Urban Violence in France
Paul Silverstein* and Chantal Tetreault**, November 2005 http://www.merip.org/mero/interventions/silverstein_tetreault_interv.htm
Dorénavant la rue ne pardonne plus
Nous n’avons rien à perdre car nous n’avons jamais rien eu
A votre place je ne dormirais pas tranquille
La bourgeoisie peut trembler, les cailleras sont dans la ville
Pas pour faire la fête, mais pour foutre le feu
Où sont nos repères? Qui sont nos modèles?
De toute une jeunesse, vous avez brulé les ailes
Brisé les rêves, tari la sève de l’espérance. Oh! Quand j’y pense
Il est temps qu’on y pense, il est temps que la France
Daigne de prendre conscience de toutes ces offenses
Mais quand bien même, la coupe est pleine
L’histoire l’enseigne, nos chances sont vaines
Alors arrêtons tout plûtot que cela traine
Ou ne draine, même, encore plus de haine
Unissons-nous pour incinérer ce système
Mais qu’est-ce, mais qu’est-ce qu’on attend pour foutre le feu
—Suprême NTM, “Qu’est-ce qu’on attend” (1995)
Anyone who was listening to Suprême NTM ten years ago would not be terribly surprised by the violence that has struck France in the early weeks of November 2005. The rap group hailing from Saint-Denis northeast of Paris knew all too well about the everyday police aggression that shapes life in the decaying housing projects ringing cities across France. Like NTM, many young residents of the cités, as the housing projects are known in French, had simply been asking themselves, “Why are we waiting?”
As is almost always the case, the violence began with an incident that might not otherwise make the front page in a major world capital. On October 27, after playing an informal soccer match with friends at a stadium in Clichy-sous-Bois (a municipality neighboring Saint-Denis), Muhittin Altun, 17, Zyed Benna, 17, and Bouna Traoré, 15, were heading home to end their Ramadan fast when they heard police sirens. Bouna told the others to run, claiming that members of the Anti-Criminal Brigade were in pursuit. A security guard from a nearby construction site had called the police because he believed the teens were trespassing; other young men present deny ever having entered the site. Muhittin, Zyed and Bouna jumped the fence of a nearby electrical substation to escape the police, but only Muhittin survived. Zyed and Bouna were fatally electrocuted. The police have denied seeing the three teens enter the substation.
As word spread about Zyed and Bouna’s deaths, young men from the surrounding housing projects gathered in protest. In a minor set-to with police, they burned 15 cars. The following evening, the conflict had expanded, pitting as many as 400 local youth against perhaps 300 riot police and military gendarmes called in to maintain order. Although local residents marched peacefully the next morning, calling both for legal redress for the dead teens and for calm, attacks on vehicles and public property continued that night. When, on October 30, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy went on national television to promise “zero tolerance” for the racaille (scum), and when that same evening a tear gas canister of the type employed by riot police exploded in a Clichy mosque, the clashes took on a more violent tenor. Within a few days, they had spread across other housing projects in the surrounding municipalities, with flaming cars quickly becoming a daily sight.
On November 7, after nearly two weeks of confrontations in cités around Paris and other French cities, French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin announced a “state of emergency” across over a quarter of the nation’s territory. The measure — which for an initial period of 12 days grants prefects the right to establish curfews within their regions and the interior minister the power to close public spaces and order search-and-seizures, house arrests and press censorship — derives from an April 1955 law crafted to snuff out support for the nascent Algerian war of independence. Originally applied for over 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 1984-1985 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 Villepin, 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.
The colonial law’s deployment in response to the present crisis points to an enduring logic of colonial rule within post-colonial 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 speech 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.” For the last 50 years, the state has sought to transform the children of immigrants and other members of the suburban underclass into productive and well-adjusted Frenchmen, all the while bemoaning their resistance to being so transformed. The state has simultaneously worried aloud, to a public obsessed with security, about the immigrants’ suspect stability and potential for violence.
In spite of these preexisting metropolitan anxieties of the 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 current violence — which has resulted in 8,400 torched vehicles and over 2,600 arrests in nearly 100 towns across France, as well as one death — has taken most observers by surprise. Initial reports sought to link the sudden upsurge to a larger “clash of civilizations,” reading the events through the lens of the Palestinian intifada or the Iraqi insurgency, and searching for the fingerprints of some terrorist organization. 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 anti-imperialist Arab nationalism or some sort of anti-Western jihadism, as Fouad Ajami, Charles Krauthammer and Daniel Pipes, among others, would have it, but rather from lifetimes of rampant unemployment, school failure, police harassment and everyday discrimination that tends to treat the youths as the racaille of Sarkozy’s insult — regardless of race, ethnicity or religion.
Such conditions have been exacerbated by recent fiscal reforms that have slashed the social welfare budget and funding for neighborhood associations, after-school programs, community policing and internships. Since the mid-1990s, in addition, the Interior Ministry’s hardline policies toward urban crime have contributed to a de facto militarization of the housing projects that was magnified after 2001 by the “war on terror.” In the minds of many cité inhabitants, the French state has come to be equated with repression, an equation that has magnified their “hatred” (la haine) of the system. The roots of the current violence cannot be addressed as long as the government treats it as a security problem, rather than a confluence of social marginalization and anger at the police.
The cités are multiracial, and the solidarity their inhabitants feel with each other is rooted in common social class rather than ethnic or religious similarity. Housing project construction began in earnest in the mid-1950s during the Algerian war, following interrelated imperatives of social uplift and public security, of circulation and containment. On the one hand, urban planners sought to dilute white poverty in city centers, allowing poor whites literally to move 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 immediate proximity to the factories in which residents were assumed to work. On the other hand, the cités responded to security concerns, moving North African immigrant workers and their families away from the large shantytowns that had become centers of organizing for the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN). In the years that followed, newly arrived African, Caribbean and Southeast Asian immigrants added to the racial and cultural mix. There are more racial and ethnic “minorities,” therefore, in the cités than in other urban areas, but many whites live there as well.
After the economic downturn of the 1970s, dreams of social mobility for residents of the housing projects quickly faded into nightmares of physical and economic immobility. The number of industrial jobs has fallen by 50 percent since 1954 to a mere 20 percent of the total, with the vast majority of jobs currently being offered in the service sector and requiring a certain level of formal education. By the early 1990s, youth unemployment nationwide was as high as 20 percent — twice the average among all age groups. 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.
Today, the cités are dilapidated, with an atmosphere of sterility, social exile and “distress” (galère). Most of the shopping centers built in the middle of the housing projects have closed, due to lack of local capital and occasional petty crime, and smaller stores near the complexes have a high turnover rate. The concrete and other prefabricated materials used in construction have not weathered well; as of the early 1990s, an estimated 80 percent of the buildings suffered from some combination of water damage, insulation problems, broken elevators or worse. A number of structures have been torn down in the interim. These buildings have not been replaced, and since 1989 over 300,000 more apartments have phased out than built, resulting in overcrowding and squatting. The public housing shortage has turned deadly: since April 2005, 48 poor immigrants have died in three separate fires in makeshift municipal housing and abandoned buildings in Paris.
As the development of public transportation has failed to keep pace with the growth of the suburban population, the cités have become isolated as well. While Parisian subway and commuter rail lines extend into the proximate suburbs, for instance, there are only about 120 stops for several thousand communes in the region, with the further 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, nearly 60 percent of these suburban municipalities lack their own train station. 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 lines that do connect the suburbs to Paris are under heavy surveillance, 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 stigma of isolation, along with the housing projects’ poor physical appearance and impoverishment, has made residence in certain cités an impediment to being hired for a job, further worsening unemployment.
It is not surprising, then, that French housing projects have developed a sophisticated informal economy — including a series of gray-market institutions revolving around the drug trade or the fencing of stolen consumer items. 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 under-funded, education system that attempts to compensate for the depressed conditions in French schools: poor facilities, overcrowded classrooms and teachers unknowledgeable about or inflexible to the students’ multicultural needs. The same associations also provide day care for working mothers and legal advice, particularly on 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 social, educational and legal services to local associations.
On the other hand, the gray market brings increased state scrutiny to the cités, including from the police. The large 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 often targets police stations, shopping malls, municipal centers, and other state and commercial institutions symbolically associated by housing project 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 firebombed the shopping centers and police stations throughout the area. During the same period, the Lyons suburb of Les Minguettes exploded in a series of violent confrontations between young men and the police. In an estimated 250 separate incidents often referred to as “rodeos” by participants, groups of young men would steal a car, engage police in a chase, and then abandon and burn the vehicle.
Although most property damage in recent urban violence has been concentrated in low-income neighborhoods, teens have also attacked the property of their middle-class neighbors. Housing projects are adjacent to single-family homes whose owners are pursuing the suburban dream of affordable real estate in semi-rural settings. 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 US media has mistakenly referred to “gangs,” these groups are not organized in that manner. Rather, loose and fictive kinship between “older and younger brothers” (les grands et les petits frères) binds the youth of the community together. In some instances, grands frères censor violence in cités, by condemning, and thus preventing, vandalism and graffiti.
At other times, the “rodeos” have been sanctioned or at least understood as a direct response to police violence. Referring to the 1981 incidents in Les Minguettes, one local 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.” Two years later, similar confrontations occurred in neighboring Venissieux, leading to the weeklong occupation of the housing project by a regiment of 4,000 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.
In the 1990s, the confrontations attained an almost routine pattern. To cite just a few incidents: youth and riot police clashed in November 1990 in the Mas-du-Taureau cité of the Lyonnais suburb of Vaulx-en-Velin after the death of resident Thomas Claudio, 21, in a motorcycle chase with police; they battled in March 1991 in Sartrouville (Paris) after the killing of Djamel Chettouh, 18, by a Euromarché supermarket security guard; they tangled again 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 the two sides faced off yet again in June 1995 in the Parisian suburb of Noisy-le-Grand after the police killing of local youth Kacem Belhabib in a motorcycle chase. These clashes generally involved the destruction of cars, gymnasiums, schools and shopping centers. Such violence and property destruction, when portrayed by the media as “riots” or even “rampages,” has fed negative stereotypes of the housing projects and contributed to the infernal spiral.
The November 2005 disturbances, dubbed events of “unprecedented gravity” by Villepin, respond both to this long history of confrontation and, more immediately, to Sarkozy’s racially charged insults after the initial few days of car burnings. At a deeper level, the clashes are a reaction 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 scolded 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 — their parents’ native language, religious faith and cultural traditions — added to unreasonable expectations that they should succeed, against all odds, in school and work. The March 2005 ban on Muslim headscarves in public schools, the state’s refusal to recognize Eid al-Adha (the feast marking the end of the pilgrimage to Mecca) alongside Catholic festivals as a national holiday, Chirac’s history of excusing racism as a justified response to the “noise and smell” of immigrants — all this is seen as more proof 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. The headscarf ban also provided glaring evidence of the arrogant disregard of the political class, particularly the conservatives who are presently in power, for the underlying socioeconomic problems besetting Arab and Muslim communities in France. Rather than address the real causes of minority exclusion, the state engaged in alarmist mobilizing around a cultural symbol.
Along with their poverty, unemployment and isolation, these continual reminders that they are outsiders in France have led the youths of the cités to fashion a dynamic subculture that connects 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.” Like its counterpart in American urban argot, when applied by marginalized youths to one of their peers, the word is intended to capture both how he is stigmatized by polite society and how he is valorized as an anti-hero of cité subculture. French hip-hop, like its American analogue, plays on words, so that in NTM’s line “les cailleras sont dans la ville”(the gangstas are in town), racaille becomes caillera. 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. Thus, the denigration of cités as existing outside bourgeois French society comes full circle as the means and measure for the social and economic success of cité dwellers diverge more and more from the unattainable ideal of belonging to the bourgeois France of equal (and legal) opportunity.
The government’s response to urban unrest has been twofold: neo-liberal economic policy and the effective militarization of the cités. In the first place, it unveiled a series of urban renewal plans designed to reintegrate 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 1995-1996 “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), providing tax incentives to encourage the return of businesses scared away by the rise in suburban violence. Like the original Marshall Plan designed to reconstruct wartorn 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.
In the time that has passed, and particularly under the management of the minister of urbanism, Jean-Louis Borloo, the corporate character of these reforms has been extended, while funding to associations and social services have been cut as part of a more general belt-tightening necessitated by France’s 2002 entry 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 historically has been prone to steer cité 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 public institutions as warehouses for the truly disadvantaged. 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. While there has been a rise in religious (and particularly Islamic) associations in the cités, even these have remained ineffective at organizing local youth. Indeed, the repeated public cries for calm by these associations and their corresponding mosques during the recent violence went largely unheeded — including even the 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.”
Alongside neo-liberal economic policy, since the 1990s the French government has 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 fear that the housing projects had become recruitment zones for soldiers of jihad, an alarmism which politicians on the French right and far right have repeatedly mobilized to gain electoral support and to 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. Police certified these fears with the shooting of Khaled Kelkal, a French-born Algerian from Vaulx-en-Velin accused of playing a role in the summer 1995 Paris 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, Chirac had invoked the “real terrorist risk” to justify a proposed increase in surveillance of televisual and Internet media.
Surveillance measures have been supplemented by direct policing. Responding to a perceived growth of cité “lawless zones (zones de non-droit) in which the law of the Republic is totally absent,” the 1995-1996 plans added 200 plainclothes inspectors to the already expanded suburban security forces to eliminate what were effectively no-go areas for the municipal police. In 1999, Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin took these surveillance measures a 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 larger post-September 11 war on terror. These measures have led police to roust youths assembled in the entryways or basements of public housing buildings where prayer rooms had been established, detain countless suspected terrorists, deport hundreds of undocumented immigrants and engage in the quotidian harassment of young cité residents. The police have become 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.
There is an added irony in France’s nightwatchman approach to the cités. Nearly every euro the state has saved by “tightening the belt” on the cité public sector has been redirected into security forces. Every attempt at “integrating” (or “civilizing”) underclass residents of the cités into national political, economic and social norms is undercut by treatment that labels these populations as “not French” because of what they look like or where they live. 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 recreated in the post-colonial 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.
The functioning of such de facto urban apartheid has broken down in the current violence, as the French state’s worst nightmares of — and NTM’s revolutionary call for — an entire cité generation in revolt seem to have come to pass. Such a nightmare had been envisioned, not only in the austerity and policing measures that are its condition of possibility, but also in the fantasies of xenophobic politicians like Jean-Marie Le Pen, who deployed the violence at a November 15 Paris rally for 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.” 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 property belied less an underlying organizational structure than a commonality of life under social and economic conditions which had, after years of budget cuts and overzealous policing in the cités, reached a breaking point. While one should not underestimate the role of new media — from televised images of police-youth confrontations at home and abroad to weblogs and cellular SMS messages — such means do not constitute motive.
In this sense, the immediate triggering event of the electrocution of the two adolescents, followed by Sarkozy’s inflammatory promise to “pressure-wash” (nettoyer à Kärcher) 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 a harassed and impoverished population enduring chronic racial discrimination. Enacting a colonial-era emergency law, pursuing the deportation of long-term residents and generally violating the civil liberties of suburban citizens can only exacerbate these tensions over the long haul, even if Sarkozy’s self-described “firmness” puts a halt to what he calls France’s “sharpest and most complex urban crises.” In the end, the French state’s prolonged treatment 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.
 Fouad Ajami, “The Boys of Nowhere,” US News and World Report, November 21, 2005; Charles Krauthammer, “What the Uprising Wants,” Time, November 13, 2005; Daniel Pipes, “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” New York Sun, November 8, 2005.
 Catherine Wihtol de Wenden and Zakya Daoud, “Banlieues…intégration ou explosion?” Panoramiques 12 (February 1994), p. 75.
 Riva Kastoryano, Negotiating Identities: States and Immigrants in France and Germany (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), pp. 101-102.
 Pascal Duret, Anthropologie de la fraternité dans les cités (Paris: Presses Universitaires de Paris, 1996).
 Cited in Adil Jazouli, Les Années banlieues (Paris: Seuil, 1992), pp. 21-22.
 Le Figaro, August 16, 1995.
 Les Echos: Le web de l’économie, October, 27, 2005.
 Le Monde, September 7, 1995.
 Janet 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).
 United Press International, November 15, 2005.
* Paul Silverstein, an associate professor of anthropology at Reed College, is author of Algeria in France: Transpolitics, Race and Nation, Indiana University Press, 2004.
** Chantal Tetreault is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.