It was one of France’s darkest periods in recent times. Ten years ago today, three weeks of violence spread across Paris and throughout the country following the accidental deaths of two teenagers in a police chase. It underlined deep divisions and inequalities in some of France’s and Paris’ most neglected neighbourhoods, problems dating back to the eighties that many say still haven’t gone away.
Teenagers Zyed Benna and Bouna Traore came from Clichy-sous-Bois, a poor immigrant suburb of Paris effectively cut off from the rest of the world without any road or rail links. There was – and is – nothing there to keep kids entertained, residents say.
The two, together with a friend, Muhittin Altun, found themselves near a break-in as police officers arrived to investigate. They ran to hide, headed for a power substation. They were apparently aware of the danger as they climbed over the wall. Zyed, 17, and Bouna, 15, were both electrocuted.
Tensions quickly rose, which protesters said were because of a frustration with high unemployment and police brutality.
What followed were three weeks of violence, which within days of uprisings in and around Paris spread to many other French cities like Bordeaux, Toulouse and Lyon.
In total, 10,000 cars were burnt, 300 buildings destroyed or damaged, 6,000 arrests and 1,300 people serving a prison sentence.
Such problems – and reactions – served as inspiration for one of France’s all-time most popular films, La Haine, from 1995, which depicted the struggles of daily life in an abandoned Paris suburb through its three multi-ethnic protagonists: a Jew, an Arab and an African. They wander the streets of the monochrome city after their friend is beaten by police and in a coma in hospital. The one message of the film – la haine attire la haine, hatred breeds hatred. As relevant to its main protagonist, who flaunts a gun stolen from a policeman, as to a largely ignorant and uncompassionate police force.
One of the key themes of the film was the crisis of French identity for first and second generation immigrants. For them, just how relevant are those typically French values of liberty, equality and fraternity?
Trapped in a cycle of crime, often drug or gang related, the feeling of alienation is in many cases understandable.
The climate in today’s France isn’t helping either. An economy dragging its heels, with growth so scarce it can’t create jobs, no matter how much politicians try to sound optimistic.
In years gone by, neighbourhoods have seen billions of euros of investment from the state, ultimately without results. Merely throwing money at a difficult area is not even scratching the surface of a multitude of social issues.
Unemployment in France hasn’t fallen substantially from around ten per cent in three years. Data from Insée in 2013 showed unemployment among immigrants – those born outside France with or without French nationality who often populate the deprived Parisian banlieues – was just under double the figure for people born in France. A lack of qualifications, the inability to reach public-sector jobs and discrimination are all factors behind such glaring inequality.
Add in the complex political dynamic and the future looks all the more bleak. The rise of far right politics with the Front National has made a minority hostile to migrants, even if the FN rejects the notion of being xenophobic.
The perceived threat of Islam, behind the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, has made France feel vulnerable amid the rush of national unity. Those responsible for the attacks, brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, were born in France to Algerian parents. Chérif had been involved in jihadist gang and was arrested in January 2005 when he and another man were heading for Syria.
In prison, he met Amedy Coulibaly, a radicalised Muslim, who killed a policewoman in the hours following the Charlie Hebdo attack on 7th January. The following day, he killed four people after holding up a Kosher supermarket. Addressing his hostages, he said: “I am Amedy Coulibaly, Malian and Muslim. I belong to the Islamic State.”
What, then, drove these French nationals to attack their own?
Many blame a failure to integrate disaffected youth, an inability to break down the iron curtain separating out-of-town areas of Paris from the rest of France.
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Prime Minister Manuel Valls conceded: “There is, indeed, social, ethnic and territorial apartheid in France.”
Yet the Front National went further and capitalised on the crisis, blaming “20 years of mistakes” in immigration and Europe which had provided a breeding ground for radical Islam – even proposing a referendum on the death penalty.
One solution that sees broad agreement across the political spectrum is the value of secularism (laïcité), separating religion from state, and in schools, becoming tougher on discipline.
But the problem is at worse psychological – and deep-seated. Discrimination breeds hate, which breeds violence.
During the 2005 riots, the Interior Minister at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy, was accused for inflammatory language, reportedly calling the rioters “racaille”, loosely translated as “rabble”.
The vulnerable, voiceless and disaffected in France cannot be filled with optimism as they look at the rise of the hostile extreme-right and no movement on social mobility. Inequality – and the threat to public order – is going nowhere.