Fire in the underbelly
A fresh look at the
French riots of October-November 2005
BY Harsh Kapoor
A wide variety of oversimplified and often misplaced commentary has been made
on the riots in France during October-November 2005. This piece is a telegraphic
attempt to raise the hidden underside that has seemingly been missed by many.
First of all, the suggestions by some right wing commentators (including in
India) that pointed fingers at politico-religious actors (read Islamists), or
that these were racial or ethnic riots, have missed the boat. Sure, the religio-political
actors are very visible on the social landscape, but these riots were ‘secular’
in content. Similarly, the bogey of ethnic segregation in France, as compared to
the rest of Europe, is skewed. There is high propensity for mixed marriages in
France (nearly 30 per cent among the North Africans) compared to just two per
cent (among the Turks) in Germany or a comparably low figure (among South
Asians) in the UK, which is peddled as the big ‘multikulti’ mecca. Despite big
hiccups, France today is a fairly diverse place with a vast mosaic of mixtures.
Secondly, the more discerning (but rushed) view of the progressively inclined
that pins the blame solely on the French model of universalism/secularism
(however flawed) for social exclusion, class inequality and poverty also seems
out of sync. The conditions for these exist in far sharply unequal contexts
across the world, this isn’t a French speciality.
Thirdly, the Left dreamer belief that the poor underclass had rebelled and
that revolution was around the corner, and that this was akin to the events of
May 1968, belongs in a fool’s paradise. Sorry, there were no masses as
participants. It was a minority who engaged in violence vis-à-vis the police.
This was no structured movement, and based on alternative ideas.
The key perception is that this was a spontaneous reaction of despair and
frustration which then took its own turn against the political elites.
On the night of October 27, in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, two
panicked teenagers, acting on the presumption that the police were after them,
took refuge in an electricity network transformer and were accidentally
electrocuted. This was a case of deaths driven by fear of the police rather than
of direct police brutality. As often happens, rumour and fear did the job here
too. The death of the youngsters provoked huge outrage. Kids took to the streets
in the night and engaged in arson attacks. The second element, like fuel to
fire, was the reaction to the choice terms used by Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s
minister of the interior (and of religion). ‘Sarko’, as he is commonly known, a
smart alec self-propelling bully who’d give anything to get on TV, called the
rioters ‘racaille’ or ‘scum’ and said that he’d clean them out with a
high pressure water cleaner.
This provocative language unleashed fresh rage from the young kids. The cat
and mouse game between the kids and the police, hit-and-run arson attacks, had
The rioters (the ones who started it) were exclusively young males, mostly in
their mid-teens. There were no leaders, no public statements, no words; just
violence. CRS (Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité) paramilitary units
were ranged opposite and the fire brigade doing its hazardous job with great
Television helped markedly to spread the event. It had found high value
programming content, other kids in other suburbs joined in solidarity thanks to
TV, and this all-male night sport spread. It was a thing of contemporary
culture: cell phones, SMS messaging, blogging and TV. These kids are fourth
generation French and wear the baggy clothing of the American hip-hop era. Every
night it would begin again, as local gangsters also piggybacked a ride. Lasting
two weeks, some 10,000 cars belonging mostly to neighbours were burnt. Local
public buses, warehouses, supermarkets, clinics, schools and police stations
were main targets.
The backdrop of urban crisis and the culture of violence
The so-called difficult ‘cité’ neighbourhoods in France are more
common in the suburbs than in the inner cities. They are the result of decades
of a deliberate urban policy to concentrate working class families in
well-defined districts away from city centres. The urban housing policy dates to
the 1960s where low-income high-rise tower blocks emerged close to industrial
areas. The life and world of suburbia remains socially distant from the
bourgeois town centres. Many of these old tower block structures in the suburbs
are now decrepit and have been left to decay, with the progressive retreat of
the state from high maintenance costs. The social composition of the cité
is essentially working class and lower middle class with a near 25-30 per cent
unemployment rate. Near 36 per cent of high school dropouts are in the suburbs.
Major problems concerning parental authority mark the daily life of families.
These cités have progressively become sites of violence (domestic,
street and school) and degrading social tension e.g. forms of masculine rites of
passage with a phoney clan-like category of ‘big/elder brothers’ or grands
frères, ‘community’ gatekeepers exercising some form of social control on,
for instance, what girls wear, who they see, etc. Similarly, acts of rage that
seem to represent the metropolitan centre rather than the peripheral suburb are
demonstrations of belonging to the cité.
The props are a subculture that seems to interconnect low-income suburbs
across France via new metaphors of slang, dress and musical expression, even
dance. The term racaille used by Sarkozy has long been used in the
cités. In the rap group NTM’s line, "les cailleras sont dans la ville
(the gangsters are in town)", racaille (scum) is converted to caillera
(gangster) using the linguistic practice of inverting syllables to create new
words (verlan). The figure of la racaille/caillera has
emerged as an anti-hero of cité subculture. Within cités, those
labelled as la racaille due to drug peddling are viewed with envious
ambivalence for their success in the illegal parallel economies. When the
dropouts find work, it is in the local parallel circuit.
Heavy policing is a conspicuous aspect of state intervention in the suburbs.
All the money apparently saved by cutbacks in social spending in the poor areas
has, it seems, mostly been redeployed for penal and policing functions. Security
mania is the new mantra of the state.
The result is fear and hatred of the police due to daily police harassment
that has gone on for too long. After September 11, there was a sort of
militarisation of the cités – regular checks, the detention of countless
suspected terrorists and the deportation of hundreds of undocumented immigrants.
Some 10 years ago the French filmmaker Mathieu Kassovitz powerfully depicted
the alienation in France’s suburbs in his cult film, La Haine.
Through the eighties and nineties there were a series of urban riots, each
marked by its own dominant practices and style e.g. stealing a car for a race in
the neighbourhood and/or to use it to smash a shopfront and then steal the goods
The big factors that led to urban violence 25 years ago are a sort of
continuum of changes that started in the seventies: the beginnings of de-industrialisation,
unemployment, the end of Fordist work and the emergence of fragmented
subcontracted precarious informal labour mainly for unskilled workers, and
The wider social canvas
a) The fading out of conventional social movement organisations from
suburbs where new local actors don’t have a mass base: The decline in
membership and influence of the Communist Party of France (Le PCF), which
had a large social base among the labouring poor and in their areas of
residence. The communist municipalities provided extensive support for
low-income housing and social spending. The Communist party could have played a
powerful role in the integration and assimilation of immigrants from North
Africa, as it did before and after the second world war for Italian, Polish,
Spanish and other European immigrants. The party connected local issues to the
national level. The party initially took an ambivalent position on
decolonisation in the 1960s and in the subsequent period its membership base of
European workers lost jobs to the recruitment of North African workers (from
Morocco among other places). It somehow never cultivated a base among North
African migrant workers who had their own cultural associations.
The other major absentee from the suburban neighbourhoods has been the
unions. The level of unionisation in France has been low compared to other
countries in Europe. French unions have never managed to organise fragmented
part-time low-pay low-skill informal sector workers.
The French children of (Arabic speaking) North African immigrants, like their
parents, did not have much of a presence in the old social movement circles. In
1983, a march for equality and against racism was very successful, followed by a
national campaign called SOS Racisme, which attracted media and
political presence but couldn’t get rooted in the cités and suburbs.
Beyond a certain point, anti-racism in France (as elsewhere) was caught in the
double-edged game of pushing for diversity and therefore the logic of the ‘right
to be different’. This can be very problematic at times when it ends up not
taking a stand against obscurantist cultural practices in the name of
‘tradition’ and ‘culture’.
New actors from within these neighbourhoods: Two examples: i) The
autonomous, secular and progressive ones and ii) the retrogressives, with
growing state recognition.
i) The autonomous, secular and progressive: Ni Putes Ni Soumises
(Neither Whores Nor Submissive) – a women’s rights campaign (of largely third
generation North African descent) against male domestic violence, forced
marriages and honour crimes started with a bang and received huge media and
public attention but has still not grown to become a force in the poor suburbs.
ii) The retrogressive and conservative: Rise of religio-political actors –
Religious cults and denominations of all kinds (Muslim, Christian) are growing
to fill the political vacuum in the absence of other actors among the North
African migrant community in these neighbourhoods. Tablighi Jamaat-type
operators alongside Christian Evangelical gospel cults compete on this
territory. Ironic as it may seem in secular France, over the last 15 years the
state has officially leaned hard to help craft interlocutors who are religious,
notably from the so-called ‘Muslim community’. Just because a high proportion of
post-war immigrants in France happen to be from North Africa, they are
automatically and increasingly identified as being ‘Muslim’ and so, very
naturally, it is the imams here who are seen as community representatives, even
though nearly half of the North African immigrants are non-practising and
There is a narrowing of any political possibility of action arising from
these neighbourhoods, especially after the state cut subsidies to local
non-profit associations. New national social movements like ATTAC or such anti-globalisation
groups have next to no presence in the poor and working class areas. The far
right National Front has been gaining in membership sections of the old working
class (former supporters of the Communist party) and the unemployed (of
non-North African descent).
b) Memory, ‘culture’ and history to reshape identity: It is important
to note that more than four decades after decolonisation there is still a
deafening silence by the political elites in France about the war in Algeria.
Its wounds have been left unattended for society to deal with.
In the post-colonial period, disparate groups have recently invoked this past
history with competing conceptions of it before differing political audiences.
Here, notions of the past and the future collide, which are at the heart of
moves to focus on identity, origins, immigration, tradition, culture, to
undermine secular social space in France. Some examples:
Ø There is a sophisticated stream of the far right which is very active in
supporting the ideas of ethnic diversity and the language of "difference" in the
cause of ethnic separation. In France, the Groupement de Recherche et d'étude
pour la Civilisation Européenne (GRECE), with ties to neo-fascist groups,
has been portraying cultural identities as fixed and irreconcilable so as to
push institutionalised multiculturalism. Leading light of GRECE, Alain de
Benoist says that "racism is nothing but the denial of difference".
Ø The French Parliament passed a law in February 2005 (much to the horror of
historians) which now implores the national education system to teach the
positive role of colonisation. This panders to the ideological platform of the
Ø A small group of French citizens (immigrants of sub-Saharan, North African
descent supported by progressives and third world-ists) claiming to be colonised
‘natives’, indigènes de la République, in a pamphlet popularised via the
Internet, invokes and juxtaposes the imagery of discriminatory treatment meted
out to their grandparents, who were colonial subjects, to their own current
situation. There is political manufacture here, of being eternal victims,
invoking colour, race and ethnicity. This is dangerous fuel to fan the flames of
sealed identities and of communalism.
Ø Signs of reverse anti-white racism are on the rise. A section among the
second generation of immigrants of sub-Saharan and black descent – involved in a
kind of historical stocktaking of the French role in slave trade and
colonisation – provides the other rationale for the current discrimination or
exclusion they are subject to. (Among the most recent pointers are: an attack on
a Paris student demonstration by young black kids – against the ‘whites’ and the
success of the anti-Semitic talk of the humorist, Dieudonné.)
Ø The move by the French state to introduce the right to enforce ‘curfew’ in
recent violence affected areas under the old French state of emergency law from
1955 (last used during the war in Algeria) has unequivocally sent out loaded
metaphorical signals about the association between the old war and the recent
riot. This will undoubtedly become another controversial issue in the
In the coming year or so, with the build-up to the 2007 presidential
election, the themes of immigration/migrants/Local vs Foreign will become hot
topics for debate. There is a growing move to reconstruct, to ‘protect’ and
fence off national space in ‘peril’ against the backdrop of globalisation,
economic crisis, flight of capital and unemployment. The resident migrant
‘other’ located inside the nation (old ones from China, Vietnam, North Africa
and recent ones from sub-Saharan Africa etc.) and the non-resident international
‘other’ (e.g. the threat from China’s economy) located outside the nation get
the spotlight as, increasingly, hyper-nationalism becomes the main directing
The riots have ended up providing a powerful political launching pad for the
extreme right groups in France. There will be a renewed wave of racism and who
knows what else in store for the upcoming election. This rise of the far right
stock will inevitably fire up their lookalikes from the ‘enemy’ camp. Let’s wait
for the next riots.
Sections from women’s rights circles (such as UFAL, Coordination
Féministe et Laïque, 20 ans barakat, Ni Putes Ni Soumises)
spoke up against this round of violence in the poor neighbourhoods, and this
will undoubtedly fuel more violence against women and repression by the state.
These groups very courageously also challenged the despicable move by the French
authorities to turn to the so-called ‘grands frères’ or ‘big brothers’
within the ‘communities’ to restrain the younger ones. These big brother-type
figures, who have been acting as increasingly visible local power centres in the
patriarchal system of social, ‘moral’ control over young women and men, need to
be restrained themselves. The French state would be dangerously shirking its
responsibility by denying citizens protection, when necessary, from these
It is absolutely vital that wider (non-local) social initiatives and
movements in France connect with and support the smaller local molecular civil
society efforts in the poor suburbs to organise on daily matters of citizenship
rights, discrimination, violence, bread and butter with a secular content. Those
pushing for a politicised religion-based and sectarian/communal/nationalist
agenda in the poor neighbourhoods can’t be kept out if concerned citizens’
groups/actors don’t take heed. And then there will be more violence.
(Harsh Kapoor runs the South Asia Citizens
www.sacw.net) and works
part time with Frères des Hommes, France)