The riots call into question the republican reluctance to acknowledge ethnic differenceby Tim King / December 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
Recently I was asked by a French newspaper to write a portrait of Montpellier—a foreigner’s view of France’s most desired town. Yet only minutes from the chic shops and open-air cafés bursting with well-dressed men and underdressed women—judged by François Truffaut to be the most beautiful in France—I found poverty such as I have rarely seen in Europe. This poverty of exclusion was quite different to the Falls or the Shankill Road in Belfast, where I worked in the 1980s. It’s not just unemployment, it’s not just that those in regular work get paid half the national average—it is more that, since many of these inhabitants have no identity papers, the French economy is irrelevant to them. In its place there is an underground economy based on drugs and gangs. Mainstream France is a world away. A year ago, fire swept through one of the dilapidated blocks of flats here and a man died—just like in Paris this summer. The people rioted—just like in Paris earlier this month.
The first riot in Clichy-sous-bois at the end of October was not treated by the press as anything exceptional— car-burning is routine and there were far larger riots in the summer that were barely reported. The difference this time was that the minister of the interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, gave a now famously misinformed version of the events which had caused the riot: he claimed that the two black teenagers killed in the electricity substation had been caught thieving and had hidden there to avoid arrest. The two boys were in fact running away from a police identity check. They may have heard on the text message grapevine that a 50-year-old white man, working on public street lighting not far away, had just been murdered by black youths. They may have assumed the police, looking for the murderers, would show zero tolerance. The implication that their sons were criminals outraged the boys’ families. Moreover, a couple of days earlier, Sarkozy had said, “I’ll get rid of this scum” after residents of a neighbouring suburb threw missiles at him.
Instead of apologising, Sarkozy maintained his inflammatory language as the car-burnings continued. On the third night, a riot police tear-gas grenade was fired either at, or perhaps even inside, a mosque full of people at prayer. “People are furious,” said the local imam of this predominantly Moroccan community. “Islam has been insulted and no one…