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Portraits de jeunesse

I won’t talk about the French youth at large, but about a section of this youth which is the popular youth. The middle or upper class youth of course deserve consideration, but like most heirs, the expectation of an endowment bonds them with the power which they will inherit. Whether wealth or political might, popular youth don’t expect any heritage at all; thus it is free from the obligation of social continuity and open to discontinuity, eager to change and keen to adapt to the modern world. This is the reason for our special interest. What I shall try to emphasise is that two of the characteristics of this youth - violence and fertile imagination - are linked and contribute as such to the transformation of a particularly rigid society.

The expression of popular youth is probably correct but not completely satisfactory for it hides two aspects of reality which are often emphasised to evoke this youth. One aspect is that most of it looks different from what can be expected. French : this popular youth is often of dark complexion, sometimes visibly Black or Arabic, sometimes openly Asian or Amerindian, seldom Caucasian. The second reality is that most of this youth lives in suburban areas, what we call the cités, sometimes using the infamous expression of ghettos - the huge social housing built vertically in concrete where the poor of France live in their majority. Some journalists call this category ‘ethnic youth’, some call it ‘suburban youth’. Both expressions add some substance to my definition of a popular youth but they may also mislead the audience/reader by dramatising both the ethnic and the urban factors. As a matter of fact, this youth is popular by cultural belonging.

One wouldn’t, without exaggeration, speak of a working class youth. Not that this contemporary youth doesn’t belong to the European working class tradition but rather because it is, in the main, not working anymore; and this not-working-anymore - the huge unemployment issue - is its major problem. We could call it the non-working class. Nevertheless, the youth we shall talk about belongs to the working class in terms of political and cultural traditions. It is the category which is expected to work hard in factories, in warehouses or on scaffoldings to accomplish what the longer established French do not want to do anymore: dirty, poorly paid jobs.

Regarding what one calls a ‘suburb’, the whole suburban population amounts to between 6 and 12 million inhabitants out of a total of 65 million. This means we are talking about a tenth to a fifth of the French population. But when we consider the youth, the proportion is much greater for, as usual and for many intricate reasons, the poor are more prolific. The suburban young population amounts to maybe one fourth of the total young population. And if we enter dynamic factors, like the combination of violence and creativity, this suburban youth counts for more than its arithmetical share. But let us first locate the issue in the historical and cultural background of contemporary France. Three factors will help us understand the dynamics of this young population:

Being located at the very western edge of the Eurasian continent and completely open on its eastern side, France as we know it today has for centuries, and probably for millennia, absorbed a flux of immigrants. Following the setting sun and maybe looking for better pastures or richer crops, people have flocked from far away to this kind of swallow-hole that is now called France. The basic frame of the question raised by the fact of migration is a permanently mingling population. Unlike Spain, England, Germany or Russia and probably unlike Japan, France cannot claim a stable relationship between its territory and its population. Reading Braudel confirms the fact that, for at least the past two millennia, successive layers of population coming from different parts of the Eurasian land mass have adopted, along with the territory, France’s cultural habits and specific languages. As a cause and a result, one is considered French when he or she expresses the definite will to being French for reasons linked with the mythology of human rights or the search for Liberty.

Over the past centuries, with a climax around the late nineteenth century, those who considered that Frenchness was based on being born French, were countered by those who asserted that one becomes French by the choice of Liberty or, at least, by choosing to live in such a mellow country and adopt its cultural traits. The result is that a wide fringe of population is composed of immigrants who came to France to become French and are nevertheless denied, at least for a couple of decades, the recognition of a global Frenchness. They remain in a kind of in-between zone where they wait for and expect citizenship without any definite criteria and delay. Most of the young population belong to this legal no-man’s land: they are totally French by culture but rejected by mean political arguments.

The second factor is the traditional dynamics of French politics. In spite of pretending to belong to a democratic model, French society is basically antagonistic. This means that the transformation process of the French society is not based on an articulate debate and the search for consensus, but on the mythology and the practice of violent conflict. The mythology is that of what is called revolution. The past two and a half centuries of French history is a display of violent upsurges where, from time to time, the lower classes take to the streets and fight to gain political ground. The fights I talk about are not merely ideological confrontations; they are merciless physical struggles that leave hundreds to thousands of dead bodies on the pavement. Then, when such an upsurge overthrows a government, it is instantly celebrated as a revolution.

The streets of Paris, some of its major monuments like the Eiffel tower and the Bastille square, celebrate the successful revolutions. This mythology doesn’t remain in the secrecy of schoolchildren’s history books, it is permanently revived in the social conflicts. Unlike most European countries where unions negotiate workers’ rights prior to the conflict, in France, we start with a conflict that unions will have to regulate by negotiating with both the angry mob and the government. Demonstrations and strikes are a weekly if not daily event in Paris where any issue is a good reason to defy law and order and take to the street to show off. Violence is the expression of an exasperated thirst for Liberty on the one side; and of the fascination for strict law and order on the other side. Even if most suburban kids do not precisely know about the facts of French history, they can figure by reading the daily newspapers that, whatever the topic, nothing is obtained except by the flexing of muscle and the threat of more muscle.

Now a third aspect of our issue, which is not specifically French, is globalisation. Although migrations have been common movements in Western Europe for millennia, they have become, like in some other parts of the world, a major demographic transformation. Globalisation, as a financial or industrial movement, is but the manifestation of the more dramatic demographic change. Then, the demographic factor triggered an anthropological transformation. Huge proportions of populations that were displaced at least belonged to both an original country and a host country, sometimes to more. Now displaced populations no longer belong to any exclusive geographical entity, they refer to several ‘ethnoscapes’ as Arjun Appadurai calls them. In other words, they built their flexible identity on several illusions, several sets of values, mythologies and rituals. It is especially true when speaking about the young generations.

Whether born in Algeria, Pakistan, Colombia, France, Turkey, England, etc., the youth behave, believe and react in almost identical ways on many a topic. They listen to similar music, adopt comparable environmentalist views, often dress alike and have the same hopes and aspirations when it comes to finding a partner and having children. But when this flexible identity building needs a strong backing, the children of twenty-first century France mingle with a kind of internet-identity. The French of Arabic origin refer to the Palestinian fight for Liberty while the French Jews refer to Israël and the Shoah; the French of African descent refer to Afro-American myths and so on. Atop the already complex bundle of an uncertain identity, the web and satellite TV add their share of tensions and recognitions. This is part of the background of the popular youth of France today. On this background I suggest to zoom more closely on four contributions of the suburban French youth to the transformation of the society they live in - contributions in which violence and creativity are closely interconnected.


All languages have their popular side considered deformations of academic speech by some and claimed as the vanguard of a necessarily changing tongue by others. Considering the language of contemporary suburban youth in France, we could almost talk of another language, an alternative to usual French. This vivid language is called verlan. The nimble verbal manoeuvres that speakers of verlan engage in are well known. They reverse the syllables of their words even in conversations which are otherwise normal from the point of view of meaning or of the information they are intended to convey. In its eagerness, verlan often suppresses vowels. The word arabe becomes rebeu, femme becomes meuf and juif becomes feuj. But the word cité retains its colour and is pronounced as téci, while the chinois are noiches. These are just some of the classic verlan terms from the current decade that have had a longer shelf life. But there is no guarantee that we will have the same verlan in five or ten years’ time because it is highly dynamic and changes constantly like a chameleon. It refuses to stay put. It evades all attempts to systematize it or allow interpreters to decode it. Indeed, that’s the whole point: the purpose of verlan is precisely to maintain secrecy. Its function is to conceal and also to remain hidden so that, like a resistance fighter used to crossing and re-crossing enemy lines, it is never the same from one location to the next, from one day to the next, or from one speaker to the next. Here, it picks up words from America, there it absorbs peculiar yet stylishly cool turns of phrase; elsewhere, it borrows rules from the neighbouring estate, and yet further afield adopts a secret syntax invented by a bunch of pals. It is the private language of a gang of school kids or a group of residents in one or other of the tower blocks, a team of nocturnal street artists or the regulars at a boxing club. In Marseilles, verlan has blended with the local accent and the taste for tall stories; in the département of Seine-Saint-Denis, it is interspersed with old expressions from Parisian slang; all over France, it has absorbed a lot of expressions from Northern- African Arabic and Kabyle. As a matter of fact, compared to the French language, verlan does everything the other way round.

While French prides itself on its clarity and rigour, verlan seeks opacity and a certain vagueness of interpretation; one would say that it cultivates ambiguity. While French claims or believes itself to be a stable language, whose jealously guarded formulae have granted it an almost permanent status, verlan is fluid, changeable as an autumn sky. While French tries to establish itself in international affairs in the face of formidable competition, verlan fades as soon as anyone comes close and completely disappears if one tries to touch it. While French uses softness and subtlety, the staccato rhythm of verlan violently assaults the ear. While French derives its respectability from a highly codified written language preserved by dictionaries, guides to Correct Usage, verlan dissolves in an ephemeral spoken language, carried along by the tides of fashion and the mood of the moment. Verlan is not opposed to French, it respectfully pledges its allegiance to it and penetrates the French language the better to anticipate it. It sets French aside, sets itself against it, always ready to drop it at the earliest opportunity so it can pursue its crazy vivid metaphors and revel in the earthy exchanges of the fish market.

Verlan is only yet a spoken language, but it has recently struggled its way into written French. Young novelists from the suburbs don’t write in verlan but they invest the vividness and the methaphoric images of verlan in a brilliant literature that is only matched by French-language writters of the Caribean and Africa.


No artistic production can claim an exclusive popular expression but a good share of France’s brightest artistic inventiveness comes from or is being shaped among the popular youth as we have described it. Street art, including hip-hop, graffiti and rap, is shared and developed by artists of various backgrounds. But the leading role definitively belongs to artists coming from the suburbs. To be more precise, it is mainly in the suburbs of the country that young boys work hard to finalize and perfect the figures that will be displayed on the public urban spaces. The shapes of these figures may be violently resented by the ordinary passers-by, but this violence was not intended. However, whether a musical, a choreographic or a graphic design, if not immediately violent, this art is at least chaotic or distorted, dislocated, dismembered. In the wake or the surrealists and kin to American pop art, if not violent, popular street art is definitively transgressive. It is transgressive in many ways that will eventually manifest into a final shape.

When conventional art is proudly asserting its belonging to economics and even claiming to reward a fair amount of the famous added value back to the clever investor, popular art signed by the young suburban kids is freely displayed. Not that those young artists despise money or don’t need any, but they disjoint production and recompense. Who is rewarded is the artist, the objet d’art being out of reach of the market. When hip-hop dancers perform in the street, they panhandle the audience with grace and contentment. When young graffers ask recompense for the wall they intend to paint, they don’t consider this the core of their art. They wait for nightfall to hide their real graffiti on the out-of-reach walls that signal not only their skill but their boldness.

In both cases, the young artists will not perform in conventional places like museums or theatres. When asked to do so for good money, they will never refuse. But their natural scene is the open public space. Free walls in the centre for the graffers, afternoon crowded sidewalks for the dancers or the musicians, railroad banks for the taggers: where the big mob is expected, the artists will confront it by dodging surprise. Too often have those artists been caught by a splendid offer and too often deceived in the long run. Now they put no limit on their scene: taking the chance of offending sacred private property, they intend to be home everywhere in the big city.

Whereas academic art wishes to enter posterity if not eternity, popular art is purposely ephemeral. The huge graffiti on display on the embankment of most Parisian railways never last more than a year, for this reason they are not only signed but precisely dated. Rap music engraved on cheap plastic DVDs never last more than the season they were registered for. As for street art, it of course flies with the wind. This ephemerality is not casual. It expresses the necessary fragility of any human wake on earth, a fragility that most kids of close immigrant origins very well know. The same fragility is assumed by the very artists as an essential necessity. Rarely do they sign their works of art with real names. Most often they invent signatures and identities. They hide behind phoney names that magnify the artist as a kind of abstract deity, not as a person. Close to a tradition where artists do not pretend to be anything else than the vehicle of some force expressing the beauty of the world, the young popular artists transgress the official narcissism of contemporary artistic production.


Real unemployment rate has been consistently close to 10% of the working population for the past twenty-five years in France. For the young boys bearing foreign names, it can amount to between 50 and 70%. For the ones who left school without any diploma and live in the infamous suburbs, there is hardly any chance at all of getting a regular job. Those boys need to survive though and they are no less or no more skilled than any other person. Barred from access to official labour, they have to find other ways of making their living - they have to hustle; they become street hustlers by force.

Of course there are different levels of hustling. One is almost legal. It is the clever trickery over social aids and normal welfare. So many are the niches for assistance - a good professional with a sense of theatre can allow a family to survive with his many little tricks. But this is seldom a young boy’s or girl’s choice. The young generation will rather lean towards more exciting attitudes and choices. The easiest one is working and selling in the black economy. In some neighbourhoods one never buys a new washing machine or a new TV in a regular store but knows the names and addresses of the persons who will deliver the chosen item for almost half price. Girls and ladies buy cosmetics and clothing the same way. And when it comes to fixing cars, repairing computers or maintaining plumbing, everyone knows who to contact and the cost of the service. This parallel economy is no secret for most local authorities. It is a kind of penetration of third world economic practices and habits within the urban peripheries of contemporary Europe. It works, allowing many a family to survive with dignity at the limit of the law.

Out of the limits, we find the real violence. After having tried for years to get by with soft hustling, when they reach 20 to 25 years of age without having had a chance to invest a single day on a real job, after also having paid for a minor transgression with months or years in prison, some men and also women cross the line and enter the dirty game. They use guns and deal heavy drugs. They organise in gangs and fight one another when not fighting the cops. They rest from time to time in jail in order to prepare for a better chance. Actually those who settle in those highly transgressive deeds have usually started early in their life. It is not uncommon that 12 year old kids violently challenge their schoolteacher, their parents, their neighbours and their best friends. Life in the suburbs is very violent in so many ways. Those youngsters face the daily violence of the police, of poverty, of ordinary racism, of decaying homes, of permanent rejection. So, when they lack the ethical references which might help them weigh their deeds, and when they are deprived of the angels’ patience, they simply have no limits. They burn their lives out. But I want to stress that those young boys are a very tiny fringe of the popular youth. They are not the majority, they are not the rule - but they are a threat.


Regularly France is the theatre of surprisingly huge riots. Hardly matched by the US, French riots burst from time to time in the suburban ghettos. Every two to three years, for very accidental reasons usually linked with police misbehaviour, a social housing bursts into flames for a couple of days: young boys set fire to abandoned cars and challenge the police, sometimes the firemen who attempt to extinguish the fires. When the government is arrogant and denies obvious facts about policing, the riot can spread out like a bushfire. In 2005, a riot burst out after the death of two youngsters tracked by the police and spread when the police minister (now president) called the young ‘riffraff’ and refused any excuse when a hand grenade was thrown into a mosque. For almost three weeks, from place to place, never lasting more than three days in the same city, the riot could be watched on TV. Two years later, the same type of riot only lasted a couple of days. What can be said about those riots?

The actors are usually very young boys, from 13 to 23 years of age, many of them close to 15. Most of those kids are normal children, not bad guys, not gangsters. They very rarely have police records and usually have a normal family life. The age factor is interesting for several reasons. First, those kids live a boring life and have a deep thirst for recognition. To bring TV cameras into the neighbourhood and have one’s own neighbourhood’s name quoted on primetime TV is a huge pride for a young population whose only reference of the outside world is TV. Then, the riot is not only a challenge to the police, introducing into a real game with real actors wearing real guns, it is a feast; a feast with thunderbursts of cars igniting into flames, it is a day of revenge against so many days and years of boredom; it is a night of reversed power, the night that all kids of all civilisations have always dreamed of.

What triggers the riot is an offence. The offence is but the last straw that breaks the camel’s back. The poor families living in the estate housing of France are highly sensitive. They have been rejected from the brilliant cities of contemporary Europe to live in ugly, gloomy mock cities. They are denied normal citizenship and many of them, being without regular papers, are targeted by the police. They face a constant if sometimes hidden racism. They often choose to live in France for ideological reasons and would be very proud to claim their citizenship, but are denied citizenship or, at least full respect for their original culture. When the offence comes from a police officer who is supposed to protect them, they grow more angry. And when the offence comes from a upper rank politician, they get mad.

No articulate political discourse is expressed during those riots. They have no visible leaders and, although surprisingly efficient, the spreading is not organised. A blurred moralistic look can give an illusion that the rioters are so stupid that they burn their own environment and destroy their most usefull facilities like schools, stores and cultural equipment. A closer or more selective attention shows that, if deprived of a real strategy, the rioters are neither deaf nor blind. What they react at is not exactly the police misbehaviour but rather the offense of both injustice and contempt. For the past fourty years, governments whether led by right or left have implemented and justified with economic arguments a very unequal, privileged society where the poors are suspect and watched over because of being poors and where the rich put no limit to both arrogance and incompetence. This is not enough to trigger a splendid revolution, but it seems to be but the early phase of something looking like a popular revolt.

Marc Hatzfeld

Talk given at Kyodai University, Kyoto, 2009. The 2005 riots in France, symposium on contemporary youth

Photo Dazeddigital

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Marc Hatzfeld, Sociologue des marges sociales
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