Sunday, December 04, 2005

France's Popular Neighbourhoods Are Not A "Political Desert"

by Abdellali Hajjat

The History Behind the Uprising in the Suburbs
Thursday October 28th in Clichy-sous-Bois (Seine-Saint-Denis), the deaths of Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, French children of immigrant workers, sparked the most widespread and symbolically important suburban riots in the French history. Their deaths, as well as the gassing of the Bilal Mosque in Clichy-sous-Bois, lit the fuse which set off the dynamite that had been piling up in the popular suburbs for twenty years.


Sadly, police violence is not uncommon in these neighbourhoods, where people are used to one ID check after another, to being violently arrested because of how they look and being taken into custody where anything goes (so many daily experiences which explain why the two youths fled in Clichy-sous-Bois).

Ever since the first riots in Minguettes in Vénissieux (Rhône) in 1981, these rebellions have always been limited to the specific neighbourhood where the victim(s) lived; the recent events are the first time in French history that a “police error” [translators note: “bavure”, the term used in France whenever the police brutalize or kill someone] set off such an explosion of urban violence. The Minister of the Interior bears some responsibility for the current circumstances, but the structural causes can be traced to twenty years of government policies, enacted by both the “left” and the right, which have led to the ruin of the French suburbs.

The roots of the people’s rage are social and political, not ethnic or religious. It is not a matter of a “lack of integration,” a word which has lost all meaning today as it tends to favour dangerous cultural explanations (if they don’t integrate, it’s because of their “cultural differences”). This uprising could only grow in the soil of economic, social, political and spatial inequality, caused by the crisis of post-industral capitalism and anti-social public policies. In the “country of human rights” where we brag about the “French model of integration” (contrasted to the straw-man “multi-cultural” American and British model), the popular suburbs are turning into ghettos (a phenomenon that mirrors the isolation of wealthy suburbs, which people talk about a lot less…).

But the fire would not have spread so far without the provocations of Nicolas Sarkozy, Minister of the Interior, who has not hesitated to stigmatize the young residents of the people’s suburbs with words and expressions (from “trash” to “cleaning with Karcher”) that would be roundly condemned as promoting hatred and ethnic cleansing if they were spoken by the leader of the National Front. The Minister’s attitude towards the events in Clichy-sous-Bois can also be criticized, for he claimed on the one hand that Zyad Benna and Bouna Traoré were involved in a theft, and on the other hand that the tear gas had not been fired by the police [into the Bilal Mosque – translator] but by neighbourhood youths. It was an “allowance” from the police that was used by the “trash” that has to be cleaned…

But Sarkozy is not the only one who shows contempt for the popular suburbs. When certain “left-wing” leaders talk about “savages” or the “little Le Pens from the suburbs,” they are adopting the same approach of constructing dangerous classes. It is true that the social and political causes of the riots have been widely discussed in the French media (which for once avoided, for the most part, talking about the “fundamentalist menace,” unlike Sarkozy), but some left-wing sociologists and journalists also noted the “vacuum” or the political “desert” in the popular suburbs, where a majority of the descendants of post-colonial immigration live (either French or foreigners). They claim that France has been the scene of “jacqueries,” [translators note: “peasant insurrections”] like in the 19th century, carried out by the “lumpen of the lower proletariat,” “without class consciousness.” The implication is supposed to be that if some political force could only organize this rebellion, then all of its subversive potential could be directed in a revolutionary direction. From the comfort of their positions in the media and/or the universities, they do not hesitate to deplore the rioters’ “handicap”, for unlike class conscious workers there is no place for them in the Marxist framework. But in explaining this lack of political organization, they do not deal with the question of why the French left has been incapable of appealing to the people who live in the suburbs, and more specifically the fate of immigrant activists.

The French popular suburbs are not a “political desert” but are becoming one, in the ruins of the autonomous immigrants’movement which, since the late 1960s, has been confronted with obstacles putting its autonomy at risk: repression, recuperation and manipulation have been used against it. It is only by looking back on the failed rebellion of the immigrants and their children that we can understand the current vacuum in the popular neighbourhoods. From the Mouvement des travailleurs arabes (MTA, 1970-1976; translation: Arab Workers’ Movement) to the Mouvement de l’immigration et des banlieues (MIB, créé en 1995; translation: Movement of Immigrants and the Suburbs), by way of Divercité and the left-wing Moslem groups (like the Union des jeunes musulmans, UJM, translation: Young Moslems’ Union), there have been many attempts to organize post-colonial immigrants in France. The activism of immigrants or the descendents of immigrants has been marked by a series of political figures, corresponding to the economic, political and urban changes in French society: the anti-colonial “wretched of the earth” prior to 1962, the “immigrant worker,” the “undocumented immigrant,” the “beur” [translator: beur refers to Arab youth born in France], the “Moslem”, etc. Contrary to the sad story repeated by certain sociologists, the rebellion in the suburbs does have a history, with twenty years of rich experiences.

Not all groups from the neighbourhoods and/or post-colonial immigration have a subversive political line. There is in fact a split between those mutual aid and/or religious groups which are very dependent on municipal funding and deal with issues like literacy, help with homework, etc., and those groups with obvious politics, normally of the radical, ant-colonial and anti-zionist left. Groups in the first category have been favoured by the public authorities for their obvious role in “neutralizing” rebellion in the neighbourhoods. Groups in the second category have always been repressed by the French government and municipal authorities, in different ways depending on the different political circumstances.

So the MTA – an organization which had a hundred or so members in France, close to the Maoists from Gauche Proletarienne [translators note: “Proletarian Left,” an “anti-authoritarian Maoist” group which had an important influence on the autonomist movement in the 1970s], heavily involved in Paris’s “Arab” neighbourhoods and in the Marseilles area, fiercely anti-zionist and a forerunner of later immigrant struggles (undocumented immigrants, the SONACOTRA dwellings, etc.) – was literally decimated by the repressive policies of the Minister of the Interior of Valery Giscard d’Estaign’s government (1974-1981). Being able to organize a “general strike against racism” in September 1973, the MTA was seen as a threat to public order and its members who were foreigners were systematically investigated, deported or imprisoned, notably for their support for the Palestinians and for organizing strikes by undocumented workers.

The campaign around the SONACOTRA dwellings (1974-1980) [translators note: SONACOTRA is a government corporation that provides housing for immigrant workers] demanded better living conditions in this institution of social and political control, a legacy of French colonialism in Algeria. Activists were faced with an objective alliance between the French government and their counterparts from the countries of origin (Algeria, Morocco, Senegal, etc.), the trade unions (CGT, CFDT, etc.) and the SONACOTRA. This alliance facilitated the violent deportation of hundreds of immigrant labour activists.

The campaigns against racist and/or police violence were singled out for police repression after the murder of Djilali Ben Ali in Goutte d’Or (Paris, 1971), Mohammed Diab in Versailles (1972), Thomas Claudio in Vaulx-en-Velin (Rhône, 1990), Youssef Khaïf in Val Fourré (Yvelines, 1991), Abdelkader Bouziane in Dammarie-lès-Lys (Seine-et-Marne, 1997), etc. All of these actions against racist and police abuse, largely ignored by the dominant media, were attacked under the guise of complaints against libel, disturbing the peace, and generally by being surrounded by convoys of CRS [riot police] or GIGN operations [translators note: GIGN stands for “Groupe d’Intervention Gendarmerie Nationale”, or National Guard Intervention Group – somewhat like the North American SWAT teams].

After September 11th and the islamophobic craze, certain Moslem groups in Lyon experienced a new form of repression: having their subsidies cancelled thanks to a letter from the intelligence services, being refused insurance, being unable to open a bank account, etc.

The repression against all of these political initiatives played a major role in the impoverishment of immigrant activists.

The second factor that favours depoliticization is political recuperation, and the most important example of this is the March for Equality in 1983. Following the police shooting of Toumi Djaïdja in Minguettes, a new group, SOS Avenir Minguettes, decided to organize a peaceful march, modeled on Gandhi’s marches. They were supported by a part of the Catholic Church in Lyon, most notably Christian Delorme, and also by chapters of the Socialist Party [translator: which at that time formed the government]. They had a simple and human demand, the right to life: “Stop shooting us like rabbits,” demanded the marchers. Thirty or so people left Marseilles on October 15th 1983, when the march reached Paris on December 3rd there were over 100,000 demonstrators. Nothing like this had been seen before in the history of the anti-racist movement.

The movement inspired considerable political activity in the popular suburbs, but it didn’t take long before post-colonial immigrant activists - who had organized into “Youth Collectives” to welcome the march - realized that the entire affair was being turned into a tool by the Socialist government. They found out that while general and uncontroversial slogans had the support of the French left, this was not so when its political power was questioned or when the Palestinian question was raised. This recuperation of the “beur” movement reached its peak during the second March for Equality, Convergence 84, which was swamped by SOS Racism’s sea of little yellow hands saying “Don’t Touch My Pal.”

The activists from the 1980s were squeezed between the possibility of upward mobility and a desire for autonomy that included a refusal to compromise with the powers that be, and a “folklorization” of the immigrant struggles. Following the campaigns and riots of the 80s, the municipal authorities in the popular suburbs began to take the demands of this political youth seriously, but there has been a permanent split with the left in these neighbourhoods (in this regard see La gauche et les cités. Enquête sur un rendez-vous manqué, Olivier Masclet, Paris, La Dispute, 2003).

Many post-colonial immigrant activists tried to join various non-government political parties (the Greens, the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire [translation: Revolutionary Communist League], etc.), but this led to a dead end, and faced with the contradiction between the political discourse and practice they left these parties. To give an example, Sakina Bakha was elected to the regional council of Rhône-Alpes, and was able to see first-hand the xenophobic and/or paternalistic behaviour of some of his self-styled left-wing colleagues. The organizations of the far left can complain all they like about the lack of post-colonial immigrants and people from the popular suburbs in their organizations, but recent history shows that they were part of the problem more than the solution.

The political and trade union left abandoned the popular neighbourhoods and the anti-globalization movement never set foot there. The question of the veil and the wave of islamophobia which it provoked have helped to build a consensus against the suburbs, preventing any real growth of their activist base.

It is in this context of a growing disillusionment with the left that in the late 1980s many Moslem groups formed in the popular neighbourhoods. Some of these groups focused completely on cultural issues, not dealing with politics at all. Others, less often, such as the UJM in Lyon (founded in 1987), have a militant political discourse. Yet though Moslem groups may have formed on certain housing estates, few people convert to Islam, and the majority of residents are not effected by the religious political movement.

The third obstacle to politicization might be called the cultural loss of the immigrant activists. From the late 1970s up to the present day, there have been many “immigrant media organs.” From the first free radios (Radio Soleil in Paris, Radio Gazelle in Marseille) to the Im’media agency directed by Mogniss H. Abdallah, they represent attempts to counteract the stupidity of the French media on questions related to immigration. While most of these media were created by activists (from the MTA, the “beur” movement, etc.), and were meant to be political organs expressing the demands of the popular neighbourhoods, one can observe a gradual separation from the political sphere, as they become “just like the other” media.

The protest politics in hip hop, which has been (and is still) an important was that people are politicized in the French suburbs, has experienced the same process of neutralization as certain radios, especially Skyrock, and recording studios have favoured bands that line up behind the dominant ideology of profits and sexism. Sanitized commercial hip hop has production facilities and distribution outlets completely on a different scale than do those rare groups, such as Le Rumeur, which have stayed true to their radical origins.

Joining the Middle Class
The fourth factor that can explain the disappearance of political organization can be found in a paradox: the neighbourhood activists’ political awareness comes with an accumulation of educational and cultural capital (above average levels of scholastic achievement, greater knowledge of French society, etc.) and this tends to lead them out of the popular neighbourhoods. At the same time, the way in which they are politicized discourage this.

So while school in the 1980s made it more likely that one would be upwardly mobile, the decay of the public school system, the removal of subsidies from neighbourhood groups in the 1990s and anti-social public policies all contribute to a decrease in politicization amongst young people in the housing estates. France’s growing poverty hits the popular neighbourhoods the hardest, including potential activists. After a youthful involvement with some neighbourhood organization, often considered a “personal sacrifice,” many decide to “shape up” because of the social insecurity of being a “professional activist” and the lack of tangible political perspectives. It is not uncommon to find them heading up community projects or working as teachers or anywhere else where they can “make use of” their experience and knowledge of the neighbourhoods. Most of them no longer live in the dilapidated housing estates, but in the better off areas nearby.

The phenomenon of “joining the middle class” also effects members of the militant Moslem organizations, who are ironically called “bo-bars” (“bourgeois barbus,” or “bearded bourgeois”). The government’s social support and religious policies came as a real opportunity for certain Moslem activists, who broke off ties with the social movement that had been forged by the Collectif des musulmans de France [translator: “Collective of Moslems in France”] network. Here too, the inability of a section of the anti-globalization movement to resist the hysteria about Islamic fundamentalism (crystallized in the Ramadan affair at the European Social Forum in 2003 [translator: Tariq Ramadan is a left-wing Moslem theologian who was accused of anti-Semitism, and whose involvement in the 2003 European Social Forum was then used as an excuse to accuse the anti-globalization movement of anti-Semitism]) was a major impediment to these activists joining the legitimate political milieu, which poses real problems for struggles to come.

Given the political and social forces that have ravaged the political landscape in the French suburbs, it is not surprising that here is almost no political organization of the young people on the housing estates. The riots of 2005 are proof that things are going backwards, with the appeal to “big brothers.” At the same time as the municipalities are destroying any possibility of political involvement in the suburbs, with their cost-cutting budget policies, they appeal to these new “ethnic fire-fighters” to calm people down. Yet the riots showed what a hard time the “big brothers” have influencing the young teenagers from the housing estates: some activists, religious and non-religious, were even physically threatened at the height of the riots. The generation gap between the activists who come from the neighbourhoods and the working class youth should not be swept under the table. Connected to the negative impression the younger ones have of their elders and the lack of recognition in the immigrant movements, it is a major obstacle to any political organization in the French suburbs.

The Way Forward
This catastrophic situation presents a real challenge for the radical left which, knowing how unrepresentative it is of the suburban population, is looking for “transmission belts” into the housing estates. It is also a challenge for the autonomous immigrants’ movement, which is in the midst of questioning its own history and political project. For any new political initiative to successfully bridge the political chasm with the popular suburbs it will have to deal with twenty years of troubled relationships between the left and the housing estates. A critical look at the history of immigrant struggles and struggles in the suburbs is necessary in order to go forward, but also in order to avoid repeating the same political mistakes. The riots are a call to take responsibility for the history of the immigrant activists and activists from the suburbs, without whom any truly left-wing alternative project will not be possible.

Despite this damning account, there is still a way forward to political activity. Unexpectedly, those who participated in the riots of 2005 were mainly young people from the housing estates who have not had any previous confrontations with the police or the courts, but who felt the need to express themselves violently against injustice and police abuse. Contrary to the deliberate lies of Sarkozy (to whom the intelligence services have given all their figures), it is not a matter of criminal activity in the popular suburbs. The State of Emergency was declared in order to repress protests that were growing increasingly political, which were literally challenging the State’s monopoly on physical violence. It was not the Republic or the nation or democracy that was being attacked, but the State as an institution that represses and disempowers the oppressed in this country.

It would be interesting to study the different roads that led these various individuals to participate in the riots. One would see how these “apolitical,” “dysfunctional,” “pathetic” people who are often spoken of so condescendingly on the left are in fact very knowledgeable about how society works. One of the positive effects of the riots of 2005 will be that i has revealed the political power of the people from the housing estates and/or descended postcolonial immigration. As with the riots by Blacks in the United States in the 1960s, the uprising becomes a flare shot into the future: we can get public attention, we can change the world, we are not condemned to do nothing but wait for the messiah, we can take control of our future.

Over the past few days, there have been political developments in the popular suburbs. In Vénissieux and in Clichy-sous-Bois, spaces for discussion are being formed in one way or another. Activists from the past, disgusted with the past twenty years of political involvement, are returning to the forefront of the local scene. Despite differences from one place to another, it seems that the same conclusion is being reached: the popular suburbs could be an important source of real political power, and this could show results in the 2008 municipal elections. If developments continue over the coming months, it will become necessary to take a critical look at the political history of the suburbs and/or post-colonial immigration (with its successes and failures), to understand why there has been less and les political organization, to reflect on activist practices (especially on power dynamics within movements), and to put forward a clear political project.

For too long, the autonomous immigrants’ and suburban movements have reacted to outside political demands: social forums, the issue of the veil, attacks in the courts, etc., and these have just been so many events that have drawn attention away from the popular suburbs. It is better to work towards future mobilizations rather than knocking your head against a wall, like people have been doing.

At the risk of being accused of exaggeration, one must stress that the riots are a unique event in French history, and they should serve as a shock pushing a new political generation to emerge from the popular suburbs.


Abdellali Hajjat is a graduate from the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Lyon, and author of Immigration postcoloniale et mémoir, éditions L’Harmattan.


Please note that the above text about the history of political organization in France’s immigrant suburbs is from the Oumma website – an important progressive Moslem website – and was translated by yours truly. I have a “fast and loose” translation philosophy, meaning that when there is a choice between readability and the original phraseology i tend to favour the former, provided that the meaning stays the same. The original document can be seen in French.

Please also note that i do not necessarily agree 100% with the author’s point of view, nor do they necessarily agree with mine. Si quelqu’un a un meilleur texte à suggérer, svp envoyez-moi le!

For background to the riots, including a timeline, check out the Wikipedia entry.

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