When Paris burned

Inequality. In 2005, two innocent teenagers were electrocuted while hiding from police, triggering a revolt in France’s low-income suburbs, the banlieues. The last decade shows that post-riot policies have solved nothing.

by Anna Maria Merlo, Paris, il manifesto, Oct. 27 2015

Le Bourget, Paris, the riots on Nov. 4 2005 — AP

Ten years ago, on Oct. 27, 2005, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traore, two tee­na­gers aged 15 and 17, were elec­tro­cu­ted in the Pari­sian suburb Clichy-sous-Bois in an elec­tri­cal box where they had taken refuge to escape the police, even though they had done nothing wrong.

In response to these dea­ths, the ban­lieues explo­ded, from the outskirts of Paris to other French cities. For 20 days, rio­ters bur­ned cars and destroyed sym­bols of govern­ment (libra­ries, schools, gyms) and capi­ta­lism (shop­ping cen­ters). The then prime mini­ster, Domi­ni­que de Vil­le­pin, decla­red a state of emer­gency, some­thing that hadn’t been done since the war in Alge­ria. In three weeks, there were 4,000 peo­ple arre­sted and 600 char­ged with crimes.

Clichy-sous-Bois resi­dent walks Fri­day, Oct. 20, 2006 past pho­tos of Zyed Benna, rear left, and Bouna Traore, who died after being elec­tro­cu­ted in a power sub­sta­tion on Oct. 27, 2005 in Clichy-Sous-Bois, outside Paris. The pic­ture reads “Zyed and Bouna I think of you”. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

A few mon­ths ago, in May 2015, the two police offi­cers invol­ved in the hunt for Zyed and Bouna were acquit­ted of “non-assistance to a per­son in dan­ger,” even though a phone call recor­ding sho­wed the offi­cers were well aware of the risks faced by young peo­ple hiding in the power substation.

Distrust of the police — for fear of offi­cers and their con­stant sur­veil­lance, par­ti­cu­larly among immi­grants and Muslims — is one of the hea­viest lega­cies of 2005.

A decade later the situa­tion has not impro­ved. The recent increase in ille­gal traf­fic­king, one of the effects of the eco­no­mic cri­sis, and the grea­ter visi­bi­lity of Islam have crea­ted a new state of fear that strains rela­tions bet­ween dif­fe­rent nei­gh­bo­rhoods of cities.

Nico­las Sar­kozy, when he was inte­rior mini­ster, had fan­ned the fire, pro­mi­sing to free the peo­ple of Argen­teuil from “scum,” making “use of Kar­cher” (a brand of pres­sure washers). As pre­si­dent, he con­ti­nued to distill the poi­son of stigmatization.

Fra­nçois Hol­lande has pro­mi­sed inter­ven­tions and has achie­ved some gains in com­bat­ting discri­mi­na­tion, but the ope­ra­tion ran aground against the Valls govern­ment. Prime Mini­ster Manuel Valls him­self, howe­ver, has spo­ken of “ter­ri­to­rial, social and eth­nic apar­theid” and yester­day, Octo­ber 26, after a sym­bo­lic inter-ministerial mee­ting in Mureaux, pro­mi­sed to come down on muni­ci­pa­li­ties that refuse to build public housing.

But poli­ti­cians con­ti­nue to per­pe­tuate the “us” and “them” men­ta­lity that under­mi­nes French society, fomen­ting mutual distrust. Peo­ple in the suburbs have con­si­sten­tly said they lack one thing: “respect.”

In 10 years, there have been various inter­ven­tions in the ban­lieues, star­ting from hou­sing. The govern­ment spent €48 bil­lion for urban renewal, tea­ring down 151,000 dere­lict homes in 600 districts, reno­va­ting 320,000 of them and buil­ding 136,000. Ano­ther 50,000 are sla­ted for demo­li­tion and recon­struc­tion, and there’s a plan to streng­then the trans­por­ta­tion net­work as part of a “Grand Paris” project.

These poli­cies have chan­ged the set design but not the script, despite some ini­tia­ti­ves in schools to ele­vate the brightest stu­dents, the crea­tion of agen­cies to pro­mote invest­ment (even the Uni­ted Sta­tes par­ti­ci­pa­ted) and laws that reco­gnize the rea­lity of discrimination.

But the eco­no­mic cri­sis of 2008 hit the lower clas­ses espe­cially hard, mainly in the suburbs, which over the years have lost the social cohe­sion once crea­ted by wor­king in the same fac­tory or joi­ning the union.

The figu­res are dramatic

In the suburbs, the ave­rage income is 56 per­cent of the natio­nal ave­rage, unem­ploy­ment is 10 points higher (20 points for peo­ple youn­ger than 25) and job inse­cu­rity is ram­pant (7.5 per­cent of the depart­ment of Seine-Saint-Denis recei­ves income subsidies).

If you take the RER from Luxem­bourg sta­tion in cen­tral Paris to La Cour­neuve, a nor­thern suburb, you lose 15 years of life expec­tancy.

More than half the chil­dren living in working-class areas are below the poverty line, and in Seine-Saint-Denis, infant mor­ta­lity is 40–50 per­cent higher than in the rest of France.

Despite all these dif­fi­cul­ties, the lower class has shown resistance.

The highest rate of busi­ness crea­tion is in the suburbs. The young peo­ple study; more than 50 per­cent of the chil­dren of wor­kers gra­duate from high school, and many con­ti­nue to universities.

Law­yers, doc­tors, tea­chers, resear­chers and mana­gers are more and more coming from these strug­gling neighborhoods.

The Bondy Blog, foun­ded in 2005, con­ti­nues to tell sto­ries of bat­tles, suc­ces­ses and defeats of a French youth born in the ban­lieues, which seven out of 10 French still con­si­der “dangerous.”

Nov. 5 2005, tenth day of riot at Le Mureaux, France (AP)

Originally published at ilmanifesto.info.

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