct and powerful challenge to a cornerstone of government policy - its repressive line on law and order, epitomised by Sarkozy's efforts to pose as France's "top cop". The urban uprising was to make him much more vulnerable to criticism when the next wave of protests hit France.
If repression is one side of the government's neoliberal agenda, the other is the removal of constraints on the free market. After last autumn's uprising the government attempted to regain the initiative by introducing the CPE, a plan to casualise youth labour, which it cynically dressed up as a measure to ease unemployment in the banlieues. This was met with nationwide protests. Schools and universities were blockaded and millions of people, including youth from the banlieues, took part in some of the biggest demonstrations ever held in France.
There is another reason, then, why the government has been so keen to stigmatise banlieue youth as yobs. It is terrified of the prospect of them making common cause with students and workers. When students occupied the Sorbonne university in March, some calling on banlieue youth to come and join them, Sarkozy ordered riot police to intervene. Asked to explain his actions, he responded, "What should we have done? Waited for hundreds more to join them? We had to make sure there were no crossovers."
Most of the people I spoke to had been part of the movement against the CPE. In Clichy, Momo and Patrick told me, "The school down the road was blockaded. We went into Paris for the anti-CPE demonstrations - there was a good atmosphere. It was about people's futures." Yousef's school in nearby Aulnay-sous-Bois was on strike for several weeks during the anti-CPE protests. "School students got down there at eight in the morning and put barriers in front of the doors to stop people getting in. Then everyone went and demonstrated with their teachers."
The media placed great emphasis on the confrontations that took place on many of the demonstrations. In some cases groups of youths got involved in skirmishes with the marchers, attempting to steal from them and occasionally attacking them. Momo and Patrick were in no doubt that such incidents were a feature of the protests. But they argued that something else was at stake in the way the media dealt with the question. "They don't mind a silent march like today," argued Momo, "but the authorities don't want people like us to demonstrate."
Joss had come to a similar conclusion. "My school was blockaded and then we all went into Paris to demonstrate but every time it was the same. We got followed by plain clothes police and it ended up in a riot." "We can't even demonstrate," Momo continued. "And then they say, 'Ah, France, France.' But look at France. Every year the gays organise a demonstration, Gay Pride. They've got the right to a demonstration, but the people from the banlieue don't. Why?"
The political isolation of those living in the banlieue made it easier for the government to survive the humiliation it suffered at the hands of the anti-CPE movement in April. In the wake of this crushing defeat, the International Herald Tribune noted that it took just one comment by Nicolas Sarkozy "to shift the national focus from the hazardous terrain of labour market reform" onto immigration. Announcing new restrictions on immigration rights, he called on anybody who felt uncomfortable in France "to leave the country if they don't like it".
Concern over the lack of political channels open to those who live in the banlieues, expressed by many of the people we spoke to, is a central part of the debate that has taken place in these areas since the riots. Confronted with political isolation and a ferocious media backlash, many have drawn the conclusion that rioting simply plays into the enemy's hands. Some of the local community organisations, or associations, and "grands frères" ("older brothers"), who play a mentoring or mediating role in the banlieues, have therefore stressed the need to counterpose "positive" images of the banlieues to those linked with last year's uprising.
Sometimes this view overlaps with the attempts of local Communist and Socialist politicians to encourage local youth to identify with state institutions. At the end of Saturday's march, for example, the Socialist mayor contrasted last year's images of burnt out cars with the pictures of the area taken by "great international photographers" that were displayed on the side of a block of flats: "This is the image that we would like France, the world, to retain of Clichy."
I asked Sami and Joss what they thought of his remarks about the need to trust in the justice system and the French Republic. "He doesn't believe it himself," argued Joss. "He's saying that because he doesn't want it to turn into a riot like last year." Many felt there were more pressing concerns to be addressed. In the months since the riots, according to Jamel, "Nothing has changed for us. Since I've lived here, I've never seen any children's games - no roundabouts or anything. No gymnasium or swimming pool. We need real things here. Not fake stuff that's just about image." On the march Stéphanie's view of the past year was similar: "There have been promises and projects but in terms of the area things are the same as a year ago. Apart from the associations which have tried to give hope to people, there's been nothing."
It was clear that the "grands frères" had played an important role towards the end of last year's uprising. In Aulnay, Mamadou told us that after three weeks of rioting "grands frères" from Clichy came over to urge people to calm things down. Momo said the same thing had happened in Clichy itself. After the riots, he and his friend Patrick had become involved in activities organised by the associations. But not everyone held a positive view of the associations. According to Denis in Aulnay, "They're funded by the state and the state runs them. The associations go with the flow. We don't want the state here."
Laurent Sorel, a member of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) in Paris, spoke to us about the relationship between the state, the associations and banlieue youth. "The state and the mainstream left have consistently tried to reappropriate movements of banlieue youth. The Socialist Party set up SOS Racisme in the 1980s, for example, and managed to attract a certain number of young people who had emerged politically from the banlieues.
"Then there are the 'grands frères', people with a good knowledge of their area who emerge with their own political outlook. Often the state will try to employ them to pursue its social agenda. When there are problems they're used as pacifiers, to calm things down, engage in discussion and act as a relay.
"Not all the associations are like this. Some refuse to play the state's game but the difficulty is that there are a certain number of young people who, through their political or associative engagement, manage to escape poverty and can be tempted by a strategy of individual success. So I think this is why there's a wariness on the part of some young people, or an ambivalent attitude at least, because they remember the betrayals and the fact that the associations aren't necessarily always on their side."
Patrick summed up the year since the riots as, "Promises, promises. And lies too. Because that's the French state. That's France - there's no liberty, equality, fraternity. I don't see any of that. Most of them are racists - that's how it feels." In Aulnay, Mahmoud told us, "Here there's too much discrimination. Too many differences between the whites and other skin colours." His friend Yousef agreed: "We can never be assimilated into the Republic, because we'll always have our origins. Maybe our children will, or maybe the generation after that." Mamadou summed it up: "If your name's not Damien you don't get work. If your name's Mamadou you're only good for life on the estate."
Denis is from Africa. "They say we're foreigners in their country, but in our country they make themselves at home. Who does our wealth belong to there? Them. How will things change here? It's simple - work. There are not enough jobs. I've been unemployed for three to four years. Is that what globalisation means? Rubbish hours, rubbish pay - peanuts. I'm from Brazzaville in the Congo. Look at everything they steal from us - Elf, Total, Nasa. And what have I got here? Where I'm from they take everything and I've got what? Nothing. Over there they're fucking me over, so I'm going to fuck them over now I'm here."
The obsession with crime in mainstream politics has prevented a national debate on racism from taking place. After the riots a columnist in the moderate Le Monde newspaper underlined the extent of the establishment's right wing drift on the question by adopting Sarkozy's line, "To understand is already to excuse."
The more reactionary elements of the Republican centre-left went even further. Alain Finkielkraut, a veteran of countless campaigns against the hijab in schools, complained that "in France, we'd like to reduce the riots to their social aspect... The problem is that most of these youths are black or Arab and identify with Islam... this is clearly a revolt of an ethnico-religious nature." In the same vein the head of one of France's police unions wrote to Sarkozy last month, complaining of a "permanent Intifada" in the banlieues: "We are in a state of civil war, orchestrated by radical Islamists."
The racist stereotyping whipped up by the political establishment and the media has been rebutted from an unlikely source. A leaked secret service report from November 2005 characterised the riots as "a form of non-organised urban insurrection", a view backed up by magistrates across the country who revealed that the overwhelming majority of those arrested in the riots were not petty criminals, as the government liked to claim, but first offenders.
The uprising, the secret service report went on, was "a popular revolt of the estates, without leaders and without a programme", carried out by youths "with a strong sense of identity which is not based solely on their ethnic or geographic origin, but on their social condition of being excluded from French society". Furthermore, the state's preoccupation with Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism meant that it had "neglected the complex problem of the banlieues". Even as Sarkozy continued to denounce the "extremists" behind the riots, the heads of both branches of the secret service units under his jurisdiction went on record to assert that "the part played by Islamic fundamentalists in the violence is nil".
Three days before this year's march in Clichy one of the groups that organised it presented a Book of Grievances to the French parliament. The Association for Liberty Equality Fraternity Together United (AC LE FEU, or No More Fire), collected 20,000 entries for it from all over France. Its concerns centred on issues like housing, racism and unemployment, which in some banlieue areas is as high as 25 percent. But the preoccupations of the political mainstream lie elsewhere.
The likely Socialist Party candidate in next year's presidential election, Ségolène Royal, has promised to take an even firmer line on law and order than Sarkozy, "to put a stop to the massive generation of delinquency". Her solutions? Parenting classes, community policing and military training - "Getting rid of national service", she argues, "was a mistake."
But after all the talk of the role of gangs in the banlieue, it's clear that there is one major organised gang that continues to exert a negative influence on peoples' lives there - the police. During last year's riots it mobilised 11,500 people on a daily basis, and had seven helicopters at its disposal. Joss explained how the police relate to local youth. "It's always the same. They send two or three cars round here every night. It starts with insults, or they try to hurt you. They want to show they're stronger than you or something like that - that they make the rules. They don't understand anything. They don't think. When they do their identity checks, you're up against a wall and as soon as you say anything, they slap you and everything. They don't show that on the telly."
Momo agreed. "They come round here sometimes when they're drunk. They come looking for confrontation. They come and call us over, drunk. They do their identity checks, when they know perfectly well who we are. 'What is it beur?' (slang for Arab). 'Beur? Beur? Beur? What's up, beur?' They try to stare us out, to provoke us. They like it when we get annoyed. They like it. That's all they're waiting for." For Denis, from neighbouring Aulnay-sous-Bois, "The police get worse and worse. Repression, repression, repression. That's why people threw steel balls at them and smashed everything up. They fought force with force."
Last year's uprising was part of a much broader movement against neoliberalism that has been gathering strength for the past decade. But the legacy of decades of racism means that the channels open to banlieue youth, through which their anger can be expressed and answers found to their problems, are very limited. This came across very strongly in our discussions last month.
"When it comes to solutions for young people - training, jobs - we don't get any of that," said Patrick. "And it's not just us. There are hundreds of people like that here. We want to do something but there aren't the means. In these areas, in the banlieue towns, we need more resources. But before that they should listen to what we have to say. They should listen to us explain what we need." Denis was expecting nothing from any political party. "After Sarkozy we'll have someone else like him. Left or right it's the same. We have to get organised ourselves. We can't wait for others to do anything for us. It's down to us to take care of things."
I asked Laurent from the LCR what kind of intervention was being organised by revolutionaries in the banlieue. "The main problem for activists of the radical left is their isolation from the associations of the youth in these areas," he argued. "When it comes to the LCR, our position during the riots can be criticised, but although we were behind the game, we didn't have the same position as Lutte Ouvrière or the Communist Party. We didn't lump the police and the youth together but there was a problem of clarity.
"There is a fundamental problem which concerns the way we integrate specific movements based on identity politics into a global logic of emancipation. Sometimes there's a tendency to see these movements as elements that divide the working class. In fact these movements emerge from genuine divisions within the class. It's by working alongside them that social issues, questions of class struggle, can be raised. But this means being able to listen to people and to work out where their ideas are in order to see what it's possible to achieve with them."
The scale of the crisis in French society, and the incapacity of mainstream parties to offer solutions that go beyond the laws of the market - enforced where necessary by repression - provides its own impetus for unity. But this process is not linear. The links between the two great movements of last year, the urban uprising of the autumn and the anti-CPE protests of the spring, were not straightforward.
Nor are the links between the population of the banlieues and other oppressed groups. But the involvement of banlieue youth in the spring movement did offer real hope that those bearing the brunt of the government's neoliberal agenda might find a way out of their political isolation.
Since the spring the prospect of a unity candidate of the radical left, offering an alternative to the unfettered market in next year's presidential elections, has remained alive - but only just. The LCR continues to work with the Communist Party and the PRS (from the left of the Socialist Party), together with the various grassroots associations of the "social movement", in the unity committees set up during the successful campaign against the EU constitution last year. The LCR's Olivier Besancenot has declared himself a candidate for the presidency, but has said he will withdraw if agreement on a unity candidate can be reached.
Laurent talked about the kind of problems those seeking unity face. "When we've had local discussions over a unity programme it has become clear that on the question of the banlieues there is a block, composed of the Communists and the PRS, which has a fairly problematic position. One conclusion drawn by the Communists, for example, is that we need more police in the banlieues, although they think that they should act in a different way.
"They argue that when people worry about law and order because cars are getting burnt it's not enough to say it's down to underlying problems like social conditions or unemployment or neoliberal policies. People want immediate solutions, they argue. And so politically, when it comes to the 'programme' such as it exists in the committees, the question of the banlieues is not addressed. This means that the political battle for unity is going to be a long-term one."
Nowhere in France can there be a more politicised population than in the banlieues that surround the country's cities. Yet nowhere can there be a population that is less politically organised. Nowhere are people forced to endure such a shocking abdication of the state's responsibilities. Yet nowhere are people confronted so brutally with its capacity for repression. But in spite of their political isolation and the constant racist stigmatising to which they are subjected, the defiance and fundamental class solidarity of those who led the fightback against France's top cop and his acolytes remain impressive.
As Marco put it after the march in Clichy, "I'd rather live in the banlieue than in the countryside. In the banlieue we're all in solidarity with each other. Two people are dead - in the countryside it would be on to the next day. There they wouldn't have done what we did today.
"One year later we're all here again and in ten years we'll still remember. I'm proud of that." The rage which fuelled the riots still exists. Some have become more cynical in their aftermath and others identify with the pacifying role played by some of the associations. But many are clearly looking for different ways to express their anger.
"The left is not in a static position as far as the banlieue is concerned," argues Laurent. "The fact that, on top of last year's events there, we've had two major movements of school students in the past two years means that politicisation is taking place among young people everywhere. Now it's a question of building long-term political relationships with those who live in these areas."
Jim Wolfreys is co-author with Peter Fysh of The Politics of Racism in France, published by Palgrave
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