Update 25th November: Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin dismisses claims from members of his party that the riots were fuelled by rap music. Final tally: 9000 cars and many public buildings burnt.
People are talking of the events in France as the new Mai 68. Many parts of France, especially the more deprived city areas, are burning and, as I write, it doesn't look as though the flames are about to go out. The government has had days of meetings, and Chirac has finally made a statement. It is clear, however, that at the moment the politicians have lost all control over their country.
The story starts with death. Zyed Benna (17) and Bouna Traore (15), on October 27, 2005, ran into an electricity sub-station in their home town of Clichy-sous-Bois - a North-Eastern suburb of Paris. They were both electrocuted. There was a third young man with them, who was badly injured, but able to explain to the police what had happened. He says that the youngsters panicked when they found themselves on the scene of an apparent burglary, and heard the police sirens approaching. So they did what many people would have done; they ran.
I say that many people would have done this, and you probably think to yourself: "I wouldn't run - I have nothing to hide!". Try to imagine yourself in the shoes of a dark-skinned young male living in France. Whether you committed the crime or not, you stand little chance. Imagine that you've spent your whole life feeling guilty for the colour of your skin, or for your name. Imagine being the assumed perpetrator for things you didn't do, even at school, just because your skin is the colour it is. Then try imagining what you would have done if the police turned up and found you on the scene of a crime.
We should start by looking at the suburbs, or la banlieue, which circles Paris. These places have never been the quarters occupied by the bourgeoisie. I am reluctant to make sweeping generalisations, but the areas of the Ile-de-France immediately surrounding Paris are, on the whole, deprived. The word banlieueconjures up images of ironically brightly-coloured tower blocks; unemployment; youths hanging around corner shops in gangs; and little future. In short, these places are ghettos. Most importantly, this is the image which the average French citizen has of the suburbs. If you want an example, take a look at Mathieu Kassovitz's film La Haine.
These no-go areas are not only to be found in the Parisian region. All major French cities, and most of the minor ones contain equivalents. Call them cités, suburbs, projects, council estates - whatever you will. The mood is the same: one of disenchantment and disillusion. Youngsters who are born in such places feel, on the whole, that they have no chance of getting out. Some do, of course, but the general trend is to stagnate.
I just got back from spending a year in France. In Evreux, to be precise. I woke up this morning to learn that this Normandy town was one of the biggest hot-spots for violence last night (5th-6th October 2005). Eight emergency service people injured, fifty cars torched, along with a shopping centre and two schools. It was bound to happen. If the average Ebroïcien's attitude to the French police is anything to go by, this has been coming for a long while.
Please indulge me as I recount an anecdote. One warm summer's evening, I was sitting in a public field with a group of friends. We were chatting, singing, playing guitar, and a few of us were drinking (only those who weren't driving). The police arrived. They did the usual routine of papiers, s'il vous plaît. We hadn't been doing anything wrong, and complied. Then the policemen decided to search us. I say 'us', but in fact they decided to search just one of us: just the black one of us. This not-so-subtle approach probably angered the rest of us more than it did my dark-skinned friend, but it is an example.
The general hatred of the police, which also comes from the middle-classes, and not just the so-called minorities, has been exacerbated by the appointment as Interior Minister of Nicolas Sarkozy. He has been described as "the bastard son of Margaret Thatcher". His hard-line, right-wing approach to crime and the causes of crime has targeted the inhabitants of underprivileged areas such as Clichy. The fact that my first experience with the French police took place on the evening after Sarkozy's appointment as Interior Minister is probably no more than a coincidence. The fact remains that there has been a much more visible police presence on the streets of so-called sensitive areas since Nico was appointed. This has resulted in a feeling of oppression on the part of those who live in such areas. These people also happen to be predominantly non-European in their ethnic make-up. This has added to the prejudices they already encounter, not least in the job market. Young men especially, and especially of North African extraction, find that once they give their name and their address in a job application, the vacancy mysteriously disappears.
What's actually happened
The riots began, unsurprisingly, in Clichy, where the deaths of the two young men took place on October 27, 2005. The first night was explosive enough, but has not come to a halt as I write ten days later. More dangerously, the trouble has spread to the provinces, and even to wealthy central Paris.
The most obvious target is cars. They're being incinerated. Then we also have the public transport, with a RER train being assaulted with stones on a line leading North of Paris into the St-Denis area. A local bus was fire-bombed, resulting in several injuries: the headlines talk of a disabled lady with serious burns. Other night-time targets have included shops, shopping centres, and even schools.
The violence has spread beyond the notorious banlieue. Here is a brief synopsis of the events elsewhere in France:
- Normandy: The most serious events have happened in Evreux, especially in the underprivileged zone of La Madeleine. Around 50 cars torched, and a group of 100 or so youths clash with the police, injuring eight of them. Shopping centre, two schools, and numerous small shops set alight. Also isolated incidents of car-burnings in Rouen.
- Nord Pas de Calais: Many cars set alight, and rocks thrown at the police, although no reported injuries.
- Aquitaine: Pau has been the centre of violence in this region. Vehicles set alight, and residents admitted to hospital with breathing difficulties.
- Central France: Numerous torched cars. Molotov cocktails thrown into several small businesses and an old people's home.
- Auvergne: Several cars set alight. Two young men arrested in possession of petrol.
- Loire region: Dozens of cars torched, as well as bins. Several attempts at arson on businesses.
- Brittany: Rennes is the centre of the violence, where dozens of cars and bins have been set alight. Other cities in the area witnessed the same events in smaller numbers.
- Lorraine: Buses, cars, and bins set ablaze in Guenange and other towns.
- Alsace: Mulhouse targeted. Strasbourg saw a lot of violence at the outbreak of the riots, but a strong police presence has calmed the situation.
- Toulouse region: Many more fires reported.
- Provence, Alps, Riviera: Even the bourgeois town of Avignon has been under attack. Nice has also seen many cars set alight.
Mixed, to say the least. The average French citizen wants to see the rioting stamped out as soon as possible and by any means possible. Alarmingly, the majority still has faith in Sarkozy, and he seems very unlikely to step down. People outside France are voicing similar views that the rioters are a bunch of hooligans out for fun.
This is not my opinion, as I have probably made obvious. I don't believe that people would destroy their own shops, buses etc. If this was violence for violence's sake, I believe the riots would have taken place in areas where these people don't live. Feel free to disagree.
The Government's response has been to deploy more and more police troops to the affected areas. They're being met with hurled stones. In Toulouse, the police fired tear gas grenades at groups of youths in an attempt to disperse them. Ministers are holding meeting after meeting, and making statements warning that law-breakers will be severely punished. Words and actions which seem to be having no effect whatsoever.
I will update this as events unfold (ie. until the petrol runs out or Sarkozy resigns). Stay tuned.
My friends in France, especially in Evreux and Rouen