27 mai 2006

 

WHY DID THE BANLIEUES BURN ?



Article paru dans le n° 136 de la revue Radical Philosophy (mars/avril 2006)

The violence on French housing estates in November 2005, which saw thousands of cars burnt, attacks on public buildings, occasional Belfast-style confrontations between police and young rioters and police helicopters overflying residential suburbs, sent shock waves through French society. The scale of the violence and repression was unprecedented. One month after the return to ‘normal’, over 800 young people had been imprisoned, often after the mere pretence of a fair trial.

When the revolt began, the entire Establishment was caught by surprise. Yet the crisis did not come out of the blue. Police statistics revealed that since the beginning of the year, on average nearly a hundred cars had been burnt every week. What happened in November was a sudden increase in tension after the death of two boys in an electricity substation in Clichy-sous-Bois, a town in the northern suburbs of Paris dominated by bleak high-rise housing projects. They had been fleeing police after a reported robbery, which turned out never to have happened. When interior minister (and would-be president) Nicolas Sarkozy announced an inquiry into the boys’ deaths, only to repeat in the next breath the inaccurate version given by the local police, he added fuel to the fire. A few days later, a tear-gas canister exploded near the entrance of a mosque during Friday prayers (significantly, the riot police claim they didn’t know the mosque was there). No regrets were expressed until long after the damage had been done. The dignified response of the victims’ families, community and religious associ­ations and the local mayor contrasted sharply with Sarkozy’s arrogant behaviour and President Chirac’s curious silence.

The riots were a conscious, if largely unorganized, response not only to years of neglect, but to repeated provocations by Sarkozy and other right-wing demagogues. For months, he has been exhorting the police to step up action against ‘troublemakers’, setting targets for deporting undocumented immigrants and declaring that ‘the scum’ would be ‘washed out of the housing estates’. Community policing has been abandoned in favour of strong-arm tactics, with Sarkozy cynically saying that it is not the role of the police to play football with young people. He has called for rioters to be deported if they are foreign nationals, although many have never lived in their country of origin (in one of the first cases the court refused to do so, saying that the boy in question was ‘perfectly integrated’).

In the aftermath of the troubles, polls showed a leap in support for the ideas of Jean-Marie Le Pen and his arch-rival, the ‘Eurosceptic’ Philippe de Villiers. Sarkozy himself may be a demagogue, but he is far from being a fool. In a deliberate break with conventional political discourse, he has spoken about the need for a measure of ‘positive discrimination’, rather than vague talk of ‘equality of opportunity’. While upping the law-and-order rhetoric, he has been busy promoting conservative Muslim leaders.

Politics of the suburbs
While of little bearing on the violence itself, Islam is at the heart of debate on the banlieues, the deprived areas on the fringes of French cities. Representations of Muslims usually depict either a withdrawal into ‘communitarianism’ and religious conservatism, or a growth in extremism. Suburbs with a large immigrant/Muslim population have in this view become ‘extraterritorial’ zones outside the Republic. Hence the rhetoric of ‘reconquest’ often used by politicians and editorialists. The reality is far more complex. Lire la suite (en anglais)

"Riots are a class act - and often they're the only alternative. France now accepts the need for social justice. No petition, peaceful march or letter to an MP could have achieved this." (The Guardian, 14 November 2005) This article by Gary Younge is spot on, though I wonder if his conclusions would be the same today.

Lire ce commentaire récent de Haoues Seniguer sur les émeutes de novembre paru sur Oumma.com.

La France face à ses musulmans: Émeutes, jihadisme et dépolitisation, Rapport de l'International Crisis group, Europe N°172, 9 mars 2006. Quelques idées intéressantes, et des conseils de 'bon sens' au gouvernement, aux partis politiques, aux militants ...

Yves Coleman's article Dancing With the Wolves : The Riots in France in Against the Current n° 120 (Jan-Feb 2006) is also useful.

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