The riots of November 2005 in France
The mythology of political violence in France
Strange as it looks, the 2005 riots in the lower class neibourhoods of France fit perfectly in the political and historical mythology of the country. There is no reason to be surprised ; and many reasons to expect other bursts of street violence the consequences of which one cannot predict. This mythology explains a French political tradition which is far from obeying the official rules drawn by the discourses and the analyses about democracy.
The academic tradition wants France to be a parliamentary democracy with a light presidential flavour. It is in a way, but let me take an opposite point of view and claim that French democracy is also the subtle combination between a monarchist republic and the power of the street.
Whatever is at stake, within French politics, we often witness the same game. The executive authority decides after a fast dialogue with the parliament, then waits the reaction of who is directly concerned. On many topics, everything is organised within the parliament, for the debate not to take place. The members of parliament are tied to their parties and they obey their leaders. The senators are less obedient, but they have little power. When the parliament wants more time to think things over, the executive power can always force its way with an article of the Constitution overused in such circumstances, a famous number 49/3.
But when a bill has been drafted, another type of negotiation process starts. If nothing happens the law is voted, implemented and the rules changed. If some interest is threatened, the interested persons or groups protest and then a direct political process starts up. If the issue raised is important or is of general concern, a big protest may occur. The protest can take many forms from the shy suggestion of withdrawal to rioting.
Riots have been common place since the foundation of the modern era of French politics. They began in 1789. The French Revolution started with a huge protest by rural France against an abusive royal power who plundered the peasants with high taxes and too many wars. What started in the countryside was carried to Paris. Then for at least four to five years, everyday single day in Paris was the opportunity for an open public debate on one or another subject. And not only debates but debates supported and/or watched over by angry mobs.
Later came a counter-revolution, then later another revolution. This one burst out in 1830. Barricades were built up and the army shot dead the people behind the barricades. The emotion was immense, for the French Revolution was still a raw memory. And the king was removed. Then another counter-revolution and another revolution. This last burst wide open in 1848. 1848 is the year when a young german journalist wrote and signed a vigorous pamphlet called The Communist Manifesto. It is also the year of many upsurges of violence throughout Europe for national independance. The last revolution of the XIX century is the Commune of Paris, in 1871. After a long military siege where the common people of Paris behaved bravely, the landlords demanded their rent. The result was a huge protest that the French army squashed in a few weeks leaving between 6.000 and 7400 dead bodies on the pavement according to different researchers. This very year, the same German journalist not being young anymore, published in London a huge book called The Capital.
The latest two revolutions occured in 1945 and 1968. Those two upsurges are different in shape, but at least the last one obeyed the same basic political pattern. Angry mobs challenged the political power of general de Gaulle to bring an issue into the public debate. In 1968, simultaneously, 3 facts deserve our attention : 1. all French people went on strike and most of the strikers occupied factories and offices where they worked, 2. comités d’action spread all over the country and people in those comités d’action spoke about many personal, political and philosophical topics. 3. None of the institutions, including trade unions, worked.
This is how politics work in France : a fine balance between an autocratic power and angry mobs overseeing what the politicians do and how they behave. What is important for us now, is that this mechanism do not begin on the threshold of revolutions. It is a permanent threat on the day-to-day political life. Two symbolic duplications of the famous revolutions remind the institutional power of its fragility. Demonstrations (first) are a constant event in Paris. To take the streets is a major political game. Every specific interest or anyone pretending to hold the general interest, can try to occupy the streets. Not everyone is able to do so, though, for the people do not respond to a whistle’s blow. But, in some occasions they just love to march, chant, scream and show their muscle.
Not as frequent as demonstrations, general strikes (second) are a kind of prelude to possible revolutions. Whether government, trade-unions, political parties, boards of large companies and the like, all institutions know it : one cannot never really figures out when a general strike is approaching, but it happens from time to time. The last one was not completely general but it was a wide civil service strike and, transportation being carried out by the public sector, for two full weeks, in december 1995, France couln’t budge. The prime minister had an idea of reforming the pension system. The idea was probably good but he did’nt bother to discuss it previously with the unions. The unions sulked but the workers reacted with immediate anger, escaped the unions control and the prime minister had to withdraw his project after two weeks of total paralysis of Paris and many other parts of France.
Paris itself is a celebration of the angry mob that French people call revolutions. Two of the major monuments in the capital of France have been built to celebrate revolutions. The Eiffel tower was erected in 1889 for the first century aniversary of the great revolution. And, if that fact is partly forgotten, the Colonne de Juillet which occupies the center of the Place de la Bastille celebrates the 1830 insurection in very precise words written in golden letters that anyone can clearly read on the base of the column. That column is located at the origin of the great axis of Paris which goes through the Louvre, under the Arc de triomphe du carousel, across the Place de la Concorde, up the Champs Elysées, under the Arc de triomphe de l’Etoile, down the Grande Armée avenue, up to the Arche de la Défense and so on. The memory of Paris revolutions commands the axis of many glories while the Sacré Cœur, erected to atone the crimes of the Fédérés or Communards during the 1871 counter-revolution, watches from Montmartre. The political tension is perceptible in the urban shapes and monuments of Paris.
Not all inhabitants of the suburbs know of these historical events. And not all of them are interested in French politics. But everyone in France knows how the trick goes. Whoever can mobilise or manipulate to have, say, 100.000 people in the streets of Paris can challenge the power. And the power, however legitimate it pretends to be, fears the street and avoids very wisely to anger the mob. This is but one of the backgrounds of political violence in this country. Political violence is partly legitimate. In one of the revolutionary constitutions that was never implemented, a nb 35 article stipulates that insurection is not only a « right of the people » in case of abuse of power, but « a sacred duty ». This, one can feel in some commentaries of politicians and journalists, not only on the left side.
1. The process of class evolution in France
In most countries and especially in the thriving Europe of XIXth and XXth centuries, social organisation has been plastic and in permanent flux. These two centuries have seen the appearance and the near disappearance of the working class. But the working class was not composed of the same persons and families. As the successes of Europe as a wealth-making machine grew, what we call the « ascenseur social » (the social elevator) worked as a mixing and malaxing device. After a couple of generations, the worker’s sons became teachers or merchants only to be replaced by new waves of fresh workers. Each wave emerged from the countryside. The first waves came from the French provinces : Bretagne, Provence, Bourgogne, Auvergne, etc. In the mid 20th, France industry had to import Italians. Then when the coal mines began to feel hungry for more miners, manpower had to be imported from Poland and even China. The process didn’t stop until now. The economic machine swallowed peasants from all over the countryside, then from all over Europe, and now from all over the world. With a natural innocence, the French social system ingests more layers of peasants to take part in the big adventure of manufactures and services. It is only very natural that Algerians, Morocans and Portugeses replaced the disapeared French peasantry. Then West Africans, then Chinese, then, etc.
The objective of this brief and banal historical reference is to stress the fact that one can view the migrated population of France as migrants, i.e. people from abroad, from faraway with different faces and different looks. But one can also see them as the permanently renewed working class. This renewed working class doesn’t act like the anterior. As previous layers of workers were fighting for their rights and their dignity, the present one is mainly obsessed by the brutal reality that there is no more employment, no more labour, no more work for a working class. But they are nevertheless the last wave of a long process of social structuration.
And they are not the first people to visit France. As Braudel reminds us, France has been for centuries a converging place of groups coming from Spain, Italy, Eastern Europe and further. In the middle ages, when moving was determined by famines or wars, people used to flow from one side of Europe to the other and there was no question of citizenship and probably little hasseling of the foreigner. Thus facing newcomers is not a complete discovery in Europe. Remember that the prince of Venice, Othello celebrated by Shakespeare was a Moro, probably a black man.
French politicians invented several concepts to tackle the questions raised by the diversity of the working class population. When it was only the Auvergnats, it was not too difficult. When it came to the Italians, the institutions in need had to invent new political concepts. These were assimilation, intégration, insertion, multiculturalism, etc. Let us just have a quick glance over these concepts for they will give us a hint of the misunderstanding between the different layers of the French society.
Assimilation is a brutal concept which implies that anybody coming from elsewhere can become a real French or, at least simulate being so by his only determination to adopt ideas, names and behaviours of the locals : assimilation is a methaphor borrowed to the digestive mechanism. Integration is borrowed to the mathematics. Integration means to make several in one. It’s a magic trick. By sticking to the values and big collective rituals of the French from before, one becomes a French of now. It could have worked, but it is more tricky than expected. The last concept in vogue is that of insertion. It lies on the basic idea that when working with and living close to and growing one’s children the same way, one doesn’t become French but can easily survive in France without bothering with a formal adhesion. None of those policies worked, but none failed either. The migrated Italians considered « inassimilables » in the 1920ies are now totaly French. And most Algerians are so in many cities of southern France. The slow process of transformation modifies the representations of the French.
Actually no one agrees about the way the people living in the social housings of France should be called. Calling them the working class reminds too much of a marxist pattern where class opposition is determined by one’s position on each side of the productive system. It is possible that the present economic crisis will give a new reality to this type of opposition. But we cannot call it a « working class » although everything is not solved even in terms of wages, working hours and social security. After Pierre Bourdieu, some call them the « dominés », a passive expression (the dominated). Some call them the inhabitants of the « quartiers », reducing the political question to an urban one. I’ll often call them the poor. It is a brutal but pragmatic way to define this portion of the French population which is supposed to fullfill obediently the requirements of the productive system only when the latter needs it. Without trying to give a generic and definitive name to this category of the French people, let us breifly descibe how they live.
2. How they live
A triple segregation. The working class of the famous class struggle faced a permanent conflict. Today’s poor face a triple segregation. The first segregation is topological. For very good reasons, when building social housing became a necessity after WW2, a very good idea was to buid these at a fair distance from the city centers. Concrete towers and buildings rose in the outskirts to form what we call « les cités » or « les grands ensembles ». In these places expected to reunite lower and middle classes, only the lower stayed. And they were quickly joined by the distant immigration waves. From the social housings schemes, access to the urban centers is both a psychological and a financial problem. The second segregation is unemployment, the great refusal of the industrial system to consider the need of employment and to ignore the capabilities of the poor to take part, one way or another, in the great adventure of transforming the world. The third segregation is symbolic. Most of the poor being of imprecise citizenship, they are not considered totaly French. Many of them do not have the right to vote and those who have it are called by the press, with a mild zest of contempt, French from immigration (« Français de l’immigration ») compared with French by stamp (« de souche »). They are maintained apart.
In those « cités » live people whose grand fathers, fathers or brothers were born elsewhere. Many of them (but not all of them) are tanned, black, mixed-blood, colored, chinese, hindus, whatever, but they are different. What is important to recall is that the mosaïc of that population is different in each place. The combination of cultures obey rules of history and of flocking and gathering. Every location has a different combination of cultures. Moreover, there is nothing similar to unified communauties. Like the Latinos in the US, the so-called Arabs of France come from different countries, speak different languages, have a different relationship with the welcoming country, have different policical strategies. Same thing for the Black Africans. Whether they come from the coast, the forest or the savanah, whether they speak Soninké, Bambara, Douala, etc. or another langage, they will have different interests and stakes, different attitudes and projects. There is nothing like homogenous communities of ethnic French.
Some groups have a tenser relation with the country than others. That is the case of peole coming from ex-colonies. Algerians suffer and develop with the French population and French history a tension fed by many silences about colonial wars that claims at least 300.000 deads. It is also true of many people coming from West Africa. The relation is ambiguous, mixed with love and hate, fascination and rejection. Mythologies of independance wars told by old uncles mingle with mythologies of Palestinian intifadas seen on TV screens to form a patchwork of confused feelings where some youth and some families find the arguments for either more hatred or more convergence with the nation they chose to live in.
Among some of the communities or groups, a shallow Islam developed. It has been revived by clerics of radical obediences or by immams sent by the king of Morocco or the Algerian government. If this ambiguous Islam touches the young boys and girls (not only of Moslem origins), it remains superficial. It is rather a vehicle of self affirmation and a contribution to self confidence than an adhesion to a specific methaphysic. Basically, France is a secular country and the French are secular people. Their link with religion is tenuous. It is equally true of the youg boys and grils of roman catholic, protestant, jewish, islamic, animist or buddhist origins. The French people is not a great beleiver and the Islam carried out in the social housings is shallow, ritualistic and moralistic. The main apparent feature of this adhesion to a secularised islam is the respect of Ramadan, the fasting month. Another is a snubbery of young and old alike to swear by Moslem invocations and to mention the Prophet whenever it is necessary to assert oneself.
In that context, young people have a very dire straight to find their way. Girls who are often under close supervision by brothers, fathers and their male friends, have a very narrow space in the cité. They strive to escape their doomed fate. They have the choice between love and school. Love leads to marriage, school to social positions. Both mean fierce battles with their families. In the meantime they often have to struggle with basic needs by fighting and stealing like the boys. They are sometimes very good fighters and girls battles are merciless. In both cases (love or school) it is a struggle : some succeed, and some don’t. Those who do rarely come back to where they grew up.
For the boys there is no escape. Many refuse all kind of authority, whether it comes from a father, from the school system or from the State. Many boys are cross at any kind of project, proposal or future. They hold the walls (« Ils tiennent les murs »). It means they stand hours, days, years in the same place, back on a wall, only smoking pot and dreaming of revenge. They have very little hope of finding a real job and they know for sure that, for the first time in centuries, their lives will be worst that that of their fathers. They hate everything and everyone including themselves.
Nevertheless, those social housing are places of suffering, but also of imagination and of joy. Suffering takes shape in the many difficulties they face : surviving in exile for some, fighting for their day-to-day living for those deprived of a job, health problems by the dozens, kid’s mischeifs, chances of violence. But existence follows its paths and those suburbs are also places for the usual loves and laughters of life, the family meals, the neigours connivences, the happy boys going to play foot-ball, the moms chatting while waiting for the kids at the school door. People live and they cling as they can to three qualities they strongly believe in : solidarity, respect and joy. I won’t take time to explain the sense of those qualities which are asserted in the suburbs. And I don’t pretend that those qualities are spread out througout the cités, but most people there beleive in those values.
3. Rules and infringment
The mythical origins of political violence, the triple segregation, the need of basic goods by the poor, the rampant misunderstanding between the nation and its youth, all main factors and some others raise the question of obedience to the law and respect for order. This leads us to the 2005 riots.
It is not the first time that this type of urban riots burst out in France. We already had a couple of waves of this generation of riots. The first ones exploded in 1971 in La Courneuve. Then in Vaulx en Velin in 1979, in Vénissieux (les Minguettes in 1981 and 1983). In 1982 a huge social program implemented by the newly elected socialist French president (François Mitterrand) organised the transfer of state and local investissements to the poor neiborhoods. It is what is called « la politique de la ville. » The following year, 1983, the « marche des beurs » was a big political movement launched by people of North African origins but including many others. It was the first attempt by this generation of young, urban, poor French of migrant origins to assert faith in the French democracy and suggest that it was time to accelerate reforms of all kinds related with the basic misunderstanding.
The riots obey an obstinate pattern of which I shall draw a carricature. A young boy is hunt down by the police for having robbed a motorbike. He drives faster and faster on his bike while the policemen in their car think themselves as Starsky or Hutch in the streets of New York. Eventually the boy hits an obstacle and dies. Immediately his friends, neibours and family cry for an assassination. The press is fast to write the event in a manner that will sell papers and rise TV audience. The police claims the pure innocence of the policemen. The local associations pretend that the boy was a good boy. The family reacts with dignity asking not to use the death of a young boy as a pretext for more violence. But the violence spreads and the whole neibourhood takes flames. The real game is to call the TV cameras in the cité just for the hell of having a brief fame on prime time. It lasts a couple of days, sometimes three or five days, then it vanishes out.
This riot game between police and the young boys is only the climax of a physical conflict between those two sides, a long, obsessive, exhausting conflict. The rightist administration that has been ruling France for many years wants to have the law obeyed at almost any cost. The socialist governments followed the same attitude. The police is aggressive and the boys extremely touchy. It is not unusual that a young boy is busted four times in a day, then has to face the wall, hands up ; is being asked a series of private questions to which he must answer with politeness under the sarcasms of policemen. Many policemen are straight and correct. But some are not. The young policemen without experience are sent to those suburbs « to learn their job ». If not controled by a strict management, abuses are extremely frequent.
In 2005, the home minister is campaigning for president of France. One of his big tactics is to try to grab the xenophobic extreme right’s vote ; thus to play xenophobia, order, punishment and the revival of a tough authority. When he visits a social housing after a minor incident on june 20th 2005, he reckons that he is going to Karcher-clean those places. Karcher is the device used to clean dirty cars or dirty floors. Most inhabitants of most social housings are outraged. The polemic is sharp. Politicians and journalists take sides. On the 25th of october, the same home minister, still campagning, calls « racaille » (rabble, riffraff, scum), the young boys who disturb their neibours in the cité du Val d’Argent in Argentueil near Paris. For the second time, the poor, the inhabitants of the cités, resent this expression like a violent insult. Two days later the riot bursts.
The word « racaille » is often used by those inhabitants to ridicule or criticise themselves, but it was never part of the political vocabulary, even the National Front wouldn’t dare to use it. « Racaille » is a word that belongs to the old French stock. It refers to the bad boys, the guttersnipe or the hooligans. It was long used by the bourgeois to describe the angry proletarians. As a matter of fact, many young boys live on the wild side of the law. Some steal, some deal hashish, some break homes or cars to find money, some fight with one another. Racaille is a violent word for a real violent social universe.
There is three levels in the temptation of individual violence in the suburbs. The first level is called incivilities (incivilités). A group of boys squats the lobby of a social housing building. They distroy the mail boxes, they urinate on the walls, they smoke bad hashish all day long, they throw the butts on the floor, they make noise untill late at night. By doing so, they harass their neibours and almost nothing can be done to control them.
The second level is that of the many transgressions undertaken to make a better living. Raids in supermarkets to steal food or in the boutiques to wear nice clothes. Hashish dealing in and around the highschools, breaking car windows to steal what is inside and the many thefts of cellphones, motorbikes, motorscooters, leatherjackets, cars, or whatever. Many boys and girls cross the line one day or another for a while ; and they take a chance on the fringe of gansterism but without belonging to a gang. They chalenge authority, improve the family living and play beeing in a film. They do what many young people do in many civilisations, that is to transgress the rules in order to change those that are obsolete ; or just to have fun and experiment the limits of the collective power.
The third level is very rarely reached. It is the level of professionnal gangsterism. Some boys play that game for a couple of years and enter the life of jail sojourns, court language and police custody alterned with easy money and so on. Some boys and girls are so desperate that they absolutely do not care about what can happen : they have almost no limits. This is another landscape, the landscape of heavy delinquency. It is not the day-to-day life of the suburbs.
I would like to emphasise the fact that infringment of the rule of property goes with the infringment of other rules. Let us take the rules of the art business for instance. Not everybody is an artist in the French social housings, but art is lively and sharp in those places. Tag, graph, hip-hop, rap, break-dance, smurf, etc. In the musical or choregraphic fields like on the graphic ones, the suburbs are places of exuberant invention and boldness. And in the artistic activities, the suburban artists basically infringe the rules. They do not respect the economic rules and rather act, paint, sing for free. They do not meet their public in the institutional cultural places but in the streets. They do not create for eternity but for the instant. They do not play the egotist game demanded by the medias but a long lived anonymity of art creation. They do not act against the prevalent rules but rather ignoring those rules considered out of time.
The same could be said about language. Many languages are spoken in the suburbs and people currently speak four or five of them. When it comes to speaking French, they have a game of manipulating the language in such a way that no regular French speaker can understand the very methaphoric, exuberant and chaotic language they speak with one another. They transgress the rules of speach and language.
When this inclination for infringment meets the conflict with the police, the young boys play a game the rules of which they intend to fix themselves. They do what is to be done to attract the police within the housing. They hurl stones to the cars and wait for hide-and-seek to start. They love it and apparently, so does the police. The sirens scream, the stones fly and the antagonism is once more turned into a big game. Both sides know the limits of the exercise, they know it is a desperate show and a no-winner game. But it goes on and on.
On the 27th of october 2005, it is Ramadan. Not everybody fasts but, in the Chène Pointu, a district of Clichy-sous-Bois where many Moslems live, most families fast. That means, they ate in the early morning and wait for sunset to enjoy a second meal, this one a family gathering. Three boys have been playing soccer and they come back home for the Ramadan family supper. They are eager to be on time because everyone is in a hurry to have some food after a fasting day and fathers do not compromise with the symbol of family reunion. The boys hurry home to the cité. Night is about to fall when they see in the distance, the headlights of a car which seems to be a police car. They want no trouble, they just want to have their family dinner. But the police car nears up and they find no other idea, to escape the two hours of sarcasms and humiliations but to hide somewhere. Maybe one of them has heard that the electrical facility near by doesn’t work any more. They rush towards it, they enter the facility and they wait for the cops to pass by. But the facility is in order and it works. Two of the boys are dead. The third one severely injured.
The same night, friends, family and neibours of Ziad and Bouna, the two dead boys, let their anger burst. The anger is deep for it contains not only the pain of two boys without any criminal record, dead for nothing (« morts pour rien » as it will be written under their photographs on Tshirts). The anger is also directed against the home minister who called them « racaille ! » two days before. Within a few hours after the fact is known, gossip rush across the housing. They have been killed. It is a murder. It is a provocation by the home minister. This same night dozens of cars are burnt in the suburbs of Clichy-sous-bois. Same thing the following night. Then it calms down for a night. And when everyone thinks that things are over, the anger duplicates. The police headquarters proposes a version of the facts that is absolutely unbelievable. A grenade rolls into a mosque. No excuse is delivered to the family of the dead boys. The home ministry clings to a version of the facts where the good police has been flawless and the boys had run away to escape the cops on their way to a bad trick. No-one beleives that version but the candidate-minister sticks to it.
The next nights, many close neibourhoods follow the pace of Clichy-sous-bois. Boys set fire on cars. They devastate schools, spare parts shops, social and cultural centers, post offices, police offices ; they hurl stones to firemen who come to extinguish the fires. They play a real gerrilla chess game with the police. Some boys have firearms, which is very forbiden and rare in France, and some policemen are the target of a couple of bullet shots. TV cameras are on the spot days and nights, specially at night where flames are more spectacular ; but always on the police side.
The only images seen of the rioters are stealthy photos of boys hidden in their hoods. The whole country is tetanised. Nobody could imagine that the riots could carry on over the week-end and then it lasts and lasts. From the Paris vicinity it reaches other cities. It spreads like a fire in the plains. Each evening brings the names of new places where boys from thirteen to twenty-two years of age, but mostly very young ones, chalenge the police with only one thing in mind : « he called us ‘‘ racaille ‘’, we show him who we are. » Except for the original cities of the first explosion, in no city does the riot lasts more than four days. It usually bursts out somewhere ; then, when the police spots some rioters, they stop by themselves. It reaches very tiny cities.
When the movement is about to take a turn and the first rioters enter the center of Lyon on november 10th, the movement is too tired, it has no leader, no theory, no relay to the media, no organisation. The only resources of the rioters are a very swift solidarity which runs information through cell phones ; and the desperate vigor of the young boys. Besides that, the movement is totally mute. The only persons speaking about the movement are the mayors of the cities involved, the social workers and the mothers asked by TV journlists to give an opinion in 7 seconds in front of a camera. All react with dignity and common sense. Most mayors and especially the mayor of Clichy-sous-bois, claim that in spite of this very exagerated violence, the reasons for anger are many and have been known for a long time. All the mothers and fathers interviewed say that rioting is not good, but that « they understand the boys... »
Some fact deserve to be emphasised for a better understanding of the events.
- A first fact is that there has been no intercultural conflict. Nothing like Arabs against Blacks ; or colored angainst whites ; or Gipsies against whatever. No cultural community is involved as such. The boys on the front line are of all different cultural groups, they include French from long-time origins mixed with French of Arabic, African or Asian origins. All fight elbow to elbow. But, still, there is a majority of boys from African origin (both North-Africa and sub-Sahel-Africa)
- Most of the rioters were very young boys. In some places between thirteen and sixteen. Parents try to bring them back home. They obey for half-an-hour and go back to their stones. In some places, girls take part ; or they are behind. But all in all it is a face-to-face beween the police and very young kids. Vis-a-vis the girls, it is a revenge of the boys : they exist.
- Besides cars, the targets are mainly local institutions. Schools, fire-brigades, social centers, police centers, supermarkets, some shops. Those targets are the only ones in reach of the stones. The rioters do not reach the city centers for they wouldn’t know how to react and behave in those places, they are not familiar with urban structure. Maybe they would have liked to march to the big cities, especially to Paris. But the housings are too far away and there is no way they can use the metro to reach the city. They are locked out.
- As they are going on, almost no one within the institutional political universe recognises the riots as a political event deserving an analysis of its content. Some Swiss journalists help the boys speak and say what they have in mind on a blog (the famous Bondyblog). Besides that, no recognition at all. Neither during the riots nor after.
- The huge majority of the boys arrested after having been photographed during the riots are not only young boys but they have no or very little police record. They are not the good guys of the suburbs, but they are not either the traffickers and the gangsters. They are the boys who had the guts to do it.
5. Some keys of interpretation
- A new proletariat defined by housing, unemployment and a third-world rural culture. We have been so determined by the idea that the class divide is defined by the productive system that we do not take in account that other factors may be of great interest. Like humiliation, health degradation, cultural rejection, political lies.
- The ethnic or religious factor were absent from the scene. No political revendications either. That doesn’t mean that no religious values or methaphysical attitudes were at stake ; and that it was a non-politic event. It is possible that those young boys carry some of the values and behaviors of tomorrow’s world and do not know how to express them.
- Young boys like to play and to feast. Those young boys have been rejected from the pleasures of contemporary urban life. They see the glimmering lights of modernity without having a chance to enjoy them. Then for two weeks they enjoyed the excitement of being in both under the lights of TV and by the fires of unusefull objects burning for no particular reason. « There we are ! We are not dead ! » The riot gives an extremely high excitment for both the police and the rioters. It is the riot pang.
- In terms of culture and economics, many suburbs of France can be viewed as pockets of third world within a highly developped country. In a globalised planet, the boundaries do not obey that of international law. As some neibourhoods of Bangalore, San Paulo or Shangaï belong to the super-developped world, the angry neibourhoods of France remind us that the social and political unrest is global.
- Violence may be the option of those who cannot express themselves in another way. War is a temptation of desperate generations. The boys have seen for years the intifada wars on TV. Some of them have been fed by mythologies where guerrilla wars are won by brave young men. Some boys know for sure that they have no future. They burn their present time out. They might be ready for more.
Talk given at the University of South California on Nov 14 2008
Photo David Racimora