Les années passent, pourtant tout est toujours à sa place
The years pass, but all remains the same
―Suprême NTM, “Qu’est-ce qu’on attend” (1995)
NTM would still have a decade to wait before their hip hop fantasies of marginalized suburban housing project (cité) youth taking the fight back to the French “system” would be realized.1An earlier version of this essay appeared as “Urban Violence in France” in Middle East Report Online, November 2005, http://www.merip.org/mero/ interventions/silverstein_tetreault_interv.htm. Colonial dual cities have been effectively re-created in the postcolonial present, with contemporary urban policy and policing maintaining suburban cités and their residents in a state of immobile apartheid. The rap group hailing from the northeastern Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis knew too well about the everyday police aggression that shapes life in the cités across France, and anyone who had paid attention to them, or the many young men and women whose voices they claimed they were only amplifying, would not be terribly surprised by the violence that struck France in the early weeks of November 2005. Like NTM, many of them had been simply asking themselves, “Why are we waiting?”
If NTM’s hip hop warning points to a trans-Atlantic dimension to urban exclusion and violence, the French state’s response harkens to an older, trans-Mediterranean colonial logic. On November 7, 2005, after nearly two weeks of ongoing confrontations that had spread across much of France’s marginalized urban periphery, French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin announced a “state of emergency” across over a quarter of the national territory. The measure—which for an initial period of twelve days granted prefects the right to establish curfews within their regions and the interior minister the possibility of effectuating the closure of public spaces, search-and-seizures, house arrests, and the censorship of the press—derives from a 1955 law crafted to curtail support for the nascent Algerian war of national liberation. Originally applied for a period of more than six months in Algeria proper, the law has been put into effect on only three other occasions: twice in metropolitan France during the Algerian war and once in 1984–85 in the French colony of New Caledonia to suppress an uprising of the indigenous movement for independence. On November 15, the National Assembly—with strong support from Prime Minister Villepin, Interior Minister Sarkozy, President Jacques Chirac, and a large percentage of the French electorate—voted nearly three to one in favor of extending the state of emergency for an additional three months.
Colonial logics“Like settler cities of the colonial period, contemporary French urban centers function in opposition to their impoverished peripheries, the latter being consistently presented in the media, state policy, and popular talk as culturally, if not racially, different from mainstream France.”
The colonial law’s deployment in response to the present crisis points to an enduring logic of colonial rule within postcolonial metropolitan France. Like settler cities of the colonial period, contemporary French urban centers function in opposition to their impoverished peripheries, the latter being consistently presented in the media, state policy, and popular talk as culturally, if not racially, different from mainstream France. The application of a last-ditch instrument of colonial governance indicates a set of structural tensions within, if not the ultimate failure of, the French state’s self-congratulatory colonial “civilizing mission” turned postcolonial “integrating mission” which for the last fifty years has sought to transform the children of immigrants and other members of the suburban underclass into productive Frenchmen, all the while projecting them as suspect and potentially violent citizens.
In spite of these pre-existing metropolitan anxieties of its racialized poor rising up in revolt, and in spite of a history of confrontations between police and cité residents that stretches back to the early 1980s, the spread and intensity of the recent violence—which, as of November 17, resulted in almost 9000 torched vehicles and nearly 3000 arrests in nearly 100 municipalities across France—took most observers by surprise. Initial reports sought to link the sudden upsurge in violence to a larger “clash of civilizations,” reading the events through the lens of the Palestinian intifada and the Iraqi insurgency, and searching for the fingerprint of some terrorist organization in them. However, social life in the housing projects in question is marked precisely by a lack of effective organizational bodies or unifying ethnic or religious ideologies. The “rage” expressed by young men from the cités does not spring from either anti-imperialist Arab nationalism or some sort of anti-Western jihadism as Fouad Ajami, Alain Finkielkraut, Charles Krauthammer, and Daniel Pipes among others would have it,2Fouad Ajami, “The Boys of Nowhere,” US News and World Report, November 21, 2005; Alain Finkielkraut, Interview in Ha’aretz, November 21, 2005; Charles Krauthammer, “What the Uprising Generation Wants,” Time Magazine, November 13, 2005; Daniel Pipes, “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” New York Sun, November 8, 2005. but rather from lifetimes of rampant unemployment, school failure, police harassment, and everyday racist discrimination that tends to treat them generally as the racaille (scum) of Interior Minister Sarkozy’s widely quoted insult—regardless of race, ethnicity, or religion.
Such conditions of marginalization have been exacerbated by France’s recent fiscal reforms necessitated by its participation in the European Monetary Union, reforms that have slashed the social welfare budget and the funding for neighborhood associations, after-school programs, community policing, and internships. In the meantime, the Interior Ministry’s hard-line policies towards urban crime and more recent “war on terror” have, since the mid-1990s, resulted in the de facto militarization of the housing projects, with national riot police and military gendarmes conducting repeated sweeps for suspected terrorists, closing down basement prayer rooms, detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants, performing millions of “random” identity checks on local youth occupying public spaces, and even arresting residents for congregating in the entryways of their own buildings. As a result, the French state has come to be equated with repression in the minds of many cité inhabitants, an equation which has magnified their “hatred” (la haine) of the system. The current violence reflects this unity of social marginalization and anti-police ire, and the conditions that give rise to it will only intensify as long as the government treats youth unrest in the cités as a security problem, rather than as a reflection of a larger structural predicament.
Dual cities“ Urban planners sought to de-concentrate white urban poverty from city centers, providing for the possibility of physical and social mobility literally to the greener pastures of the suburbs, and resulting in the emergence of a lower middle class.”
Housing projects (les cités) are preeminently multiracial sites, with local bases of solidarity conditioned by common social class rather than ethnic or religious similarity. Housing project construction, begun in earnest in the mid-1950s during the Algerian war, followed inter-related imperatives of social uplift and public security, of circulation and containment.3The construction was facilitated by the institution of two legal mechanisms: first, the creation of a National Corporation for the Construction of Housing for Algerian Workers (SONACOTRA) in 1952 that earmarked funds for the relocation of shantytown residents; second, the establishment of a category, Urban Priority Zone (ZUP), that would target urban renewal projects to specific suburban localities. On the one hand, urban planners sought to de-concentrate white urban poverty from city centers, providing for the possibility of physical and social mobility literally to the greener pastures of the suburbs, and resulting in the emergence of a lower middle class. Built with a minimum of 500 units in a combination of high-rise towers and low-rise blocks, the projects were constructed as utopian modernist experiments in social life, centralizing housing, commerce, education, and recreation in the immediate proximity to the factories in which residents were assumed to work. On the other hand, the cités responded to security concerns, providing for the re-housing of North African immigrant workers and their families from the large shantytowns which had become effective organizational sites for the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN). In the years that followed, residence in suburban housing projects continued to exhibit this mixed character, with newly arrived African, Caribbean, and Southeast Asian immigrants adding to the racial and cultural complexity of these areas.4In the process, racial and ethnic “minorities” are, for a variety of historical and structural reasons, relatively over-represented in comparison to other urban areas. Indeed, the construction of this public Low Rent Housing (HLM) was significantly financed through the sale of apartments to manufacturing concerns, who utilized them to house their workers, many of whom were immigrants. In the heyday of the Trente Glorieuses economic boom, buses from Renault, Talbot, and other companies would shuttle workers from housing projects like Val-Fourré in Mantes-la-Jolie (50 km outside of Paris) to the factories in question.
After the economic downturn of the 1970s and the de-industrialization of the urban peripheries of Paris and Lyon, dreams of social mobility quickly transformed into nightmares of physical and economic immobility. The percentage of industrial jobs has diminished by 50 percent since 1954 to a mere 20 percent of the total, with the vast majority of jobs currently being offered in the tertiary (service) sector and requiring a certain level of formal education. Nationwide, youth unemployment reached figures as high as 20 percent by the early 1990s, or twice that of the national average. In certain cités, the figures have been even higher, with unemployment among young residents on average above 30 percent, and as high as 85 percent.5Catherine Wihtol de Wenden and Zakya Daoud, “Banlieues . . . intégration ou explosion?” special edition of Panoramiques II (12), p. 75.
Moreover, the cités have been marked by significant physical dilapidation and the flight of local commerce, creating an atmosphere of depressed sterility and an experience of social exile and “distress” (galère). The lack of local capital, alongside occasional petty crime and property violence, have brought about the closure of most of the shopping centers built at the center of housing projects, and smaller stores near the complexes have a high turnover rate. Structurally, the concrete and pre-fabricated materials used in the construction of the cités have not weathered well, with, as of the early 1990s, an estimated 80 percent of the buildings suffering from some combination of water damage, insulation problems, broken elevators, or worse. A number of other structures have been considered beyond repair and have been torn down in the interim. Not only have these not been replaced with new structures, but there have actually been over 300,000 more apartments phased out than built since 1989. The result has been a situation of increasing overcrowding and squatting.6Ibid., p. 78. Since April 2005, the lack of safe public housing has turned deadly for 48 poor immigrants who died in three separate fires in makeshift municipal housing and abandoned buildings in Paris.
In suburban cités this socioeconomic marginalization has been paired with spatial isolation. The development of the urban transportation network that was the condition of possibility for the construction of peripheral housing projects has failed to keep pace with the growth of the suburban population. For instance, while Parisian subway and commuter rail lines extend into the proximate suburbs, they represent only about 120 stops for several thousand communes in the region, with the farther suburbs served, if at all, by local train service. Indeed, according to a 1990 report from the French National Institute for Statistics and Economic Research (INSEE), nearly 60 percent of these suburban municipalities lack their own train station, and little has changed in the intervening 15 years. Radially laid out, the commuter and train lines connect the suburbs directly to Paris, leaving only bus service and the occasional tramway to link suburb to suburb. Those that do connect the suburbs to Paris are heavily surveilled, with fixed cameras and roving patrols of police, military gendarmes, and conductors empowered to make arrests. The result is the relative physical and symbolic separation of cités from each other and from Paris proper. The concomitant stigmatizing effects of this isolation, alongside the physical dilapidation and economic impoverishment of the housing projects have made residence in certain cités an impediment to being hired for a job, thus reproducing the unemployment that underwrites much of the social stigmatization of the housing projects in the first place.“Such a parallel structure operates with the tacit knowledge and minimal funding of the French state, which has largely devolved the provision of many such social, educational, and legal services to local associations.”
Given these structural conditions, it is not surprising that French housing projects have developed a well-developed informal economy—including a series of gray-market institutions revolving around the drug trade or the fencing of stolen consumer items—for the provision of employment as well as goods and services not otherwise locally available or affordable. Daily open-air markets operate in the shadow of boarded-up shopping centers, providing the quotidian requirements of food, clothing, and school supplies. Those residents with vehicles have created an informal taxi service to carry neighbors to and from transportation centers or places of work, commerce, or entertainment. Through after-school tutoring programs, cultural and religious associations in the cités constitute a parallel, if severely underfunded, education system that attempts to compensate for the depressed conditions in French schools, including poor facilities, overcrowded classrooms, teachers unknowledgeable of or inflexible to the students’ multicultural needs, and the tracking of many children to vocational diplomas from an early age. The same associations also provide day-care for working mothers and legal advice for local residents, particularly regarding the regularization of their immigration documentation. Indeed, such a parallel structure operates with the tacit knowledge and minimal funding of the French state, which has largely devolved the provision of many such social, educational, and legal services to local associations.7Riva Kastoryano, Negotiating Identities: States and Immigrants in France and Germany (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), pp. 101-2.
Alternative economic ventures generate increased state scrutiny and generate a large police presence in the cités. This police presence ironically increases tensions with inhabitants, tensions that often have escalated since the early 1980s into full-scale incidents of violent popular unrest—termed “riots” (émeutes) by the national media—particularly when security forces have arrested or killed young residents. The violence associated with these clashes with police often exceeds the inter-personal, targeting those state and economic institutions (notably police stations, shopping malls, and municipal centers) symbolically associated by residents with their “exclusion.” In the summer of 1981, following a police raid in the Cité de la Cayolle in Marseilles in which a number of women, children, and elderly residents were injured, young male residents fire-bombed the shopping centers and police stations throughout the area. During the same period, the Lyon suburb of Les Minguettes exploded in a series of violent confrontations between young men and the police. In an estimated 250 separate incidents generally referred to as “rodeos” by their participants, groups of young men would steal a car, engage police in a chase, and then abandon and burn the vehicle.
Although most of the property damage in recent urban violence has been concentrated in low-income neighborhoods, teens have tended to attack the property of their middle-class neighbors. Housing projects are adjacent to owners of individual homes who pursue the suburban dream of affordable real estate in semi-rural settings. Among the inhabitants of collective housing projects who are predominantly working class, it is generally a small percentage of male teenagers that engage in property damage and acts of civil disobedience. In this way, those who have engaged in violent struggle with the police do not necessarily represent the majority of inhabitants in French cités, many of whom are frustrated by extensive property damage in their neighborhoods. However, for many male teens, burning cars constitutes a masculine rite of passage to mark one’s social affiliation with peers and one’s spatial affiliation with the cité, in opposition to the urban center and its police forces.
Although the American media have mistakenly referred to such violence as involving “gangs,” these groups are not organized into larger economic or political units. Rather, loosely structured fictive kinship of “older” and “younger brothers” (les grands et les petits frères) gives shape to community-wide networks of economic exchange and social reciprocity.8Pascal Duret, Anthropologie de la fraternité dans les cites (Paris: Presses Universitaires de Paris, 1996). In some instances, grands frères censor violence in cités by condemning, and thus preventing, vandalism and graffiti. At other times, as is now the case in France, urban violence and property damage is considered by many young cité dwellers to be a logical response to the latest instance of police brutality in a long history of it.
So while clearly having a pleasurable, if not sporting, quality, these rodeos were often (though certainly not always) understood as a direct response to police violence. Referring to the 1981 incidents in Les Minguettes, one local resident and community activist commented, “It was from the moment of police provocations that the youth began to become aggressive . . . The rodeos were to respond to everything they had undergone, they and their parents . . . The rage they had in themselves was directed at the cars.”9Cited in Adil Jazouli, Les Années banlieues (Paris: Seuil, 1992), pp. 21-22. Two years later, similar confrontations occurred in neighboring Venissieux (Lyon), leading to the week-long occupation of the housing project by a regiment of 4000 police officers. During the same year, young men of the Monmousseau cité of Les Minguettes engaged police in a violent struggle after the latter had broken into an apartment suspected of harboring stolen goods.
By the 1990s, such confrontations began to take on a regular, if generally contained, character. Among many other incidents, clashes between youth and riot police (CRS) occurred in November 1990 in the Mas-du-Taureau cité of the Lyonnais suburb of Vaulx-en-Velin after the death of one resident, Thomas Claudio, 21, in a motorcycle chase with police; in March 1991 in Sartrouville (Paris) after the killing of Djamel Chettouh, 18, by a Euromarché supermarket security guard; in May 1991 in Val-Fourré after the death of Aïssa Ihich, 18, who asphyxiated after being denied his asthma medicine while in police custody; and in June 1995 in the Paris suburb of Noisyle-Grand after the police killing of local youth Kacem Belhabib in a motorcycle chase. These confrontations generally involved the destruction of cars, gymnasiums, schools, and shopping centers. Such violence and property destruction, when portrayed by the media as “riots” (émeutes), have tended to underwrite the negative stereotypes of these areas and contribute to the infernal spiral of social marginalization and the racialization of their residents as “other.” To a great extent, the current violence needs to be understood as the logical extension of such earlier, localized incidents.“Since the 1980s right-wing and centrist politicians have deliberately blamed French children of immigrants for their purported failure to integrate as a means of mobilizing conservative voters and deflecting responsibility for social inequities.”
In addition to drawing on this previous history of violent confrontations, the November 2005 disturbances responded to the symbolic violence perpetrated by politicians and journalists against young French citizens in cités who are repeatedly and mistakenly described as “foreigners” (étrangers) and pathologized and demonized for their purported unwillingness to “integrate” into French society. Sadly, the expected “integration” for cité youth is measured by a punishing formula of loss of culture—through loss of their parents’ native language, loss of religious faith, and loss of cultural traditions—as well as unreasonable expectations that they should succeed, despite racial and spatial discrimination, in school and work. Since the 1980s right-wing and centrist politicians have deliberately blamed French children of immigrants for their purported failure to integrate as a means of mobilizing conservative voters and deflecting responsibility for social inequities. This tactic was illustrated most recently on November 15 and 16 by Gérard Larcher, Acting Minister of Employment, and by Bernard Accoyer, President of the UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) National Assembly Group, when both political leaders claimed that polygamy, although illegal in France, was a central cause of urban violence and a significant factor in job discrimination experienced by descendants of African immigrants.10Luc Bronner, “M. Larcher fait le lien entre polygamie et violences urbaines,” Le Monde, November 17, 2005. Similarly, the March 2005 ban on Muslim headscarves and other “ostensible” religious symbols in public schools was passed in the name of strengthening citizens’ equal access to laïcité (secularism). However, this legislation unfairly targets Muslim religious practices as the root cause for the failure of integration and does nothing to correct a clear bias toward Catholic schools, which educate two million children and receive 80 percent of their budget from the government. There is currently only one Muslim school in France, which was opened after eight years of negotiation. Thus, the laïcité law, when coupled with the state’s refusal to recognize the ‘id al-adha alongside Catholic festivals as a national holiday, and Chirac’s history of excusing racism as a justified response to the “noise and smell” of immigrants, is taken by many residents of the cités as yet another example of French society’s rejection of cultural and religious diversity and the hypocrisy of a Republic that would claim to treat all of its citizens equally.
When paired with the economic and spatial marginalization of the cités, this symbolic marginalization has led to a powerful, if stigmatized, subculture that bridges low-income housing projects across France through new styles of speech, dress, and music. The term racaille used by Sarkozy to mean “scum” has long been used in the cités to mean “gangsta.” French urban youth talk, as captured in hip hop discourse, like its American analogue, plays semantically and morphologically with standard French terms, so that in NTM’s line “les cailleras sont dans la ville” (the gangstas are in town), racaille is converted to caillera according to vernacular linguistic practices of syllabic inversion (verlan). In the semiotic struggle over how to interpret the social and cultural changes in French society, the figure of la racaille (or caillera) has emerged as the alternately stigmatized and valorized anti-hero of cité subculture. Within cités, those who might be labeled la racaille due to their activity in drug dealing are viewed with a mixture of reverence and moral ambivalence. For many young people growing up in cités, the entrepreneurial skill of la racaille is admired as they establish le business (illicit commerce) in areas where other commercial enterprise is severely lacking.
And yet rather than viewing the illegal parallel economies in cités as evidence of their residents’ social and economic exclusion, many politicians such as Sarkozy prefer to place blame for the current problems exclusively on the shoulders of cité youth. In his bid for President in the 2007 elections, Sarkozy has directed French public attention away from collective responsibility for the current violence toward actively scapegoating la racaille. On November 19, at a political rally for the UMP, Sarkozy increased the violent tenor of his rhetoric by repeating his threat “to pressure wash la racaille” (nettoyer à Kärcher) from the cités and went on to claim, “The central cause of unemployment, of despair, of violence in the suburbs, is not discrimination or the failure of schools . . . it is drug traffic, the law of bands, the dictatorship of fear and the resignation of the Republic.”11Philippe Ridet, “M. Sarkozy durcit son discours sur les banlieues,” Le Monde, November 21, 2005.
Political rhetoric aside, the government’s tactical response to this urban unrest and underlying socio-economic crisis has historically and presently been twofold: neo-liberal economic policy and militarization. In the first place, it unleashed a series of urban renewal plans—leading to the creation of a complex network of national commissions, urbanization laws, educational priority zones (ZEPs), and funding programs—designed to re-integrate the cités in question into national and global economies and transform their inhabitants into productive citizens. These plans reached perhaps their most elaborated form in Gaullist Prime Minister Alain Juppé’s 1995-6 “Marshall Plan” (which included the “National Urban Integration Plan” and the “Urban-Revival Pact”). With the goal of luring young residents from the street economy into the formal economy, the plan delimited 744 “sensitive urban zones” (zones urbaines sensibles) in which local associations would receive state subsidies to hire young residents to work in paid internships. At the same time, the plans established 44 “enterprise zones” (zones franches) in especially “hot areas” (quartiers chauds) throughout the country in order to provide tax incentives to encourage the return of commercial ventures scared away by the rise in suburban violence. As such, like the original Marshall Plan designed to reconstruct war-torn Europe, Juppé’s plan depended on an insertion of capital into decapitalized areas, though this time, with a neo-liberal twist, with local associations and multinational corporations acting as the prime agents of change.“Increasingly, lower middle class residents of these areas are sending their children to the burgeoning private schools, leaving the ZEPs as warehouses for the truly disadvantaged.”
In the time that has passed, and particularly after 2002 under the management of the Minister of Urbanism, Jean-Louis Borloo, the neo-liberal corporate character of these reforms has been extended, while funding to associations and social services has been cut as part of a more general fiscal belt-tightening necessitated by France’s entrance that year into the European Monetary Union. While attempts at austerity reforms to other parts of the public sector (such as public workers’ retirement benefits) were met with national strikes that effectively shut down the country, the slashing of the funding to the cités had encountered little resistance until the current violence. With salaries for local social mediators eliminated, municipal governments became further distanced from their younger residents. The cutting of official after-school tutoring programs has only increased the ineffectiveness of a school system that has been historically prone to orient cités residents (and particularly children of immigrants) to virtually useless vocational diplomas. Increasingly, lower middle class residents of these areas are sending their children to the burgeoning private schools, leaving the ZEPs as warehouses for the truly disadvantaged. Even local associations have found their already tenuous ties to the younger generation—who tend to regard association leaders as having “sold out” to the state—even further attenuated, with their funding restricted and their internship programs cut. While there has been a rise in religious (and particularly Islamic) associations in the cités, even these have remained largely marginal and ineffective at organizing local youth. Indeed, the repeated public cries for calm by these associations and their corresponding mosques during the recent violence—and even a fatwa issued by the umbrella Union of Islamic Organizations of France forbidding all those “who seek divine grace from taking part in any action that blindly strikes private or public property or can harm others”—went largely unheeded.
Alongside this neo-liberal economic policy, the French government has since the 1990s responded to the “crisis” of the cités with increased police intervention, predicating urban renewal on social and political quiescence. The portrayal of the cités as sites of potential violent unrest was coupled with a growing media and popular fear that the housing projects had become recruitment zones for soldiers of jihad, an alarmism that politicians on the French right and far right have repeatedly mobilized to gain electoral support and argue for heavy-handed security measures, if not the deportation of Muslim immigrants. Newspaper reports decried the growth of “Islamist summer camps” and described the suburbs as part of a global terrorist network stretching from Paris to Algiers to Kabul to Chechnya and beyond.12Le Figaro, August 16, 1995. Police certified these fears with the shooting of Khaled Kelkal, a Beur from Vaulx-en-Velin accused of playing a role in the summer 1995 Parisian subway bombings attributed to the Algerian Armed Islamic Group. Such concerns were only magnified by the September 11, 2001 attacks, the arrest of French-born Moroccan Zacarias Moussaoui as the “twentieth hijacker” and the discovery of French citizens among the Taliban forces in Afghanistan. Indeed, the very day before the violence began in Clichy-sous-Bois, President Chirac had invoked the “real terrorist risk” to justify a proposed increase in surveillance measures of televisual and internet media.13“Pour Chirac, ‘le risque terrroriste est réel,’” Les Echos: Le web de l’économie, October 27, 2005, http://www.lesechos.fr/info/rew_france?4335830.htm.
Responding to a perceived growth of such “lawless zones (zones de non-droit) in which the law of the Republic is totally absent,”14Le Monde, September 7, 1995. the 1995-6 plans added 200 plainclothes inspectors to the already expanded suburban security forces to eliminate what were effectively no-go areas for the municipal The government’s tactical response has been neo-liberal economic policy and militarization. In 1999, Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin took these surveillance measures one step further, mobilizing 13,000 additional riot police and 17,000 military gendarmes to patrol these same “sensitive urban zones.” In 2003, Sarkozy further increased these numbers as part of his post-September 11 war on terror. These policing measures—which amount to the effective militarization of the cités—have resulted in the criminalization of certain everyday practices (such as assembly in the entryways or basements of public housing buildings where many prayer rooms had been established), the detention of countless suspected terrorists, the deportation of hundreds of undocumented immigrants, and the quotidian harassment of young cité residents. Given the dismantling of other state institutional bodies as effective social actors in the cités, this prioritization of security over social reform has resulted in the police becoming the sole agents of the French state with whom many residents of the housing projects have any sustained contact. In this respect, it is clear how an historical antagonism between cité youth and the police can translate into an outright hatred for the French “system” as a whole.
“Given the dismantling of other state institutional bodies as effective social actors in the cités, this prioritization of security over social reform has resulted in the police becoming the sole agents of the French state with whom many residents of the housing projects have any sustained contact.”
In this sense, France’s neo-liberal approach to the social “integration” of its impoverished urban periphery has been necessarily ambivalent. Nearly every euro it has saved by “tightening the belt” on the public sector—and for which it has incurred severe electoral wrath, including periodic general strikes by public servants—has been redeployed into the forces of security. Every attempt at “integrating” (or “civilizing”) underclass residents of the cités to national political, economic, and social norms is balanced by heavy-handed urbanization practices that continue to demarcate these populations as racially and spatially “other,” as structurally distant from the metropolis and its mechanics of class reproduction. As such, the colonial dual cities described by North African urban theorists Janet Abu-Lughod, Zeynep Çelik, Paul Rabinow, and Gwendolyn Wright—in which native medinas were kept isolated from European settler neighborhoods out of competing concerns of historical preservation, public hygiene, and security—have been effectively re-created in the postcolonial present, with contemporary urban policy and policing maintaining suburban cités and their residents in a state of immobile apartheid, at a perpetual distance from urban, bourgeois centers.15Janet Abu-Lughod, Rabat: Urban Apartheid in Morocco (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980); Zeynep Çelik, Urban Forms and Colonial Confrontations: Algiers under French Rule (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); Paul Rabinow, French Modern: Norms and Forms of the Social Environment (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989); Gwendolyn Wright, The Politics of Design in French Colonial Urbanism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).
The functioning of such de facto policies of urban apartheid broke down in the November 2005 violence, as the French state’s worst nightmare of—and NTM’s revolutionary call for—an entire cité generation in revolt seemed to come to pass. Such a nightmare had been envisioned, not only in austerity and policing measures that have created the condition of its possibility, but also in the fantasies of xenophobic politicians like Jean-Marie Le Pen who, in a speech delivered on November 15 in Paris, deployed the violence to mount his 2007 presidential campaign: “For years, if not for decades, we’ve been repeating our alarm of a massive immigration from outside Europe that will result in the submergence and ruin of France.”16Elizabeth Bryant, “French riots boost far right,” United Press International, http://www.upi.com/Internationalintelligence/view.php?StoryID= 200511115-122736-7692r. The speech was welcomed by the gathered crowd of supporters with calls for “Le Pen, President.” Whereas previous confrontations were largely containable within a given housing project, the initial violence in Clichy-sous-Bois spread within a few days to neighboring municipalities within the northeastern Parisian suburbs of Seine-St-Denis, shortly thereafter to neighboring regional departments, and by the end of a week’s time across all of France and even into neighboring countries. The mimetic quality of the confrontations and attacks on material property belied less an underlying organizational structure than a commonality of life under a set of social and economic conditions which had, after years of budget cuts and heavy-handed policing in the cités, reached a breaking point. While one should not underestimate the role of new media—from the consumption of televised images of police-youth confrontations at home and abroad (e.g., Palestine), to the utilization of web blogs and cellular SMS messages to encourage and coordinate the violence—such means do not constitute motive.
In this sense, the immediate triggering event of the electrocution of the three adolescents, followed by Sarkozy’s inflammatory promise to “pressure-wash” the racaille out of the housing projects, mattered less than the structural conditions set in place by the simultaneous cutting of public funding to the cités and a protracted “war on terror” applied to an internal, postcolonial, marginalized, and racially othered population. Enacting a colonial era state of emergency law, pursuing the deportations of permanent residents, and generally violating the civil liberties of its suburban citizens can only exacerbate these long-term tensions. In the end, the French state’s prolonged treating of a segment of its own citizenry as racially suspect and intrinsically prone to violence—as potential enemies within—has proven to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Paul A. Silverstein is associate professor of anthropology at Reed College. He is author of Bourdieu in Algeria: Colonial Politics, Ethnographic Practices, Theoretical Developments (with Jane E. Goodman; Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009). He and Tetreault contributed this essay to the Social Science Research Council’s essay forum titled “Riots in France.”
Chantal Tetreault is assistant professor of anthropology at Michigan State University. She has researched and written extensively on language, gender, and social exclusion in French suburban housing projects. Her latest book is titled Transcultural Teens: Performing Youth Identities in French Cités (Wiley-Blackwell, May 2015), based on her research into French urban centers. She and Silverstein contributed this essay to the Social Science Research Council’s essay forum titled “Riots in France.”
This essay originally appeared in Items & Issues Vol. 5, No. 4 in the winter of 2006. Visit our archives to view the original as it first appeared in the print editions of Items.