Why is France burning?

Doug Ireland traces the historic, social and racial roots of the violent rebellions which swept France this autumn.

The night of Saturday 5 November was the 10th day of the spreading youth riots that had much of France in flames this autumn. It was the worst night since the first riot erupted in a suburban Paris ghetto of low-income housing, with 1295 vehicles – from private cars to public buses – burned, a huge jump from the 897 set afire the previous evening. For the first time, the violence born in the suburban ghettos invaded the centre of Paris – some 40 vehicles were set alight in Le Marais (the pricey home to the most famous gay ghetto in Paris), around the Place de la Republique nearby, and in the bourgeois 17th arrondissement, only a stone’s throw from the dilapidated ghetto of the Goutte d’Or in the 18th arrondissement.

Riot police in northern Paris

As someone who lived in France for nearly a decade, and who has visited those suburban ghettos where the violence started on reporting trips any number of times, I was not surprised by the tsunami of inchoate youth rebellion that engulfed France. It is the result of 30 years of government neglect; of the failure of the French political classes – of both right and left – to make any serious effort to integrate its Muslim and black populations into the larger French economy and culture; and of the deep-seated, searing, soul-destroying racism that the unemployed and profoundly alienated young of the ghettos face every day of their lives, from the police and in trying to find a job or decent housing.

Festering resentment

To understand the origins of this profound crisis for France, it is important to step back and remember that the ghettos of festering resentment that burst into flames were created by the industrial policy of the state.

If France’s population of immigrant origin – mostly Arab, some black – is today quite large (more than 10 per cent of the population), it is because there was a government and industrial policy during the post-World War II boom years of reconstruction and economic expansion which the French call ‘les trentes glorieuses’ (the 30 glorious years) to recruit from France’s foreign colonies labourers, factory and menial workers for jobs which no Frenchmen would fill.

These immigrant workers were desperately needed to allow the French economy to expand due to the shortage of male manpower caused by two world wars, which killed many Frenchmen, and slashed the native French birth-rates too. Moreover, these immigrant workers were considered passive and unlikely to strike (unlike the highly political French working class and its Communist-led unions). This government- and industry-sponsored influx of Arab workers (many of whom saved up to bring their families to France from north Africa) was reinforced, following Algerian independence, by the Harkis.

The Harkis (whose story is movingly told by Dalila Kerchouche in her Destins de Harkis) were the native Algerians who fought for and worked with France during the post-war anti-colonial struggles for independence – and who for their trouble were horribly treated by France. Some 100,000 Harkis were killed by the Algerian FLN (National Liberation Front) after the French shamelessly abandoned them to a lethal fate when the French occupying army evacuated itself and the French colonists from Algeria. Moreover, those Harki families who were saved, often at the initiative of individual military commanders who refused to obey orders not to evacuate them, once in France were parked in unspeakable, filthy, crowded concentration camps for many long years and never benefited from any government aid – a nice reward for their sacrifices for France, of which they were, after all, legally citizens. Their ghettoised children and grandchildren, naturally, harbour certain resentments.

Warehouse ghettos

France’s other immigrant workers were warehoused in huge, high-rise, low-income housing ghettos – known as ‘cités’ (Americans would say ‘the projects’) – specially built for them, and deliberately placed out of sight in the suburbs around most of France’s major urban agglomerations, so that their darker-skinned inhabitants wouldn’t pollute the city centres of Paris, Lyon, Toulouse, Lille, Nice and the other urban centres of white France. Often there was only just enough public transport provided to take these uneducated working class Arabs and blacks directly to their jobs in the burgeoning factories of the ‘peripherique’ – the suburban peripheries that encircled Paris and its smaller sisters – but little or none linking the ghettos to the urban centres.

Now 30, 40 or 50 years old, these high-rise human warehouses in the isolated suburbs are run-down, dilapidated, sinister places, with broken elevators that remain unrepaired, heating systems left dysfunctional in winter, dirt and dog-shit in the hallways, broken windows, and few commercial amenities – shopping for basic necessities is often quite limited and difficult, while entertainment and recreational facilities for youth are truncated and totally inadequate when they’re not non-existent. Both apartments and schools are over-crowded. Birth control is a cultural taboo in the Muslim culture the immigrants brought with them and transmitted to their children, and even for their male grandchildren of today – who’ve adopted hip-hop culture and created their own French-language rap music of extraordinary vitality, and often stinging social and political content – condoms are a no-no because of Arab machismo, contributing to rising AIDS rates in the ghettos.

The first week of December marked the 22nd anniversary of the Marche des Beurs (Beur means Arab in French slang). I was present to see the cortege of 100,000 arrive in Paris – it was the Franco-Arab equivalent of Dr Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Justice. The Marche des Beurs was organised from Lyon’s horrific, enormous suburban high-rise ghetto, Les Minguettes, with the help of a charismatic left-wing French Catholic worker-priest, Father Christian Delorme, and its central theme was the demand to be recognised as French ‘comme les autres’ – like everyone else – a demand, in sum, for complete integration.

Yet for the mass of Franco-Arabs, little has changed since 1983 – and the integrationist movement of ‘jeunes beurs’ created around that march petered out in frustration and despair. In recent years, its place has been taken by Islamist fundamentalists operating through local mosques. The media’s symbol of this retreat into a separatist, communitarian-religious politics is the slick demagogue Tariq Ramadan, a philosophy professor who uses one cosmetically democratic discourse when he’s speaking on French TV, and a fiery, hard-line fundamentalist discourse in the Arab-language cassettes of his speeches that sell like hotcakes to Franco-Arab ghetto youth. Ramadan’s double language has been meticulously documented by the Arab-speaking journalist Caroline Fourest in her book published last fall by Editions Grasset, Frere Tariq: discourse, methode et strategie de Tariq Ramadan, extracts from which have been published in the weekly l’Express. But the current rebellion has little to do with Islamic fundamentalism.

In 1990 Francois Mitterrand, then the Socialist President, described what life was like for jobless ghetto youths warehoused in the overcrowded ‘cités’: ‘What hope does a young person have who’s been born in a quartier without a soul, who lives in an unspeakably ugly high-rise, surrounded by more ugliness, imprisoned by grey walls in a grey wasteland and condemned to a grey life, with all around a society that prefers to look away until it’s time to get mad, time to forbid.’


Well, Mitterrand’s perceptive and moving words remained just that – words – for his urban policy was an under-funded, unfocussed failure that only put a few band-aids on a metastasising cancer. And 15 years after Mitterrand’s diagnosis, the hopelessness and alienation of these ghetto youths and their ‘grey lives’ has only become deeper and more rancid still.

The response to the days of violent youth rebellion by the conservative government has been inept and tone-deaf. For the first four days of the rebellion, Chirac and his prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, decided to let the hyper-ambitious, megalomaniacal interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, lead the government’s response to the youth’s violence and arson. Chirac and Villepin detest Sarkozy, who has been openly campaigning to replace Chirac as president in 2007 (Villepin was made PM in the hope that he could block Sarkozy for the right’s presidential nomination). The president and his PM thought that ‘Sarko’, as he’s commonly referred to in France – who won his widespread popularity as a hard-line, law-and-order demagogue on the issue of domestic insecurity – would be unable to stop the violence, and thus damage his presidential campaign.

But Sarkozy poured verbal kerosene on the flames, dismissing the ghetto youth in the most insulting and racist terms and calling for a policy of repression. ‘Sarko’ made headlines with his declarations that he would ‘karcherise’ the ghettos of ‘la racaille’ – words the US press utterly inadequately translated to mean ‘clean’ the ghettos of ‘scum’.

In fact these two words have an infinitely harsher and more insulting flavour in French. ‘Karcher’ is the well-known brand name of a system of cleaning surfaces by super-high-pressure sand-blasting or water-blasting that very violently peels away the outer skin of encrusted dirt – like pigeon-shit – even at the risk of damaging what’s underneath. To apply this term to young human beings and proffer it as a strategy is a verbally fascist insult and, as a policy proposed by an interior minister, is about as close as one can get to hollering ‘ethnic cleansing’ without actually saying so. It implies raw police power and force used very aggressively, with little regard for human rights. I wonder how many Anglo-American correspondents get the inflammatory, terribly vicious flavour of the word in French? The translation of ‘karcherise’ by ‘clean’ just misses completely the inflammatory violence of what Sarko was really saying. And ‘racaille’ is infinitely more pejorative than ‘scum’ to French-speakers – it has the flavour of characterising an entire group of people as sub-human, inherently evil, criminal and worthless, and is, in other words, one of the most serious insults one could launch at the rebellious ghetto youth.

As the rebellion spread beyond the Paris suburbs as far south as Marseilles and Nice and as far north as Lille, Sarkozy was thundering that the spreading violence is centrally ‘organised’. But on the telephone from Paris, the dean of French investigative reporters – Claude Angeli, editor of Le Canard Enchaine – told me:

‘That’s not true. This isn’t being organised by the Islamist fundamentalists, as Sarkozy is implying to scare people. Sure, kids in neighbourhoods are using their cell phones and text messages to warn each other where the cops are coming from so they can move and pick other targets for their arson. But the rebellion is spreading because the youth have a sense of solidarity that comes from watching television – they imitate what they’re seeing, and they sense themselves targeted by Sarkozy’s inflammatory rhetoric.

‘The rebellion is spreading spontaneously – driven especially by racist police conduct that is the daily lot of these youths. It’s incredible the level of police racism – they’re arrested or controlled and have their papers checked because they have dark skins, and the police are verbally brutal, calling them ‘bougnoules’ [a racist insult, something like the American ‘towel-heads’, only worse] and telling them, ‘Lower your eyes! Lower your eyes!’ as if they had no right to look a policeman in the face. It’s utterly dehumanising. No wonder these kids feel so divorced from authority.’

A team report in the French daily, Liberation (where I was once a columnist), interviewed ghetto youths and asked them to explain the reasons for their anger. And, the paper reported, ‘All, or almost all, cite Sarko – a 22-year old student says, “Sarkozy owes us his excuses for what he said. When I see what’s happened, I come back to the same image: Sarkozy when he went to Argenteuil, raising his head and thundering, Madame, we’re going to clean all that up. Result? Sarko sent everybody over the top; he showed a total disrespect toward everybody in the ghetto.”’ A 13-year-old tells the Liberation reporters: ‘It’s us who are going to put Sarkozy through the Karcher … Will I be out making trouble tonight? That’s classified information.’

Another 28-year-old youth said: ‘Who’s setting the fires? They’re kids between 14 and 22, we don’t really know who they are because they put on masks, don’t talk, and don’t brag about it the next day … but instead of fucking everything up where they live, it would be better if they held a demo, or went and fucked up the people and the stores in Paris. We’ve got a minister, Sarko, who says “You’re all the same.” Me, I say “Non”, we all say “Non” – but in reply we still get, “You’re all the same.” That response from the government creates something in common between all of us, a kind of solidarity. These kids want to get attention, to let people know they exist. So, they say to themselves, “If we get nasty and create panic, they won’t forget us, they’ll know we’re in a neighbourhood where we need help.”’

Slashing cuts

On 5 November Sarkozy – who is Minister of Religion as well as Interior Minister – wanted to make an appearance at the Catholic Bishops’ conference in Paris. They refused to let him speak, and instead the Bishops issued a ringing statement denouncing ‘those who would call for repression and instil fear’ instead of responding to the economic, social, and racial causes of the riots. This was an unusually sharp rebuke directed at Sarkozy.

Under the headline ‘Budget Cuts Exasperate Suburban Mayors’, Le Monde reported on how Chirac and his conservatives have compounded 30 years of neglect of the ghettos by slashing even deeper into social programs: 20 per cent annual cuts in subsidies for neighbourhood groups that work with youths since 2003; cuts in youth job-training programmes and tax credits for hiring ghetto youth; cuts in education and programmes to teach kids how to read and write; cuts in neighbourhood police who get to know ghetto kids and work with them.

When Sarkozy went to Toulouse, he told the neighbourhood police: ‘You’re job is not to be playing soccer with these kids, your job is to arrest them!’ With fewer and fewer neighbourhood cops to do preventive work that defuses youth alienation and violence, the alternative is to wait for more explosions and then send in the CRS (Compagnies Republicaines de Securite, hard-line paramilitary SWAT teams). Budget cuts for social programmes plus more repression, is a prescription for more violence. That’s why Le Monde’s editorial today warned that a continuation of this blind policy creates a big risk of provoking a repeat of 2002, when the neo-fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen made it into the run-off.

And a majority of the country, poisoned even more by racism after the violence, seems willing to accept more and more repression: a poll released on 5 November on France 2 public TV showed that 57 per cent of the French support Nicolas Sarkozy’s hard-line approach to the ghetto youths’ rebellion. Sarko’s demagogy seems to be working – at least with the electorate – but it won’t stop the violence, it will only increase it.

Doug Ireland is a long-time radical journalist and media critic who lives in New York City. He runs the blog Direland, where this article first appeared on 6 November 2005

1 Comment

  1. Winter 2005/06 - ILP
    22 January 2009

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