Fire in the underbelly

A fresh look at the French riots of October-November 2005

A wide variety of oversimplified and often misplaced commentary has been made on the riots in France during October-November 2005. This piece is a telegraphic attempt to raise the hidden underside that has seemingly been missed by many.

First of all, the suggestions by some right wing commentators (including in India) that pointed fingers at politico-religious actors (read Islamists), or that these were racial or ethnic riots, have missed the boat. Sure, the religio-political actors are very visible on the social landscape, but these riots were ‘secular’ in content. Similarly, the bogey of ethnic segregation in France, as compared to the rest of Europe, is skewed. There is high propensity for mixed marriages in France (nearly 30 per cent among the North Africans) compared to just two per cent (among the Turks) in Germany or a comparably low figure (among South Asians) in the UK, which is peddled as the big ‘multikulti’ mecca. Despite big hiccups, France today is a fairly diverse place with a vast mosaic of mixtures.

Secondly, the more discerning (but rushed) view of the progressively inclined that pins the blame solely on the French model of universalism/secularism (however flawed) for social exclusion, class inequality and poverty also seems out of sync. The conditions for these exist in far sharply unequal contexts across the world, this isn’t a French speciality.

Thirdly, the Left dreamer belief that the poor underclass had rebelled and that revolution was around the corner, and that this was akin to the events of May 1968, belongs in a fool’s paradise. Sorry, there were no masses as participants. It was a minority who engaged in violence vis-à-vis the police. This was no structured movement, and based on alternative ideas.

The key perception is that this was a spontaneous reaction of despair and frustration which then took its own turn against the political elites.


The events

On the night of October 27, in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, two panicked teenagers, acting on the presumption that the police were after them, took refuge in an electricity network transformer and were accidentally electrocuted. This was a case of deaths driven by fear of the police rather than of direct police brutality. As often happens, rumour and fear did the job here too. The death of the youngsters provoked huge outrage. Kids took to the streets in the night and engaged in arson attacks. The second element, like fuel to fire, was the reaction to the choice terms used by Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s minister of the interior (and of religion). ‘Sarko’, as he is commonly known, a smart alec self-propelling bully who’d give anything to get on TV, called the rioters ‘racaille’ or ‘scum’ and said that he’d clean them out with a high pressure water cleaner.

This provocative language unleashed fresh rage from the young kids. The cat and mouse game between the kids and the police, hit-and-run arson attacks, had begun.


The actors

The rioters (the ones who started it) were exclusively young males, mostly in their mid-teens. There were no leaders, no public statements, no words; just violence. CRS (Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité) paramilitary units were ranged opposite and the fire brigade doing its hazardous job with great difficulty.

Television helped markedly to spread the event. It had found high value programming content, other kids in other suburbs joined in solidarity thanks to TV, and this all-male night sport spread. It was a thing of contemporary culture: cell phones, SMS messaging, blogging and TV. These kids are fourth generation French and wear the baggy clothing of the American hip-hop era. Every night it would begin again, as local gangsters also piggybacked a ride. Lasting two weeks, some 10,000 cars belonging mostly to neighbours were burnt. Local public buses, warehouses, supermarkets, clinics, schools and police stations were main targets.


The backdrop of urban crisis and the culture of violence

The so-called difficult ‘cité’ neighbourhoods in France are more common in the suburbs than in the inner cities. They are the result of decades of a deliberate urban policy to concentrate working class families in well-defined districts away from city centres. The urban housing policy dates to the 1960s where low-income high-rise tower blocks emerged close to industrial areas. The life and world of suburbia remains socially distant from the bourgeois town centres. Many of these old tower block structures in the suburbs are now decrepit and have been left to decay, with the progressive retreat of the state from high maintenance costs. The social composition of the cité is essentially working class and lower middle class with a near 25-30 per cent unemployment rate. Near 36 per cent of high school dropouts are in the suburbs. Major problems concerning parental authority mark the daily life of families.

These cités have progressively become sites of violence (domestic, street and school) and degrading social tension e.g. forms of masculine rites of passage with a phoney clan-like category of ‘big/elder brothers’ or grands frères, ‘community’ gatekeepers exercising some form of social control on, for instance, what girls wear, who they see, etc. Similarly, acts of rage that seem to represent the metropolitan centre rather than the peripheral suburb are demonstrations of belonging to the cité.

The props are a subculture that seems to interconnect low-income suburbs across France via new metaphors of slang, dress and musical expression, even dance. The term racaille used by Sarkozy has long been used in the cités. In the rap group NTM’s line, "les cailleras sont dans la ville (the gangsters are in town)", racaille (scum) is converted to caillera (gangster) using the linguistic practice of inverting syllables to create new words (verlan). The figure of la racaille/caillera has emerged as an anti-hero of cité subculture. Within cités, those labelled as la racaille due to drug peddling are viewed with envious ambivalence for their success in the illegal parallel economies. When the dropouts find work, it is in the local parallel circuit.


Suspect citizens

Heavy policing is a conspicuous aspect of state intervention in the suburbs. All the money apparently saved by cutbacks in social spending in the poor areas has, it seems, mostly been redeployed for penal and policing functions. Security mania is the new mantra of the state.

The result is fear and hatred of the police due to daily police harassment that has gone on for too long. After September 11, there was a sort of militarisation of the cités – regular checks, the detention of countless suspected terrorists and the deportation of hundreds of undocumented immigrants.

Some 10 years ago the French filmmaker Mathieu Kassovitz powerfully depicted the alienation in France’s suburbs in his cult film, La Haine.

Through the eighties and nineties there were a series of urban riots, each marked by its own dominant practices and style e.g. stealing a car for a race in the neighbourhood and/or to use it to smash a shopfront and then steal the goods inside.

The big factors that led to urban violence 25 years ago are a sort of continuum of changes that started in the seventies: the beginnings of de-industrialisation, unemployment, the end of Fordist work and the emergence of fragmented subcontracted precarious informal labour mainly for unskilled workers, and social exclusion.


The wider social canvas

a) The fading out of conventional social movement organisations from suburbs where new local actors don’t have a mass base: The decline in membership and influence of the Communist Party of France (Le PCF), which had a large social base among the labouring poor and in their areas of residence. The communist municipalities provided extensive support for low-income housing and social spending. The Communist party could have played a powerful role in the integration and assimilation of immigrants from North Africa, as it did before and after the second world war for Italian, Polish, Spanish and other European immigrants. The party connected local issues to the national level. The party initially took an ambivalent position on decolonisation in the 1960s and in the subsequent period its membership base of European workers lost jobs to the recruitment of North African workers (from Morocco among other places). It somehow never cultivated a base among North African migrant workers who had their own cultural associations.

The other major absentee from the suburban neighbourhoods has been the unions. The level of unionisation in France has been low compared to other countries in Europe. French unions have never managed to organise fragmented part-time low-pay low-skill informal sector workers.

The French children of (Arabic speaking) North African immigrants, like their parents, did not have much of a presence in the old social movement circles. In 1983, a march for equality and against racism was very successful, followed by a national campaign called SOS Racisme, which attracted media and political presence but couldn’t get rooted in the cités and suburbs. Beyond a certain point, anti-racism in France (as elsewhere) was caught in the double-edged game of pushing for diversity and therefore the logic of the ‘right to be different’. This can be very problematic at times when it ends up not taking a stand against obscurantist cultural practices in the name of ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’.

New actors from within these neighbourhoods: Two examples: i) The autonomous, secular and progressive ones and ii) the retrogressives, with growing state recognition.

i) The autonomous, secular and progressive: Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Submissive) – a women’s rights campaign (of largely third generation North African descent) against male domestic violence, forced marriages and honour crimes started with a bang and received huge media and public attention but has still not grown to become a force in the poor suburbs.

ii) The retrogressive and conservative: Rise of religio-political actors – Religious cults and denominations of all kinds (Muslim, Christian) are growing to fill the political vacuum in the absence of other actors among the North African migrant community in these neighbourhoods. Tablighi Jamaat-type operators alongside Christian Evangelical gospel cults compete on this territory. Ironic as it may seem in secular France, over the last 15 years the state has officially leaned hard to help craft interlocutors who are religious, notably from the so-called ‘Muslim community’. Just because a high proportion of post-war immigrants in France happen to be from North Africa, they are automatically and increasingly identified as being ‘Muslim’ and so, very naturally, it is the imams here who are seen as community representatives, even though nearly half of the North African immigrants are non-practising and non-mosque going.

There is a narrowing of any political possibility of action arising from these neighbourhoods, especially after the state cut subsidies to local non-profit associations. New national social movements like ATTAC or such anti-globalisation groups have next to no presence in the poor and working class areas. The far right National Front has been gaining in membership sections of the old working class (former supporters of the Communist party) and the unemployed (of non-North African descent).

b) Memory, ‘culture’ and history to reshape identity: It is important to note that more than four decades after decolonisation there is still a deafening silence by the political elites in France about the war in Algeria. Its wounds have been left unattended for society to deal with.

In the post-colonial period, disparate groups have recently invoked this past history with competing conceptions of it before differing political audiences. Here, notions of the past and the future collide, which are at the heart of moves to focus on identity, origins, immigration, tradition, culture, to undermine secular social space in France. Some examples:

Ø There is a sophisticated stream of the far right which is very active in supporting the ideas of ethnic diversity and the language of "difference" in the cause of ethnic separation. In France, the Groupement de Recherche et d'étude pour la Civilisation Européenne (GRECE), with ties to neo-fascist groups, has been portraying cultural identities as fixed and irreconcilable so as to push institutionalised multiculturalism. Leading light of GRECE, Alain de Benoist says that "racism is nothing but the denial of difference".

Ø The French Parliament passed a law in February 2005 (much to the horror of historians) which now implores the national education system to teach the positive role of colonisation. This panders to the ideological platform of the conservative right.

Ø A small group of French citizens (immigrants of sub-Saharan, North African descent supported by progressives and third world-ists) claiming to be colonised ‘natives’, indigènes de la République, in a pamphlet popularised via the Internet, invokes and juxtaposes the imagery of discriminatory treatment meted out to their grandparents, who were colonial subjects, to their own current situation. There is political manufacture here, of being eternal victims, invoking colour, race and ethnicity. This is dangerous fuel to fan the flames of sealed identities and of communalism.

Ø Signs of reverse anti-white racism are on the rise. A section among the second generation of immigrants of sub-Saharan and black descent – involved in a kind of historical stocktaking of the French role in slave trade and colonisation – provides the other rationale for the current discrimination or exclusion they are subject to. (Among the most recent pointers are: an attack on a Paris student demonstration by young black kids – against the ‘whites’ and the success of the anti-Semitic talk of the humorist, Dieudonné.)

Ø The move by the French state to introduce the right to enforce ‘curfew’ in recent violence affected areas under the old French state of emergency law from 1955 (last used during the war in Algeria) has unequivocally sent out loaded metaphorical signals about the association between the old war and the recent riot. This will undoubtedly become another controversial issue in the colonialism/post-colonialism debate.

In the coming year or so, with the build-up to the 2007 presidential election, the themes of immigration/migrants/Local vs Foreign will become hot topics for debate. There is a growing move to reconstruct, to ‘protect’ and fence off national space in ‘peril’ against the backdrop of globalisation, economic crisis, flight of capital and unemployment. The resident migrant ‘other’ located inside the nation (old ones from China, Vietnam, North Africa and recent ones from sub-Saharan Africa etc.) and the non-resident international ‘other’ (e.g. the threat from China’s economy) located outside the nation get the spotlight as, increasingly, hyper-nationalism becomes the main directing thread.



The riots have ended up providing a powerful political launching pad for the extreme right groups in France. There will be a renewed wave of racism and who knows what else in store for the upcoming election. This rise of the far right stock will inevitably fire up their lookalikes from the ‘enemy’ camp. Let’s wait for the next riots.

Sections from women’s rights circles (such as UFAL, Coordination Féministe et Laïque, 20 ans barakat, Ni Putes Ni Soumises) spoke up against this round of violence in the poor neighbourhoods, and this will undoubtedly fuel more violence against women and repression by the state. These groups very courageously also challenged the despicable move by the French authorities to turn to the so-called ‘grands frères’ or ‘big brothers’ within the ‘communities’ to restrain the younger ones. These big brother-type figures, who have been acting as increasingly visible local power centres in the patriarchal system of social, ‘moral’ control over young women and men, need to be restrained themselves. The French state would be dangerously shirking its responsibility by denying citizens protection, when necessary, from these family/community watchdogs.

It is absolutely vital that wider (non-local) social initiatives and movements in France connect with and support the smaller local molecular civil society efforts in the poor suburbs to organise on daily matters of citizenship rights, discrimination, violence, bread and butter with a secular content. Those pushing for a politicised religion-based and sectarian/communal/nationalist agenda in the poor neighbourhoods can’t be kept out if concerned citizens’ groups/actors don’t take heed. And then there will be more violence.

Archived from Communalism Combat, December 2005 Year 12    No.113, Special Report




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