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Published in GQ Magazine, 2006

Pic: Asnières, Seine-Saint-Denis, Paris.
By Andy Sewell.


Boulevard of Broken Dreams: the 2005 Paris Riots

When France erupted in a two-week flambée of rioting, pyromania and police confrontations last autumn, the places that went up weren’t the manicured boulevards known to tourists. Instead it flared in places like Clichy-Sous-Bois  - suburban ‘banlieue’ zones home to sink estates so profoundly delapidated and ugly that they could be a corner of some post-Soviet hinterland, or Bosnia, or a Judge Dredd strip or any other forgotten concrete jungle if it wasn’t for the French graffiti everywhere, the reminder that you’re in the guts of affluent G8 country in middle of 2005.

‘Everyone said the kids were breaking their own things here,’ Abdel, a shaven-headed 23-year-old postal worker, tells me as he surveys the aftermath in the ragged roads of his Clichy-Sous-Bois home, 15 miles from the Eiffel tower. ‘But look. They haven’t got anything to break. They’ve got nothing.’

It’s impossible to disagree with him. A fortnight ago the first Molotov cocktails exploded here in the <cités> - estates - of Clichy. Abdel looks at cadaverous tower blocks and scorched streets around him and sees shocking nelect. People from smarter neighbourhoods fly-tip rubbish in front of homes and torched cars await removal. Retired immigrant men fog the street-corner air with conversation and the few women in the streets wear Muslim headscarves. Everyone under 25 has their hoods up, and even though at nighfall police vans pull up and patrol the streets at a menacingly slow pace, in the daytime helmetless kids scream past on mopeds. ‘The kids aren’t scared of anything here.’ Abdel says. ‘Nothing. The problem is, if you put people in cages, they become animals.’
Abdel watched the rioting from high in his block, La Lorette, a disfigured oblong tower in the middle of the estate. He is married with a daughter and has a job paying the the minium wage of €1000 month. ‘I’m a slave,’ he says. He wears a smart leather coat, white Nikes and has kind but wearied eyes. ‘I should keep my mouth shut’, he says, ‘but they didn’t send in police to calm thing down but to provoke us. It’s war – the police make the war. There is pressure here. They drive round, two or three in cars, slow down and look at you like that.’ Adbel squints his eyes meanly and hardens his lips. ‘We don’t need police here.’

Abdel shrugs when he remembers the civic SNAFU in Clichy-Sous-bois a fortnight ago, because what happened wasn’t surprising and the reasons it happened won’t change.

The nationwide rioting and arson ignited here, a borough 30 minutes north-east into the inkblot of greater Paris, along the A3 arterial route on October 28. Events at Clichy were exceptional but also emblematic, because the fractures that exist there are being repeated across France.

The town of 25,000 assumes little, since like every suburb its function is to breed moderation. Clichy rolls down the side of shallow, wooded hill 15 miles from Paris. Parts of the town are trimmed, ordered, petit-bourgeois and perhaps screamingly dull to the highly aspirational. Houses are detached and neat, and many of the blocks in private ownership look well-maintained. Clichy has busy boulangeries, hair salons and cafes on its shopping parades. Some architecturally ambitious lycées and ranging green spaces border the leafy boulevards that wind up to the Forest of Bondy. Typically for a suburb, has no obvious centre and no obvious boundary with neighbouring towns.
One district seems unrelated to another, and the town’s atmosphere can change dramatically from one side of road to the other. Cross Clichy’s backbone, the long Allée Maurice Audin, from the pretty <Mairie> [Town hall] to the <cité> of Le Chêne Pointu and the transition is jarring: from pleasantville to claustrophobic concrete necropolis over a pelican crossing. This is equally typical of the France no-one visits. Climb the Allée, left at the squat McDonald’s and up the Allée Romain Roland to High-Clichy, and you reach yet uglier canyons of social housing where state-subsidised rent is 600 euros a month for five rooms and unemployment hits 40 per cent, four times the national average. From pavement to block and back again life in this part of Clichy is lived stoically, through a concrete pall of dejeaction and dispossession. After a while, it cracks.
Since the Eighties many suspected that the dystopian <banlieues> or <quartiers chauds> (hot neighbourhoods)were a powderkeg. Autumn 2005 set an entire matchbox to the powder. On October 28 2005 two teenagers died in Clichy-Sou-Bois after being chased by police, a CS grenade bounced into the local mosque and disruption flamed from Paris’s outskirts to the six points of France.
By November 16 2005 the riots were quelled, the TV crews had gone some kind of normality returned to France. But out in the slum estates in the cold November aftermath, life goes on, segregation remains real, the people are poor and everyday, it begins to cook again.
So much for ‘l’égalité.’

A certain Scorsesean affectation emerged in French public life last Autumn. In a speech that was as much Robert De Niro as Charles De Gaulle, France’s pugnacious right-wing Home Office minister Nicolas Sarkozy used the word <racaille> to describe a delinquent juvenile underclass on a visit to the Parisian <banlieue>  on October 25. At its worst, <racaille> means ‘scum’. Suburbs across of France took Sarkozy at his word and responded in the traditional French way. The banlieues exploded in a series of events that that traumatised lives, caught global media attention and left schools, gyms, police stations, shops, a theatre, a depot with 24 buses, a huge carpet warehouse, a McDonalds and almost 9,000 vehicles smouldering.

Several days into the anarchy Sarkozy went further, pledging ‘zero tolerance’ on lawlessness and expressing his Taxi Driver intention to ‘power-hose’ the rioting delinquents of La Courneuve, a notoriously difficult neighbourhood in the ‘93’ Seine-Saint-Denis suburb north-east of Paris. France’s atmosphere on the cusp of October and November was  inflammatory, and so was its language. The politicised French – namely, every citizen - have publicised their contempt for politicians since the invention of walls and spraycans, and graffiti appeared in the banlieues beyond the <péripherique>. It said ‘Fuck Sarkozy’; ‘Sarkozy you are dead’ and ‘Sarko Fuck Your Mother’. Kids blogged and graffed that they had ‘la haine’ (hatred) and ‘la rage’ (fury) for and against ‘Sarko’, his CRS riot police and any other public institution within pelting distance.

Malek Boukerchi, 33, is an intense, rangy former estate kid who works as an educator in some of France’s toughest zones. His understanding of banlieue situation is hard-lived. ‘Who is the scum?,’ he says when we meet in central Paris. ‘I am scum, <racaille>, but one has to had to evolve.’ Travel into the ‘93’ Département and it’s abundantly clear why he and other now talk of the ‘France downstairs’, ‘La Sous-France’, which is also the French word for ‘suffering’. A separate state that bears no resemblance to the France of tourist brocghures or “Amelie”.
‘Pressure grew since 9/11,’ Boukerchi says. ‘People began to look at banlieue people more like terrorists. There was an identity crisis. There are plenty of kids who return to Algeria but they’re not Algerian. You are considered a dirty Frenchman, and France you’re considered a dirty arab. People talk of liberté, egalité, fraternité. But it’s an ideal. The real shared value is discrimination.’
A knot of unemployed men with the dusky complexions of North Africa collect every day by the Salon de Thé opposite another of La Forestiere’s gruesome blocks built and apparently unmaintained since 1962. ‘Who is the <racaille>? It’s you, its me, it’s the police, it’s the state,’ says Khaled, 19, who is angry. ‘A government minister has no right to use words like that.’
‘We were against the riots,’ says Mohammed, 22. ‘But it’s the fault of the police. They are the <racaille>. ‘It’s not pretty here, but we’re nice people.’
‘Who built France?,’ says Kamel, 26. ‘We did. But we’re always at the bottom. We’re French. But not like the others.’
They list the gravest problems of life here in the following order. 1: ‘Racism.’ 2: ‘Unemployment.’ 3: ‘Racism.’
Zyed Banna, 17 and Bouna Traore, 15, lived in the lower parts of Clichy-Sous-Bois in La Sous-France: Bouna in a shoebox halfway up a rust-coloured tower in Le Chêne Pointu, Zyed in one of the 150m-long, five-storey blocks of the Vallée des Anges that face each other across the Allée Maurice Audin’s western end.
They died gruesomely in the other Clichy, the France upstairs: in the Rue Des Bois, a smart cul-de-sac in the town’s northernmost pocket. The street ends at a fortresslike orange Electricité De France substation beyond a three-metre wall. Pylons stride off into the distance carrying thousand of volts. Warning banners painted in hip hop-style read, ‘Stop - don’t risk your life!’.
Neither teenager heeded the sign. They were stopped with a third teenager playing football at around 6pm on Thursday October 27 by police demanding ID papers. Something caused them to run. It is unclear whether the police chased them, but they ran up the adjacent Rue Des Pres, bolted left through thicket and jumped into the pit of high-voltage cabling in the back of the substation grounds. Zyed and Bouna were burnt alive but the third teenager survived with massive injuries. The deaths tripped the local grid and caused a powercut across Clichy. In the darkness rumours grew fast.
‘Electrique – extremely tense’ is how Ahmed Bouhout, a youth worker attached to the town hall, describes the 24 hours that followed when he shows us round Clichy. ‘Spontaneously the kids started smashing things, burning cars.’ A minibus was first of 15 vehicles to go up in flames, and attempts were made to torch the town hall and a school. Clichy’s young, many of whom are expelled from education, heard the Chinese whispers and reached a tragic conclusion. ‘They thought the police killed Zyed and Bouna,’ Bouhout says.
Sarkozy later stated that they were not pursued. Clichy’s Mayor, Claude Dilain, countered that Sarkozy’s version had ‘nothing to do with’ the account given by the surviving teenager’s father. Contrary to procedural code, emergency services were not immediately alerted, Bouhout says. ‘If they were pursued, and if they were seen enter the substation, the police should have alerted the emergency services. It is very likely that the place saw the kids enter but didn’t call. And Sarkozy, instead of demanding an enquiry, launched a campaign of zero tolerance. That’s what shocked people.’
Clichy awoke after a night of torching to grave problems. CRS lines massed to on bottom end of the Allée Maurice Audin. Enclosed on both sides by the long blocks where Zyed live, the street is perfectly sealed for a pitched urban battle. Bouhout watched the riot explode from within.
‘During the day, the kids talked about it, saying “it shouldn’t be like that”,’ he says. ‘When the CRS took up position the kids grouped against them - right in front of them. As night fell it started stirring. Lots of kids, maximum age 20.’ There were hundreds by the time the flashpoint arrived.
‘It was spectacular. I took photos,’ Bouhout says. ‘It made me scared. But look, it was Maurice Audin, not the whole town. It was very calm elsewhere. If you’d gone out in different part of the town, you’d have thought nothing was happening.’
By the Saturday 29 a semblance or order was established, but too late for owners of 23 torched cars. The more determined <casseurs> cat-and-moused with police and fire services, and ‘ambient violence’ continued to spark through Clichy.
On Sunday evening, a CS grenade exploded into the packed local mosque behind the desolate Anatole France shopping precinct in Haut-Clichy. The timing could not have been worse: it was prayer time in the middle of Ramadan. No one is certain how this happened. But the notion of religious persecution was added to what was already perceived locally as police aggression against a poor immigrant minority.
‘That’s what really kicked the riots off,’ Abdel tell me outside the mosque.  ‘Now you’ve got a whole other community who are angry. It’s pressured here.’ He lists the pressures: unemployment, poor wages, terrible housing. Clichy’s unusually high youth demographic means an abnormally high number of ‘de-schooled’ kids who get up at 2pm and kick about till 3am.
Rioting erupted afresh after the grenade. Someone drove a burning car into the nearby Armand Desmet gymnasium, and its roof caved into the inferno. The sentiment was unified - Clichy teenagers began wearing white T-shirts with the slogan ‘Mort Pour Rien’ (dead for nothing) – and the violence was disorganized, but by now it was clear that symbols of a nebulous, aggressive ‘authority’ were targets.
It was also spreading fast, breaking out of the 93 into neighbouring departments around Paris and across the country. Intensive TV coverage produced two effects: it syndicated images of teenage revolt nationwide; then it engendered competitive pyromania between rival <cités> judged by numbers of vehicles torched. Within a week, confrontations, arson, arrests and CS gassing ripped through the banlieues of Lille, Strasbourg, Lyon, Rennes, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Caen, Nice, Nantes and St Etienne and hundreds of other towns.
Violence peaked on the night of November 7, when 1,406 cars burnt, 395 arrests were made and 8,000 police were active in 274 French towns and cities. A state of emergency was declared on November 8 and curfew laws dating were invoked for the first time since the Algerian war of Independence in 1955 as Sarkozy sacrificed ‘Liberté’ to another national concern, the politically expedient vote-winner of ‘sécurité’. On November 12 he pledged to deport foreign rioters. The next day offsales of petrol and the carrying of jerrycans were banned.
Damage estimated to €480m was done in the wave of devastation. Over a hundred police were injured by Molotov cocktails, stones, bricks and in one case steel pétanque balls. In the French Republic, where unemployment is high and economic growth slow, events began to make Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité increasingly look like relative values rather than articles of civic faith.
Ten days into the uproar, a drawn-looking Jacques Chirac appeared on TV to appeal for calm, suggesting La France was suffering from an ‘identity crisis.’ ‘What is at stake,’ the President lamented, ‘is the success of our policy of integration.’
Ten ago years Matthieu Kassovitz’s film ‘La Haine’ detected exactly the same crisis but predicted a bleaker conclusion – that the success was no success because the state ensures there is no ethnic integration. Kassovitz’s drama begins in a concrete Parisian banlieue and ends in the self-destruction of two its its leads – angry, directionless estate kids of various ethnic backgrounds into hip hop and weed. Gun law triumphs.
The banlieues surround every sizeable French town and city, and 750 are classed as ‘sensitive’: vast zones of densely-packed, brutalist tower blocks built in the Sixties and Seventies, where high unemployment, poor schooling, poverty and youth lawlessness have marinated for decades in dilapidating architectural idealism, civil dispossession and national and ethnic complexities. Many of the banlieues are visibly rotting. The immense, cadaverous rectangle bristle with satellite dishes and despair, and contain up to 300 large families. At nightfall, fleets of police wagons pull up and patrol many estates. They survey a population who have less and less to do with France’s ‘fromages’, the substantially white, catholic, petit-bourgeois majority. The banlieues are not a police state, says Samuel Thomas, vice-president of antiracist organisation SOS Racisme, but ‘a state of segregation. The police know theirr job is to keep kids in the banlieue. Prevention didn’t bring results. Now it’s the politics of repression.’
Figures on ethnicity are not kept in France; if you are born under the Tricolore, you are French regardless of colour, creed or extraction. Yet around six million people are thought to be immigrant or the sons and grandsons of workers brought from former colonies to rebuild the WWII destruction. Overwhelmingly those who inhabit the worst of the estates are muslim Maghrebin (Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian extraction) and subsaharan African (Senegalese and Malian). The everyday standard of life in some banlieues is a million miles away from the dream civilisation surrounding the Eiffel tower, 15 miles away.

An impoverished underclass prone to popular insurrection is hardly new to France. The 1789 Révolution, the 1871 Paris Commune, May 1968’s student riots and the Nineties banlieue tremors round Lyon and Paris prefigured 2005’s explosion. But in 2005? What really shocked observers this time was the extreme youth of the rioters. Police hauled in <casseurs> as young as 10. The manner of rioting was best expressed, Pete Doherty-style, as <nique-tout> – ‘fuck-everything’. Perhaps more telling is why the riots stopped, and what happens next

It’s clear in the numbers going to trial - 7,000 to 16,000 in a decade– that relations between delinquents and the police have soured, despite intensive community relations (some kids refuse to be arrested by cops they don’t personally know). Who is at fault?  ‘It’s a tiny truant minority,’ an anonymous ‘robocop’ (CRS), told ‘Le Point’ Magazine. ‘What’s saddening is the impunity. We catch arsonists and take them back home.’ More and more kids understand the game and are lodging complaints now. In the Evry banlieue police found teenagers with 100 Molotov cocktails.

‘It’s like a massive 3D video game for the kids  - they don’t understand what’s going on,’ reflects Erwan Ruty, who has mediated in the banlieues for over 10 years. ‘They get bored of it, and it’s Game Over.’ Ruty remarks on the relative restraint shown by both sides. ‘Everyone has been very self-controlled – police, the kids. There were no baton charges. We know there are guns in the banlieues, but no one used them. No one did a Charles Bronson.’
Yet for all the riots’ intensity and duration, no-one died. ‘It’s nothing like Watts or Brixton,’ Ruty says. ‘These riots were very targeted against schools, piolice, buses –institutions. This is collateral damage. The targets were precise even if the acts were unconscious. That’s very French. It’s saying, “We’ve had enough of the authority.”’

Order was also restored because operators in a parallel banlieue economy know that peace makes money. ‘The dealers have no interest in police, guns and riots,’ says Ruty.

The spikes in an upward trajectory of violence have been worsening for some time, however. ‘It’s more and more difficult to live there, especially for the kids,’ Ruty says. Entrenchment is deepening on all sides and the banlieues today host an uncomfortable menage à trois: the state’s increasingly repressive forces of order face a second- or third-generation immigrant demographic failed by education, housing and a closed labour market. In the crossfire sit communities of mediators, social organisations, welfare initiatives and <quartier>-based ‘big brother figures’ who work at setting positive examples.

For the ‘petit Mohammeds’, a French birthright does not guaranteed the opportunities afforded to the ‘petit Pierres’ – the life-chances vouchsafed by ‘égalité’. But the Republican model demands that a generation renounce their ethnic identities. Violence can result from the schizophrenia. ‘If you’re from the 93, you’re basically fucked,’ 17-year-old accountancy student Ladji, from the Saint Denis banlieue, tells me. ‘For some kids smashing up cars is their only means of expression.’

Aften ten days or so, the nightly violence began to diminish, but paranoia crept into the smart boulevards of central Paris. Parisians in shops and cafes cast over with a look of disquiet when you ask them about what’s happening a few miles away.
On Armistice day, Sunday 13th November, police intercepted blog postings and texts intending troubles around the Champs Elysees, Les Halles and the Arc De Triomphe. Bourgeois Paris, with several hundred CRS wagons in prominent locations, braced itself for a tsunami of banlieue hoodies – the new social demon who’s uniform is identifiable to anyone familiar with British suburbs: Adidas tracksuit, pneumatic Nikes, some fake Burberry or Louis Vuitton scarves, NY baseball caps.
There are 160,000 ‘deschooled’ kids in France and they are a tribe whose lives revolves around McDonalds for lunch and couscous for dinner. The thrills of delinquency - TWOCing cars, petty theft and dealing – are the teenage distraction they always were. Kids will tell you how ‘school isn’t worth it because teacher humiliate you there,’ and their indolence turns to boredom to anger and back to being bored with being angry. Hence the riots stopped.
But the real reason they hang around estate stairwells is because France’s metaphorical ‘social escalator’ is terminally bust. They feel the antipathy when they visit Paris, knowing there will be police ID checks on the way. The antipathy reflects back to French society in a morose, furtive hostility. Given the complexity of their upbringing, it’s easy to see why many idolise the thuggish banlieue rap crew 113 and much as Charles Aznavour. Sociologists have yet to explain the penchant for fake Burberry.
But not every French chav is a <casseur>, and Samuel Thomas of SOS Racisme, recognises institutional prejudice for what it is. ‘Sarkozy stigmatised a whole group of kids who have the look of those who act violently,’ he tells me. ‘Because they wear a caps, tracksuit, a scooter, shaved head, because he’s of African descent. His attitude put a match to the gunpowder.’
As attitudes ossify, it falls to the mediators to translate the mess. ‘We’re in a very difficult situation,’ says Rachid Nekkaz in the central Paris office of Banlieue Respect, a organization representing 170 <cités>. ‘France is scared. As soon as there is trouble the state braces itself and resorts violence. But there is no exclusive right to the use of violence. We have to mediate between the kids’ violence and institutional violence’. 

Will the violence start again? ‘But it never stopped,’ Nekkaz says. ‘This problem has been here for 40 years. France lost the Algerian war – it’s an immense frustration and the Maghrebins are a symbol of failure.’ He is equally blunt on a long-term solution. ‘We’ve got to destroy the banlieue,’ he say. ‘All of them, and disperse people everywhere in France. There’s no other solution.’

Back in the vast banlieue of Asnières north of the Seine where 20,000 live compacted into the projects, life continues.
Sensationalist coverage doesn’t help. Some US channels – CNN, Fox and ABC – sent in celebrity war reporters and, quite inaccurately, pinned an Islamist character to the riots in revenge, it’s suspected, over France’s position on Iraq. One channel headlined reports ‘Muslim Riots’, and others invoked France’s ‘Intifada’ (Russian reporting was also partisan, suggesting this was ‘France’s Chechnya’). Those who live in the canyons of Asnières – a smarter banlieue than Clichy, though no less prone to overheating – respond to all this in various ways.
Some are inured to the burning cars. Unemployed Johnny, 17, and Andy, 23, show us some scorched carpark plots and the cinders of a Renault 205. ‘They bunrt cars here, there, over there…’ Andy says. ‘Sometime it lasts all night, sometimes five minutes. Some people have “la haine” here, yeah. Who? We don’t know all of them…’
Others are resigned. ‘We had a lovely illusion of France being multicultural after the ’98 World Cup,’ says Farid, a 25-year-old transport worker, standing outside a café at dusk. He was disappointed that of the squad’s multimillionaire royalty, only Juventus’s Lilian Thuram stood up as self-avowed racaille-done-good.
But others refuse to be resigned. Zo, a strapping 32-year-old council technician in a baseball cap, is civically-minded and proud of his cité. He is banlieue born and bred. He marches the streets pressing flesh, bonjouring old ladies and disciplining the urchins, a one-man war on social disintegration. Some of the carbuncle blocks may look like the worst Marballa developments replanted in the wrong place, but they are still people’s homes. ‘It pisses me off that people think Asnières is Brooklyn,’ he tells us on a tour of the streets and blocks. ‘We’re not in Iraq here.’
Zo is sick to death of camera crews.
TV coverage on November 7 seemed briefly to take the side of the rioting kids when The TF2 channel transmitted footage of CRS beating up a 19-year-old at La Cournueve, a tougher, uglier banlieue east of Asnières. Eight <flics> were suspended on the 10th as Sarkozy launched an enquiry. But Rodney King-style notoriety is the last thing the embattled suburb needed.
La Courneuve has suffered in the past. During the Nineties the slum saw intense rioting, arson and gang violence around the five titanic rectangular blocks of ‘Les 4000’, the worst symbols of of France’s widening social fracture. Three have since been dynamited. The remaining two – Balzac and Fontenay – are eyesores with all the scale and ambition of French civil engineering but none of its debonnaire self-confidence. Two burnt-out trucks moulder at the grimy foot of the 15-storey Balzac. The block was designed with gaps half-way up that look as if apartments have been pulled out like drawers. Even the sky through the other side looks dirty. Rents are €400 a month. Public investment is slowly improving conditions in La Courneuve, but in the suburb’s plaza near the shopping centre, all there seems to be is absence, a sense of life on hold. 
At the foot of the vast Fontenay, kids boot footballs, pull wheelies and hang about in clear autumn sun. Amar, a slight and very gentle man who runs the ASAD (Action, Solidarity, Assistance et Dialogue) organization, fights hard to keep their spirits up. ‘They can’t see beyond the perimeter of the estate,’ Amar says. He gave the youngest ones cameras when the adjacent block, Ravelle, was demolished in 2004. Everyone cheered. He knows there is a richness in the banlieue, even if obvious role models in the media and public life are few. Dynamic people have grown up here – footballers, doctors, lawyers – but sadly, few return.
‘I give kids a hand, cultivate their dreams,’ he smiles. ‘La vie en rose isn’t for everyone’. He introduces us to a Djibril, a shy 17-year-old with a diamond earstud and an Avirex jacket. Amar pushed him to file a complaint against the police after the kid was turned over. ‘He was CS-gassed, thrown in a truck, not allowed a doctor for three days with bruises and cracked bones. He’s 17. He’s a minor.’ Even through Amar can’t say for certain the kid wasn’t a throwing Molotovs, he knows injustice when he sees it. Life lived under brutalist architecture accustoms the eye.

As other banlieues raged, calm paradoxically returned to Clichy-sous-Bois very quickly. The father of the dead Bouna Traore played a part, walking the streets and challenging delinquants during the riots. Ahmed Bouhout recalls, ‘He would say, “You must not burn cars in my son’s name. My son is dead, that’s it. He’s dead.” He showed dignity.’ Tellingly, both families chose to interr their children not in France but in Tunisia and Mauritania, their countries <d’origine>.

On the cold evening of Wednesday November 16, Mayor Claude Dilain addressed a public meeting in the hall adjacent to the Mairie. His attitude was serious but not grave. He plainly recounted the facts and told 150 people of complexions that represent the true face of France: ‘you have all lived the silent rage. There is anger and sadness, not just for the deceased. What happens now? France cannot ignore this - it is a powderkeg. This is a population in great difficulty – unemployment, bad housing and schooling is a vicious circle we know off by heart. France is territorialising into rich, poor, middle class… this is a bad road. If discrimination continues, the Republic is damned.’
The mayor responded to questions from the floor and listened to witnesses: a man whose blonde, blue-eyed daughter was racially abused by arab kids; an Algerian whose extensive postgrad education cannot win him a job; an elderly man who lambasts flammable TV reporting. ‘We have gardens here in Clichy,’ the old man says. ‘We have trees.’
The mayor leaves the meeting that night with the respect of the audience and a very serious job to do.
On Friday November 18 2005, France awoke to reports that the CRS had repressed a 1,000-strong civil rumpus in the centre of Grenoble. Shop windows were smashed, doors forced, vehicles set alight and CS gas was to quell the violence. The event aroused fears of a new wave of arson, arrests, tear-gassing and schismatic political handwringing. But the riot was an anomaly: the revolutionaries were locals students celebrating the annual Beaujolais Nouveau arrival, and their hurrah had gone violently askew. Concluding transmissions, newscasters heralded a <retour à la normale>. Nationwide an average of only 100 cars were being torched every night.  The rioting was over until the next time.
What happened in France is unlikely to happen in the UK. The riots had an ethnic character and a religious undertone, but they weren’t really about colour and had as much to do with radical Islam as they did with Le Beaujolais Nouveau. They were really about an outdated republican ideal of equality that many feel has turned out to be a massive lie. In 2004 France banned muslim headscarves in school to preserve the country’s secular identity. But the banlieue generation’s fondness for Burberry scarves can’t mask the reality that there is less, not more, social mobility now than in their parents’ generation.
Discrimination and poverty cook into the odd outbreak of ambient pyromania, which is not just how Clichy-Sous-Bois but all of France returns <à la normale>. Strangely, the ugliest, poorest parts of Clichy have recently become aware of their symbolic potency. Huge blow-up photos shot on the estate by JR, an affiliate of the film collective which counts Vincent Kassel as a member, have been flyposted onto the side of tower blocks. They show bunches of estate kids posing, kissing babies, having a laugh and ‘representing’, hip hop-style, for their banlieue. They show that liberty and fraternity truly mean as much here as anywhere in France.
But in the end they also show that ‘égalité’ is a different matter altogether.


© 2006 Kevin Braddock


All content ©2004 Kevin Braddock

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