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 has said sorry. If tear gas had been fired into a church or synagogue, Sarkozy would have gone to apologise.” Thus, thanks to Sarkozy, the sense of victimisation increased and religion was dragged into what was until then a purely secular conflict.
But religion does not seem to be at the root of the riots: the suburbs known to house radical Muslims have so far remained conspicuously silent. No, the riots are about separation and poverty, of the type I saw in Montpellier. Not just poverty in its older sense, though that is part of it. It is the poverty caused by high expectations unfulfilled, by discrimination, real and imagined, feeding a grievance culture. It is poverty of interest on the part of the host nation, the poverty of will on the part of politicians. Combined, these translate into rage against authority, as in Brixton in 1981.
Take the hypocrisy over public housing. Since January 2002, urban councils have had to ensure that 20 per cent of housing is set aside for low-rent social accommodation. Councils which fail to provide 20 per cent are fined. But many councils prefer to pay the fine rather than face voters objecting to the type of people in public housing. In Paris, for instance, the waiting list for council accommodation is 300,000. One of the worst offenders, now named and shamed, is the town of Neuilly-sur-Seine—a smart suburb across the river from the troublespots—whose mayor is a certain Nicolas Sarkozy.
Meanwhile, Sarkozy is relentlessly building his political persona for the presidential election in 2007. A few years ago he was wooing the right with his free-market speeches. Then he stole the socialists’ thunder by vigorously subsidising ailing French companies. Until recently, he believed he had le contact with Muslims (who make up about 70 per cent of France’s roughly 7-10 per cent ethnic minority population), by championing positive discrimination, the immigrants’ right to vote and acknowledging (as the son of an immigrant himself) that the republican way was not working for everyone. So he was furious to be greeted with missiles and verbal abuse.
Since then, Sarkozy has been out-shooting the hard right in his language. The left and many newspapers have accused him of adopting a 1950s-style populism à la Pierre Poujade (one of whose deputés was a young Le Pen). There are calls for him to resign. But those who hoped he would burn himself out in the riots—including his presidential rival Dominique de Villepin—have been disappointed. As the riots continued, Sarkozy’s ratings stayed high while de Villepin’s dropped. Among other things, Clichy-sous-bois is a testing-ground for the 2007 presidential elections.
What deeply wounds la France d’en haut is the view that the riots prove that France’s policy of integration has failed. After the successful conclusion of the hijab argument last year and then the London bombings, France was convinced its system was the one that worked. But integration is a complex beast; no country has solved it. The French policy of assimilation—acceptance of all French values, no visible cultural differences in public places—worked well for the first generation of immigrants and some of their children. But the state’s refusal to acknowledge ethnic difference can also feel like a snub. Moreover, it makes integrationist public policy harder to formulate. Nobody knows for sure how many minority citizens there are, or how Arabs and Africans perform in school or the job market compared with the native French, because no one is allowed to count them. Knowing how many French citizens are of Algerian or Senegalese origin will not, on its own, guarantee them work, particularly the high-profile work in government, media or management that would help to create positive role models to counter the nihilism of the ghetto. But it would be a start.
There seems to be little support for the rioters; people in France profonde think of them as simple casseurs (breakers). Even the young (white) adults I talk to have little sympathy and see no relationship between their own lives and those of their suburban compatriots.
The rioters synchronise their actions via the internet and mobile phones, but at the time of writing there was no central leadership or spokesman. This makes it difficult for the government to negotiate with them—unlike the students in 1968, the rioters are largely inarticulate and don’t really know what they want, other than Sarkozy’s resignation, or at least an apology. They are not burning the cars or houses of the rich, they are burning their own. There are echoes of anti-colonial resentment in their attacks on the symbols of a France that they say has failed to respect or acknowledge them—police and firefighters, schools and buses too. But mainly they are wallowing in a self-destructive despair and enjoying their moment of fame.