Report October 2015 (La banlieu)

Depraved Suburbs & Dashed Politics in the Regions: tensions Everywhere

France, 06 Oct – 02 Nov 2015

Riots in suburbia: ten years on ++ Another shift to the right ++ Regional elections lie ahead
by Matthieu Choblet

Riots in suburbia: ten years on

This year, France commemorates the violent events of autumn 2005 in the so called banlieue. These suburbs are the lost neighborhoods of French metropolitan regions, particularly around Paris, in which most people live in typical large housing blocks called HLM (rent-controlled-housing). Jobs are scarce and public transport connection to the city center reduced to a minimum.

Back in 2005, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, 17 and 15 years old, were mistaken for thieves when they took a shortcut through a building lot on their way home from the stadium of Clichy-sous-Bois. In a subsequent chase with the police the adolescents hid in an electrical substation and were electrocuted.

Their deaths and the reluctance of the police to clarify the tragedy’s odd circumstances sparked a wave of protests against discrimination and police oppression. In the following weeks, the public was shocked by pictures of police forces fighting young hooded men in the streets and devastated townscapes at night, illuminated by burning cars and floodlight from helicopters. France resembled a country in civil war. Sociologists and politicians agreed: there was more to this violence than protest against the obscure death of two teenagers.

Indeed, unemployment rates have reached 50 percent and petty crime flourishes in the suburbs. The government was at loss ten years ago and still seems to be so today. “No comment” is the only answer many will ever get from the Ministry of Interior, police officers and prefectures, when asked about 2005 and its consequences. President François Hollande’s recent announcement to create an agency to support the establishment of enterprises in unattended suburbs did not spark much enthusiasm.

Yet, there have been changes, at least in the way the banlieue are perceived today. In 2015 the suburbs are less associated with hoodies, gangster rap and disoriented angry youths, but with conservative Muslim dress codes, bearded preachers and jihad fighters. While the outcasts of the Republic once displayed a tacit agreement with government politics and a weak sense of affiliation with France – be it its football team – today they are said to openly reject most of what is associated with the French nation.

This feeling of being left behind by French society has led to an upsurge of religious practices, explains Gilles Kepel, who has been studying the banlieue for years. Islam has become a sort of “compensation” for the social and economic hardships which mark everyday life in the suburbs. While this alone does not explain every act of violence, it is notable that religiously motivated aggressions have multiplied. The men who committed the shootings on the Thalys train in August or at a jewish supermarket in January this year, to name but two examples, both had their origins in the banlieue of Paris.

Another shift to the right

Parallel to the increase in violence and the persistent failure to integrate the banlieue’s inhabitants in French society, the public debate has shifted to the right. Often, the violence and rejection of republican values are attributed to supposedly cultural or even “racial” roots – one of the main concerns of the right-wing party Front National (FN).

As a consequence conservative politicians have decided to compete with the FN on topics such as security, national identity and immigration. Former Minister Nadine Morano declared that France was a “country of the white race” on a popular TV show. She is not the only one to think so. Ironically, she was rebuffed by her party head Nicolas Sarkozy, who had followed a similar strategy as Minister of the Interior in 2005 and during the 2007 presidential election. In doing so, he implemented the theory of his adviser Patrick Buisson, according to whom adopting the FN’s political agenda was the best way to “siphon” its political success.

Regional elections ahead

Whether the right-wing strategy will succeed as it did in 2007 remains to be seen. The regional elections in December will be the first test. Meanwhile, the governing Socialist Party (PS) is less eager to stand the test of an election. All the less so in view of a 50bn euro spending cut starting next year, which will also add weight to the regions’ budgets.

In the course of the past weeks, where ever prominent members of the government appeared in public, they were greeted by unions’ protests. The bulk of the unions’ verbal attacks were particularly aimed at Minister of Economy Emmanuel Macron. In Lyon, Macron was greeted with an old pop song “without shirt, without trousers”, in allusion to recent incidents at Air France. At a works meeting, the air line’s staff manager who came to announce a mass layoff had his shirt torn off by furious workers.

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