Paris in flames: the limits of repression

Patrice de Beer
2 November 2005

A week after the riots in the Lozells area of Birmingham, England, between people of African-Caribbean descent and those of Asian origin, the northeast Paris banlieues (suburbs) of Clichy-sous-Bois and Montfermeil exploded in violent confrontation between police and black and beurs (north African) youths. There have been clashes for six nights in a row – extending on the night of 1-2 November to the suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois. They involve the stoning of police vans, the burning of dozens of cars, attacks on firemen, and the vandalising of a police station, a post office, and a city hall. The disturbances have gone as far as a bullet being fired at a police van and a tear-gas canister being thrown at a local mosque during evening prayers – in the midst of the Muslim fasting month, Ramadan.

Also by Patrice de Beer in openDemocracy on the crisis of France:

“France’s post-referendum trauma” (May 2005)

“France’s incendiary crisis” (September 2005)

“The Schröder-Merkel clash spills across the Rhine” (October 2005)

“France’s political sclerosis” (October 2005)

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As in Birmingham, rumour was at the heart of the unfolding events. On 27 October, two teenagers – Ziad Benna and Bouna Traore, sons of working-class African Muslim immigrants – were electrocuted while hiding in an electric substation. The circumstances of the incident are contested; it was quickly alleged – though by politicians rather than police, who strenuously deny the claim – that they had tried to escape a police check.

This is not the first racial riot – and it certainly won’t be the last – in the suburban ghettoes of France or other European countries. Youth violence, and more particularly violence in immigrant communities – legal or illegal, involving French citizens or not – has been here for a long time, and seems here to stay. Nicolas Sarkozy, the French interior minister and candidate to succeed president Jacques Chirac at the Elysée palace in 2007 – the two men hate each other despite belonging to the same UMP party – has adopted a repressive, law-and-order, zero-tolerance strategy towards the banlieues.

The rhetoric is as polarising as it is simple: it threatens evildoers (“them”) with jail sentences if they dare threaten the law-abiding citizens (“us”). Until now, this hyper-mediatic policy has paid off, helping make “Sarko” – himself the son of an Hungarian immigrant – one of the most popular politicians in France.

But today, in a tense situation of racial unrest, unemployment, loss of faith in politics and a bitter pre-presidential fight within the Union pour un Movement Populaire (UMP) as well as the Socialist party, Sarkozy’s strategy is losing steam. Crime may be down statistically , but it remains as visible as ever, and only a third of physical assaults are recorded. The number of cars burned might be down, but the vehicles look as disturbing as ever on a TV screen. Daily “misbehaviour” – the politically-correct word for petty violence – might be unacceptable to many, but the cowboy-like behaviour of police launching armed operations in banlieues look no more acceptable, especially if they prove ineffective; or when they go too far, like firing tear-gas at a mosque.

It seems more obvious than ever that violence attracts more violence, and that it becomes a vicious circle where violent police repression of local riots nurtures even more violence and in turn even more repression. It is true that, in the banlieues as in the more affluent inner cities, people fear petty crime, drug-peddling, and carjacking by jobless youngsters. But nor do they like being fingered by police and politicians as potential criminals because of their appearance or creed. The only beur member of government, Azouz Begag, “minister for social promotion and equality of opportunity”, criticised Sarko for his provocative words: “You must not call youngsters ‘scum’, tell them that you’re going to hit them hard. You must try to appease the situation,” he said, adding “I use the verb ‘clean up’ for my shoes or my car, not for neighbourhoods”.

Repression has shown its limits. Not that it is useless or harmful, as any government has to protect its citizens against crime. But a repressive policy cannot compensate for racial and social integration, nor offer an answer to discrimination, the housing problems of ghettoised suburbs and (above all) to the unemployment which hits the immigrant population even harder than the majority of job-seekers. Histrionic posturing to attract voters in pre-electoral times can cause more harm than good especially when the very social structure of France is at stake.

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