France's banlieues: year of the locust

About the author
Henri Astier is a French journalist who works for the BBC.

As France prepared to mark the anniversary of the riots that spread through its impoverished suburbs in October-November 2005, officials were braced for the worst. "Most of the conditions that led to collective violence one year ago... are still in place", an intelligence report warned in mid-October 2006, referring to the twenty-one nights of spreading turmoil, when more than 9,000 cars were burned and almost 3,000 people arrested.

In the event, hundreds of cars have been torched since the beginning of October, as have nine buses (one attack victim, Mama Galledou, a 26-year-old Senegalese researcher, is fighting for her life in Marseille after an attack on 28 October). The collective response from the country, however, has been to breathe a sigh of relief.

In most countries the burning of dozens of cars nationwide would be regarded as an emergency. In France it is called a quiet day. When a reported 277 vehicles were set alight on 27 October, the anniversary of the riots, police said the night had been "relatively calm".

How long the "calm" will last, however, is unclear. The banlieues (suburbs) where France has parked its immigrants and their children for decades remain tinderboxes. "Housing estates will go up in flames again, I can feel it", says Chris, a 16-year-old from Grigny, a ghetto south of Paris.

Throughout the banlieues, the frustrations that fuelled the riots - anger at unemployment and discrimination, a feeling of marginalisation from the rest of society - are as acute as ever among 16-20-year-olds. Every one of about fifty youths I spoke to during a recent tour of the suburbs said that nothing had changed in the past year - and were particularly bitter at the police.

"The cops are responsible for the riots: they constantly provoke us," said a 16-year-old from a dilapidated housing estate in Clichy-sous-Bois, where the 2005 unrest began. "We live in the same merde", he added.

Disenchantment prevails too among local officials and youth workers. "After the riots they (officials) were afraid of a repeat and made lots of promises, but in fact things have not changed", says Bandougou Cisse, an educator from L'île-Saint-Denis, just north of Paris.

The deputy mayor of Clichy-sous-Bois, Olivier Klein, agrees that the government's response has been inadequate. His city faces challenges which it cannot resolve by itself: decrepit housing, poor transport links (it takes ninety minutes to reach central Paris, a mere fifteen kilometres away), bad education (only 20% of pupils finish secondary school), rampant crime, and shocking levels of unemployment (40% in some estates).

Klein had expected the central government to devise a "comprehensive strategy" to deal with these, but this has not happened, he says. "The only concrete commitment we got in response to the riots was a decision to build a new police station."

Henri Astier is a French journalist who works for the BBC

Also by Henri Astier in openDemocracy:

"'We want to be French!'"
(November 2005)

"France's revolt against change"
(March 2006)

"In praise of French direct democracy"
(April 2006)

"Jean-François Revel (1924-2006): liberty's champion"
(4 May 2006)

The more things change

True, the government reacted to the riots with something approaching urgency. As the flames were still burning in mid-November 2005, President Jacques Chirac promised to help create jobs in the suburbs and to purge France of the "poison" of discrimination. This was not mere rhetoric: new funding, to the tune of €800 million ($1 billion), was released to help local authorities and charities. The government tried to make labour markets more flexible to help unskilled youths into jobs.

In March 2006, the government pushed through a loi sur l'égalité des chances (equal-opportunity law) that boosted the powers of an existing anti-discrimination body and set up a new outfit aimed at promoting integration. The law also increased tax breaks for companies based in poor areas, mandated anonymous CVs to stop employers rejecting applicants with foreign names, and urged TV channels to recruit among minorities.

Why has this made so little difference? Three reasons suggest themselves. First, it is early days: changing attitudes and employment practices will take time. Second, many measures may not achieve much even in the long run: tax concessions and extra spending have been fixtures of a string of Plan Banlieues over the years, to singularly little effect. And France already has a raft of bodies designed to help deprived urban areas - such as the National Council for Cities, an Inter-ministerial Commission for Cities of Urban Social Development, and a High Council for Integration.

The third reason for the lack of perceptible result is the sheer difficulty of changing anything in France. The one measure that might have had an immediate impact on banlieue youths was the plan to make employment more flexible. The national Code du travail (labour code) gives employees near-total job security. Recognising the deterrent effect this has on hiring, the government made it easier in 2005 for small firms to sack people. This was seen as a success, but the proposed extension of the move in early 2006 to all companies hiring youths (under the contrat première embauche, "first employment contract" or CPE) was defeated by student protestors mobilising against "flexploitation".

Nadir Dendoune, a writer from l'Île-Saint-Denis, notes that the rebellion came from the relatively well-off. "Many in the suburbs saw the CPE as a chance", he says. "For them an insecure job was better than no job."

Also in openDemocracy on France's weeks of rage:

Patrice de Beer, "Paris in flames: the limits of repression"
(2 November 2005)

Patrice de Beer, "The message in France's explosion"
(14 November 2005)

Alana Lentin, "The intifada of the banlieues"
(17 November 2005)

Small mercies

It is not just that the situation in the banlieues has not improved - in some ways it has got worse. While the violence of a year ago was spontaneous, gangs now deliberately target law-enforcement and other officials. This trend is highlighted by the October intelligence report, which concludes that a future wave of suburb disturbances could target "the last remaining institutional representatives in a number of areas - the police".

This is already happening. In the last two weeks at least four assaults on police have been reported in various suburbs of Paris - some involved luring them into traps though phoney emergency calls. "Attacks are now the work of groups structured along military lines", says police captain Patrick Trotignon, a 30-year veteran of some of Paris' worst suburbs. "What we have is urban warfare." According to his colleague Gaelle James, the gangs are now "out to kill cops".

Some observers blame government policy for the rise in tensions, notably the winding down of community policing in recent years. Clichy is a case in point: it lost its police station in 2002 and is now being policed from outside - inadequately, as Olivier Klein sees it. Local youth worker Laurence Ribeaucourt says the area remains overrun by criminals, and is the scene of sporadic clashes between "two gangs, one with uniforms and one without".

France's banlieues may be as desolate as ever and ripe for another explosion - but they also offer grounds for hope. The rioters, it must be noted, did not speak for most suburb residents. Few adults enjoyed the sight of their cars, buses, and community nurseries going up in flames. Women, in particular, were overwhelmingly appalled by the violence and many will tell you how they tried to stop their sons and brothers joining the fighting last year.

"Rioters burn cars that belong to local people - they target the innocent", Eva, an assertive 13-year-old from Epinay, told me. "No one wants this to happen again."

But the main reason to be (somewhat) hopeful is that even those who see rioting as a legitimate way to express a grievance - "At least it got us noticed!" is a standard line in the suburb - are not turning their backs on the rest of society. As the sociologist Emmanuel Todd argued a year ago, the children of immigrants were not affirming a separate identity - but their yearning to join the mainstream. "I interpret the events as a rejection of marginalisation", Todd told Le Monde.

The same holds true today. "What we need is recognition that we are just as French as anyone else in the country", says Nadir Dendoune. The media always talk about 'youths of immigrant origin'. They would never say that about children of Italian or Polish migrants."

Despite widespread reports of its demise, the French "republican" model is alive and well. This system - based on the official recognition of individuals, not groups - is widely accepted in the suburbs, whose residents reject rather than demand special treatment on racial or religious grounds. Opinion polls have shown that French Muslims overwhelmingly endorse Republican values.

In the end, this may offer limited reassurance.  Those whose cars are being burned derive no comfort from the fact that the arsonists feel French.  Yet their better-off compatriots may be thankful for small mercies: the problem they, and France, face is an underclass of domestic criminals, not (in the alarmist stereotype of some politicians and commentators) a "fifth column" of seditious foreigners.