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Violence, delinquincy and infrigment in the French lower class suburbs

« Si la punition n’est pas aussi un droit et un honneur accordé au transgresseur, je ne veux pas de votre punition. » Friedrich Nietzsche, Ainsi parlait Zarthoustra

Social unrest and juvenile delinquency are probably closer to each other than we would like; and they might also be a necessary feature of any society accepting adaptation and transformation. Although democracy (as a general principle inducing the collective power of the people) is probably the best way humans found up to now to adjust their organisation to the surrounding conditions, it is unlikely that law and rule can be changed without the help of those who are bolder, more imaginative and have, because of their young age, less memory to weight their deeds : the young transgressors. I do not value transgression or infringment on a moralistic point of view, rather an amoral, a historical one and thus from a political point of view. This conflict between morals and politics is nothing new. We find it at many stages of the history of mankind and in many cultures. Even in the most elaborate democracies, like in Athens during the Vth century BC, in post war Europe, or in today’s USA, there are people who are upset by youths, who regret that young people lack of respect for the values of past generations, who consider that the young behave as if those values were worth nothing. And there are also people who trust the young generation to clean up the old rituals and habits with their insolent optimism.

Considering this recurrent tension with the young generation in the modern democracies, two points deserve our attention. The first is that a self-confident democracy should not fear its youth if the youth thinks and acts from within the values of democracy. Second, one of the major strengths of democracy is its capability to question its form without questioning its essence. The good boys and girls contribute to build the house their parents and ancestors have designed for them. The so called bad boys and girls make sure that vigilance will be complete, for the house to be adapted to today’s conditions of weather, size, comfort and so on. Bad boys and girls question the capability of democracy to enforce the power of today’s people in today’s conditions.

Democracy is thus constantly requested to accept on its fringes the disturbing turmoil of those who question the rules not in the wise and respectable process of lawmaking, but in their transgressive deeds. Not all infringment leads to a better world. Some transgressors work for their mere egotist projects. And it is impossible to detect in each controversial act, the hidden positive future it may contain. The fine balance of an acceptable level of transgression is not easy to predict. This fine balance is one of the arts of democracy. Each country or each civilisation has its own way to find the balance. Although France claims to be a major contributor in the definition of this equilibrium, it is still a country where the balance is not settled. The forces in action to reach equilibrium still pull and push with vigor in opposite directions.

The French suburbs have been, in the past decades, the theater of the game of contradictory forces in motion to find the balance. Without any success yet, but with a constant will to search for it. This is the frame into which we shall track the sense of violence, infrigment and delinquency in those suburbs, suburbs that, for the comodity of the talk we shall call by their French name, the « cités ».

For those of you who have not been in France or who have not, in their trips to France, visited a cité, let me describe them very briefly. Imagine, in present day Europe, so clever in the art of city designing, districts, separated from the city centers by long times of public transportation and often in the middle of nowhere, where separated concrete towers and buildings of ten to thirty stories rise from the ground. Urban functionalism which is the urbanistic ideology that led to the exclusive habitat of the cités was an argument to build fast, cheap, dwellings for the poor. The streets of the Cite are not streets as we think of them in Europe and they have few few public services such as post offices, unemployment offices and they lack easy and cheap transportation to the city centers. They are places of isolation... The inhabitants, previously a mix brand of lower and middle class are now exclusively lower class ; and the majority, at least in the surrounding of the major cities, are people from other countries. 6 to 8 million people live in these places. This is the context of what we shall try to understand : violence, transgression, and delinquency. Since we don’t have time to develop the question I raised, I will only set the frame into which we can think it over. I will describe four forms of transgression which come from the suburbs that I just described.

Infringment in the cités

1. Uncivilities or disrespects

Turning upside-down the expression popularised by Erving Goffmann, we call « incivilités » (uncivilities or disrespect) the rude behaviour of some of the young boys and girls in some cités. I must first insist on the fact that in most cités, the great majority of the population is extremely polite and civil. The co-habitation of groups coming from many different cultures, developed in the social housings of France a competence for inventing a precise, delicate and refined politeness. Respect is the most considered relational value in the cités, and most people are extremely sensitive about relational behaviour. But some young men (with some girls) loiter in the lobbies of collective housing, causing trouble to the neibours and in some cases being a real nightmare for the nearby inhabitants. They urinate in the staircase, smoke bad hashish and make noise from 3 PM until 6 AM. They are agressive, they are dirty, they do not let the inhabitants go their way, they threaten the old and young alike.

By doing so they bother their neigbors, the poor that try to raise their children honestly, go to work, clean their flats. The fact that most of the youngsters have been rejected by the school system and wander without skills, without basic education, and mostly without hope for any kind of future is not an excuse. This kind of behaviour is widely portrayed in the media and widely exploited by rightist politicians to implement politics that pretend to enforce the law at almost any cost.

2. Light delinquency

The border is porous between the disrespectful and this light delinquency. What I call light delinquency is the many thefts, trades and drug-dealing undertaken by mostly young boys to try to make a better living or to enjoy at a low cost some of the plights of the consuming society. Stealing cars, motorbikes, cellphones in the streets ; stealing electronic facilities in appartments or houses. Breaking car windows to grab what is inside while the driver is stopped at the red light. Dealing inside the cité the bad hashish that has been flown up from Morocco by cousins or friends. Many boys and girls experience one day or another the easy life of delinquency as well as the pang of transgression.

The reasons of this light delinquency, if it makes sense to look for reasons, are more intricate than basic common sense would suggest. Of course one of the main reasons is to escape the humiliation of both state charity and obedience offered by low wages positions. Thus, young boys prefer to take a chance on daring attitudes and gestures. But there is also despair in their deeds, for often no interest is at stake. How many boys just steal a car for a short drive and leave the car on the roadside after having expericenced the relief of being like everybody else, just driving across the city with a girl in the next seat. And how many steal expensive clothes just for the hell of showing off in the neibourhood. Some older boys also make a point of contributing to the family expenses when domestic economy is getting tight.

Police figures tend to suggest that some factors are prevalent in this light delinquency. The larger the family, the closer to African origins, the more difficult the elementary classes, the more chances to be tempted by theft and drug business. But these factors are also all linked with poverty.

3. Gangs and heavy delinquency

In some places, wars have been raging between rival gangs for several decades. The reasons for the cyclic hatred are long forgotten, but each new generation of boys is eager to match the famous mythologies of the previous ones. The boys involved are not among the poorer, they don’t come from the split or the huge families, they are not so bad at school, but they love fighting and they cling to the only feature of their confuse identity : the neibourhood they « belong » to. Different patterns compete to form this type of delinquency. Sometimes it is a simple neibourhood war. Boys of such neibourhood wander around, waiting for the best opportunity to punish boys of another neibourhood. One gang takes over a common open space and closes its access to the other gang. Fierce battles follow. In the wake of these battles, buses are distroyed, post offices smashed and everyone hurls stones at police cars. When a gang is strong enough to get rid of its opponents, it may develop a business, generaly a drug business or a resale business. That brings its members close to high level gangsterism. But when the gang reaches this stage, it is away from the cités, it is linked with other mafias, it is another scale.

Most of those primary gangs thrive in the newtowns (les villes nouvelles) or the huge shemes where good quality housing is the rule. In these brand new districts designed by internationaly selected architect teams, no visible history and no sedimentation has helped families to adapt to the contemporary conditions of urban life, to root in modernity. One feels in the middle of a bad futurist movie. Boys generally give two reasons for their violent behaviour. The first is the attachment to such or such neibourhood. Ethnically and sociologicaly, the populations of the fighting neibourhood do not differ. But each invents a specific identity which will be the argument for the cultivated hatred. The other reason given by most young boys to participate in those neibourhood fights is honour. They speak about their dwelling as if it were Rome facing barbarians. And they reckon that it is not possible for a proud young man not to take part when his companions take chances and expose their bodies.

In some spots the conflict opposes two competing populations. It is the case of a long lived conflict in the city of Perpignan where the Algerians accuse the Gipsies of being the favorite of the mayor who is paid back with votes and other services. But this is very rare.

4. Street fighting and riots

Our last category of infringment is that of the riots. Closely followed by England, but more than any other western country, France is theater of a resurgent riot epidemic. From the 1970 on, with a pick around the starting 1980 and a long experience in 2005, France has experienced heavy riots. For reasons easy to explain afterwards, the young population of some of the cités explode into violent unrest. Usually it is possible to spot a triggering factor and usually this factor is linked with police activity. The riots obey a relatively strict ritual. Cars are burned by the dozens, institutional government buildings are devastated, police is harassed, fire brigades are forbiden to enter the place in order to extinguish the flames, TV is fast to send images throughout the networks and government feels threatened to a point that it did use once war justice to face them.

Sociologists have a hard time giving rational explanations of this violent phenomenon. They invoke a new form of class struggle, poverty and anger against government police, despair in front of a condition deprived of any future, too many humiliations. Journalists and rightist politicians invoke race or ethnicity. Psychoanalysts speak of maniac feasts. All these arguments contribute to explain the facts. I would tend to also suggest that the majority of the boys participating in those violent unrest are very young, they to enjoy the game of calling the police into their own district for the mere pleasure to be seen on prime time TV. And the very exciting pang of cars catching fire with a spectacular and noisy blow while grenades are being shot in the close distance.

Three attempts of interpretation

1. Violence

Life is violent. But in the lower class dwellings of the cités, life is especially violent. Some inhabitants have covered a long distance to reach Europe, sometimes escaped situations of cruel wars or famines ; then crossed boundaries, climbed mountains, faced hunger and escaped police dogs. When arrived, they have had to fight day and night to make a decent living while avoiding any contact with the French police eager to chase foreigners. In the suburbs, violence is palpable in the urban shapes, in the struggle for elementary recognition, in the daily racism, in the contemptuous looks caught in the bus or the metro. Violence is experienced in the day to day life. Talks are violent, neibouring relations are violent, school games are violent, confinment is violent. In spite of a refined politeness imported from rural aeras and redefined to deal with the permanent strangedom of newcomers, ordinary life do not escape a continuous violence. It is only normal that a small portion of this violence is shared with the other French and their institutions.

2. Revolutions

The history of France is celebrated in school books by the glorious days of legitimate violence. When successfull, the urban unrest of the past are considered revolutions ; then statues are erected in the center of Paris to memorise the founding riots like Americans celebrate their founding fathers. These events are not confined into the past. They are constantly reminded by two rituals that duplicate the revolutions in a symbolic manner which threatens and chalenges the political power.

The first symbolic duplication of the many French revolutions is the demonstration. Demonstrations in France can reach such a dimension of unpredictability that no government is brave enough to face them without fear. Angry mobs can chalenge order for weeks without blinking. Disrespect or discontent can bring hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in the streets, chanting, marching and sometimes breaking whatever is on the way. Even the bravest prime ministers are cautious about the effects of an unpopular decision taken in haste.

The second duplication of the famous revolutions is the general strike. Often followed by demonstrations, the general or almost general strike can long for ever. Once the process is triggered, one cannot predict its timing and its way out. A general strike is sometimes organised by the unions, but it mostly escapes their rules and grip. General strikes and demonstrations are wild picks of direct democracy that no institution, no political party, no union can control.

3. Deliquency

We would all like politics to be a fair game following rules of good behaviour. History proves that it is never the case. Some politicians may, from time to time, be of flawless attitudes, words and deeds. But the laws of today are the produce of yesterday’s transgressions. And yesterdays bad guys are today’s heroes. When they were bad guys, yesterday’s heroes didn’t flinch in their acts and thoughts. They sometimes had to fetch the money where it was. They sometimes had to kill friends or to rob banks.

Above all, when a society is blocked by those who cling to the many privileges of a nearly privatised power, the only way to prove the inadequacy of the law is to transgress it. Thus, in order to save morals, brave and naive young persons dare to cross the flimsy border between morals and politics. The cités are places of many inventions. Invention of a vivid and modern language, invention of street arts, invention of new codes of social relations based on respect, invention of different ways of making one’s living out of the strict wages system, invention of new forms of solidarity, etc. But these inventions depend on the capability of their authors to clean up the rules before implementing new ones. This is the historical function of transgression. And this is an aspect of the French political game.

Marc Hatzfeld

Talk given in UCLA in November 2008

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