La crise en banlieue

My favourite expert on the politics of immigration and racism in modern France, Daniel Gordon, writes to the Virtual Stoa…

*** Neither having been in France during the riots, nor having yet studied their causes in any depth (as a historian, I know less about the banlieue of today than that of thirty to forty years ago), I was reluctant to join the ranks of the armchair pundits offering instant expertise on the riots to suit their pre-existing agendas.

You know the formula: this proves that the republican model of integration has failed and needs to be replaced forthwith with British / American multiculturalism — that the French social model has failed and needs a dose of neo-liberalism — that mass immigration is a mistake — that Muslims do / do not want to integrate — that ethnic relations would be greatly improved with the addition of some hyphens to how people describe their identities — that immigrants to Europe should be more aspirational, like the author’s Bolivian cleaning lady in the US — that France is on the brink of a civil war from which Le Pen will emerge victorious — that Nicolas Sarkozy has / has not blown it for the 2007 election — that the Right in power has spent too little / too much on the banlieue — that the Left in power was too laxiste — that Azouz Begag should not have allowed himself to become the government’s token Beur — that the revolution is just around the corner — that there is a Eurabian conspiracy — that Britain should not give up its rebate on the EU budget — delete according to taste; preferably support your view with as little evidence as possible; and try to move the argument as far as you can manage from the actual concerns of people living in the places affected.

I’m reminded of the youth from an estate near Lyons, who said after similar riots in 1981:

“For us, the riots were first of all the expression of bring fed up, nobody could guess in advance that it would go so far; the media have gone on about it for better or worse, but afterwards no longer can anyone say they didn’t know what we were living through. It was only afterwards that the lefties and the intellectuals descended on us to explain to the guys the real meaning, as they put it, of the riots. For us, it was just words, and anyway, we didn’t understand much of what they said. It wasn’t them who were in the shit, it isn’t their mates who were in the slammer. They quickly understood, and some of them were even beaten up, it was perhaps stupid, but people need to understand that we are fed up with everyone.”– Farid of Les Minguettes, quoted in Adil Jazouli, Les années banlieues, 1992, p. 24.

So it’s probably safer to adopt the old line about the French Revolution, that it’s too soon to tell. Since this general area is meant to be “my subject”, however, I thought it only fair to the various people who have asked me what my opinion is that it’s about time I had one.Let me first make the unoriginal, but necessary, point that there is always a tendency, given that the English-speaking media generally only take much interest in France when there’s a crisis, for the undeniably dramatic side of events like these to be overplayed. (Of course, the same happens in the other direction when France takes a glance northwards to get in a state about communautarisme in Britain). This obscures the lived reality that the banlieue is full of normal people trying to get on with unexceptional lives in sometimes difficult circumstances, regardless of their ethnic origin, and will still be once the TV crews have moved on.

And secondly, let me offer a few historical observations to try to put these events in some kind of perspective. This is especially necessary given the unfortunate tendency in much commentary to portray immigration as something new and external (despite the fact that North African labour migration to France dates back to before the First World War).

For example, the old canard that European immigrants to early twentieth century France were easy to integrate, whereas non-Europeans today are not, has recently been unquestioningly repeated in the Guardian, amongst other places. This is surprising given that this is a favourite theme of the xenophobic right in France (I once attended a local residents meeting in Nice on an entirely unrelated issue, where for some reason a member of the audience started to rant about North Africans not having the same “republican fibre” as Poles and Italians), and moreover that as long ago as the 1980s the research of historians like Gérard Noiriel showed this view to be highly questionable: there were anti-Italian pogroms in 1893 for example.

An additional problem is that the English-speaking media have too literally translated the French debate, referring to “immigrant neighbourhoods” and “immigrant youths” when they would not use such terms to describe areas of the UK with high concentrations of ethnic minorities descended from migrations of some decades ago, or the people that live in them.

To make another historical observation, the spectre hauting all this is of course the Algerian War. 7 November’s decision to declare a state of emergency under the law of 3 April 1955 – when the FLN insurgency was getting going in Algeria – was a quite extraordinary move, which one day, the de Villepin government may have cause to regret. Apart from the fact that the state of emergency directly fulfils a demand pressed over the preceding week by Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter Marine, the historian Benjamin Stora observes that it will “revive unhappy memories” amongst survivors of the period. After all, this was a measure that — leaving aside a farcical incident when it was used to ban The Bridge on The River Kwai — led to the setting up of internment camps in mainland France. Most notoriously, the last time that a curfew was applied in Paris, in October 1961, two hundred Algerians were beaten to death when the FLN organised a peaceful demonstration to break the curfew. Then, the curfew applied only to “Français Musulmans d’Algérie“; today it applies only to certain districts. And once again, calls have been made for demonstrations in breach the curfew…

(It’s also interesting that — at least according to Le Monde of 9 November — the driving force behind the measure was de Villepin, normally portrayed as the foppish soft cop, while Sarkozy, normally portrayed as the Action Man hard cop, had his doubts.)

And whenever there is an upheaval in France, watching out for the first person to exclaim, “It’s just like 1968 all over again” is a bit like waiting for someone to spot the first cuckoo of summer. Right on cue, it didn’t take long for commentators to make the comparison.

Since, just to pick a few examples from the last decade, this was also said about the strikes of November-December 1995, various protests of the unemployed in the late Nineties, the anti-Le Pen demonstrations between the two rounds of the 2002 presidential election, and the mobilisation for a No vote in the 2005 referendum on the EU constitution, we’d be right to be sceptical about such claims, unless and until the events in the banlieue spark off massive unrest in other parts of society.

It’s interesting that the ’68 comparison was made with banlieue youth unrest as far back as the 1981 riots in the suburbs of Lyons — about the time, in fact, when the ’68 period was definitively ending. ’68 was a product of the postwar economic boom, of industrial society, of optimism, when Marxism was intellectually hegemonic and the far right marginal. It would be surprising if today’s much more fractured, pessimistic, individualised postindustrial society produced quite the same conjuncture of forces in revolt. France today, as ever, has plenty of social conflicts but they are rather isolated from one another – though admittedly the same was true of the situation immediately before May ’68. I was struck that Eric Raoult, the first mayor to declare a curfew (on 7 November, pre-empting the government declaration), chose to accompany it with a declaration that it was not “a war of the rich against the poor and that Marx and Lenin have been dead a long time” — make of that what you will!

This is not to say there aren’t points in common with 1968:

1) Cars being destroyed (though it should be said that on a smaller scale cars are burnt the whole time: apparently there were 17,000 this year even before the current riots began). Since the ever-efficient Renseignements Généraux is good at recording the exact number of cars burnt each night across the whole of French territory, we can use this as a comparator. (Do they have teams of officials going round with clipboards to record this? — in fact they even manage to record that 28,000 dustbins were set on fire over the same period as the 17,000 cars, both displayed in a helpful pie-chart in Le Monde.) On the official figures, more cars were being destroyed per night at the height of the current unrest than on the Night of the Barricades, 10-11 May 1968 — which is remarkable, even allowing for the fact that the raw material, so to speak, is to hand in greater quantities now than then with higher levels of car ownership.

2) Sarko’s use of the word “racaille” to describe the rioters has parallels with the use of the word “pègre” by government officials to describe criminal / lumpenproletariat elements taking part in the rioting in ’68, a word which similarly led to an upsurge in violence.

3) Finally, Sarko’s announcement on 9 November that foreign nationals involved in rioting are to be deported is in a long tradition of expulsions at time of crisis. From the bitter strikes of 1947-48 to the delightfully named anti-communist crackdown “Operation Boléro-Paprika” of 1950, from May ’68 to the immigrant hostels’ rent strikes of the late 70s, Interior Ministers have often tried to end a movement by ostentatiously deporting some foreign “troublemakers”, a denunciation from the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme for this acting as proof that they have fulfilled their job description. (By the way, how do you apply to be a “hardline Interior Minister”? Do you go to the same agency that has vacancies for “elephants” and “big beasts”?) ***

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