The riots did not take place in a ‘political desert’

Issue: 109

Abdellali Hajjat

The deaths on Thursday 28 October 2005 in Clichy-sous-Bois north east of Paris) of two French kids of immigrant workers, Zyad Benna and Bouna Traoré, set off riots in working class outer city areas (banlieues) that have been the most significant (both geographically and symbolically) in the history of France. Their deaths and the gassing of the local Bilal mosque were the spark that ignited the powderkeg that for two decades has been growing in size in the banlieues of the big cities. Police violence is no rarity in these areas, which have become used to endless identity checks, to strong-arm arrests based on the way people look, and to police custody where anything goes. Such daily occurrences explain why the two youngsters from Clichy-sous-Bois were running away.

From the first riots in the Minguettes at Vénissieux (near Lyons) in 1981 onwards, revolt has been confined to a particular area, that of the victims, but what recent events demonstrate for the first time in French history is that it was a police ‘blunder’ that ignited such a blaze of urban violence. The minister of the interior played a circumstantial role, but the structural role was 20 years of government, both ‘left’ and right, culminating in the failure of French banlieues.

The causes of this popular fury are social and political, not ethnic or religious. It is not a question of some ‘failure to integrate’, a meaningless phrase these days, in that there is a dangerous tendency to privilege culturalist explanations (if they don’t integrate, it’s because of their ‘cultural difference’). This uprising could only develop in a complex of economic, social, political and spatial inequalities generated by the crisis of post-industrial capitalism and anti-social public policy. In the ‘country of the rights of man’, which prides itself on how well the ‘French model of integration’ works (as opposed, falsely, to the US or British ‘multicultural’ model), working class neighbourhoods are on the way to ghettoisation (a phenomenon symmetrical to the less talked about ghettoisation of rich neighbourhoods.) But the fire would not have flared up so much if Nicholas Sarkozy, the minister of the interior, had been less provocative. He did not hesitate to condemn the young inhabitants of working class neighbourhoods, talking about ‘scum’ to be ‘hosed clean’ in a way that would have been denounced as incitement to hatred and ethnic cleansing if the words been uttered by the leader of the National Front. Also open to question were his claims that Zyad Benna and Bouna Traoré had been involved in burglary, and that the teargas had not been thrown by the police but by the young people themselves. But Sarkozy is not alone in his contempt for working class neighbourhoods. When certain ‘left’ leaders use the terms ‘little savages’ or ‘banlieue Le Pens’ they embark on the same logic that turns classes into dangerous classes.

Certainly there was wide discussion in the French media about the social and political causes of the riots (unusually they mostly avoided making a mishmash with the ‘threat of fundamentalism’, unlike Sarkozy). But what some left-wing sociologists and/or journalists have also stressed is the way in which working-class neighbourhoods, where most French or foreign descendants of post-colonial immigration live, have become a political ‘vacuum’ or ‘desert’. They claim that France has been the stage of 19th
century style jacqueries (directionless rampages) led by ‘lumpen subproletarians’ ‘lacking class consciousness’.The implication is that, if there had been a political force organising the revolt, its entire subversive potential could have been geared to a revolutionary logic. Comfortable in their position as journalists or academics, they unhesitatingly bemoan the ‘handicap’ suffered by the rioters, who cannot in the end fit into the framework of Marxist thought—as opposed to workers conscious of belonging to the working class. But to explain this lack of political representation they ignore the question as to why the French left has proved unable to act as a political horizon for the inhabitants of working class neighbourhoods, especially one that determines the activity of militants who are immigrants or have a postcolonial immigrant background.

The working class banlieues are not a ‘political desert’, but they are moving in that direction as the autonomous movement of immigrants disintegrates. Since the end of the 1960s this movement has had to confront obstacles that have reduced its capacity to act autonomously. Its dynamic has been repressed, absorbed and manipulated. Only if we go back over the abortive revolts of the immigrants and their children can we understand the present vacuum in working class banlieues.

There have been numerous attempts at politically organising the
post-colonial immigration in France—from the Movement of Arab Workers (MTA, 1970-76,) to the Immigrant Movement of the Banlieues (MIB, founded in 1995), via Divercité and left wing Muslim associations such as the Union of Young Muslims (UJM). The activism of immigrants (or their descendants) found expression in a set of political images that corresponded to economic, political and urban changes in French society—the
pre-1962, anti-colonialist ‘wretched of the earth’, the ‘immigrant worker’, the ‘sans papiers’ (immigrants lacking documents), the ‘beur’ (French-born children of North Africans), the ‘Muslim’, etc. Contrary to the miserabilist view conveyed by some sociologists, the uprising in the banlieues has a rich history of over 20 years of political experience.


Not every local organisation or post-colonial immigrant organisation has a politically subversive language. In reality there is a divide between, on the one hand, mutual help organisations of a social and/or religious nature, anti-illiteracy organisations, organisations to help with civic duties, etc, which are heavily dependent on municipal subsidies, and, on the other, organisations with clearly spelt out political aims, generally of the radical, anti-colonialist, anti-Zionist left. The public authorities have favoured the former because they play an obvious role in ‘sterilising’ local revolt. The latter have always been subject to repression by national and local government, which uses different methods depending on political context.

Thus the MTA—an organisation with hundreds of members that was close to the Maoists in La Gauche Prolétarienne, had deep roots in the ‘Arab’ areas of Paris and Marseilles, was fiercely anti-Zionist and was the forerunner of immigrant struggles—was literally decimated by the repressive policies of the interior ministry of the Giscard d’Estaing government (1974-81). Its capacity for organising a ‘general strike’ against racism in September 1973 was perceived as a threat to public order and its foreign militants were systematically harassed, deported or imprisoned, above all because of their support for the Palestinian cause and for organising strikes by sans papiers.

The struggles over Sonacotra (the government-appointed body for running immigrant hostels) of 1974-80—for improved living conditions in an institution of social and political control directly inherited from French colonisation in Algeria—had to cope with a de facto alliance between the French government, associations based on countries of origin (Algeria, Morocco, Senegal, etc), the trade unions (CGT, CFDT, etc) and Sonacotra itself. This alliance made it possible for hundreds of militant immigrant workers to be expelled forcibly. Mobilisations against racist and/or police crimes suffered particularly from police repression after the murder of Djilali Ben Ali in the Goutte d’Or area of Paris (1971), Mohammed Diab at Versailles (1972), Thomas Claudio at Vaulx-en-Velin (1990), Youssef Khaïf at Le Val Fourré (1991), Abelkader Bouziane at Dammarie-lès-Lys (Seineet- Marne, 1997), etc. All these protests against racist police acting with impunity and mostly ignored by the mainstream media were subject to attack under cover of legal actions for libel or disturbing public order—and generally in the form of fleets of riot police wagons or operations by special crack police forces. Since 9/11 and the rise of Islamophobic psychosis, some Muslim organisations in Lyons have experienced another kind of repression— the removal of subsidies following a memo from the intelligence services of the interior ministry, the impossibility of getting insurance or opening a bank account, etc. The repression directed at the dynamic of these political movements has played a key role in destabilising immigrant activists.


The second phenomenon responsible for depoliticisation is political absorption. The most significant example was the March for Equality in 1983. Following the hospitalisation of Toumi Djaïdja after being shot by a policeman at Les Minguettes, a new organisation, SOS Avenir Minguettes, decided to organise a peaceful march modelled on Gandhi’s marches, with the support of a section of the Catholic Church personified by Father Christian Delorme and associated networks of the Socialist Party. Thesimple, humanist demand was the right to life. ‘Stop shooting us like rabbits,’ demanded the marchers. Setting off from Marseilles with some 30 people on 15 October 1983, the march paraded through Paris on 3 December with more than 100,000 demonstrators. Nothing like this had been seen before in the anti-racist movement. It had a dynamic effect in the banlieues, but very quickly the activists from a post-colonial immigrant milieu who had organised ‘collectifs jeunes’ to welcome the march realised how the march had become an instrument of the Socialist government. They realised that though the left welcomed the generous and all-embracing slogans it turned a deaf ear when its political power was challenged and the Palestinian question was raised. The high point of manipulation of the ‘beur movement’ came at the time of the second march for equality, Convergence 1984, which was submerged in a tide of little yellow hands, ‘Touche pas à mon pote’ (‘Don’t touch my mate’) from SOS Racisme.

The 1980s generation of militants were caught in a bind. On the one hand, there were possibilities of upward social mobility and the political opportunities offered by the Socialist government. On the other, there was the desire for autonomy shown in a refusal either to compromise with established power or to subscribe to treating immigrant struggles as a form of folklore. The municipalities in working class banlieues began to take the
demands of this politicised youth seriously after the mobilisations and riots of the 1980s. But a fatal divorce with the left began to operate in these areas.

Many activists from a post-colonial immigrant milieu tried to work in non-governmental political parties (the Greens, the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, etc), but the experience quickly led to a dead end. The contradictions between the language of politics and militant practice led them to abandon these parties. Such, for example, was the case of Sakina Bakha, elected to the regional council of Rhône-Alpes, who was able to observe the xenophobic and/or paternalistic practices of some of those elected from the so-called left. The far left might bemoan the absence, or minimal presence, in their ranks of activists from a post-colonial immigrant milieu and from working class localities, but the recent political history of immigration shows that these parties are more part of the problem of weak politicisation in these areas than the solution to it. The political and trade union left have abandoned these working class areas and the altermondialist movement has never set foot there. The issue of the headscarf, and the wave of Islamophobia that followed, helped consolidate an anti-banlieue consensus, which prevented any real enlargement of their activist base.

It was in this context of growing disillusion with the left that these areas witnessed the birth of numerous Muslim-based organisations towards the end of the 1980s. Some completely glossed over political questions and devoted themselves to cultural matters. Others, fewer in numbers, such as the UJM in Lyons (formed in 1987), maintained a language of political demands. However, if Muslim organisations have roots in certain working class estates, the movement of conversion to Islam is marginal and the vast majority of the inhabitants are untouched by any tendency to religious politicisation.

The third obstacle to politicisation is what one might define as
activists escaping from their immigrant milieu through culture. From the late 1970s to the present, the ‘immigration media’ have flourished on the French media scene. The idea at the outset, from the first free radio stations (Radio Soleil in Paris, Radio Gazelle in Marseilles) to the Im’média agency directed by Mogniss H Abdallah, was to go onto the offensive against the autism of the French media over immigration questions. The majority of these media outlets, which had been created by activists (from the MTA or from the beur movement), may have been conceived as political tools to express the challenge of working class districts. But what is noticeable is their slow process of autonomisation from the political sphere to become media outlets ‘like any other’. The challenge brought by hip-hop, which has been and remains an essential vector of politicisation in French suburbs, has undergone the same process of political sterilisation under pressure from radio stations (Skyrock in particular) and the record companies financing groups that conform to the dominant ideology of profit and sexism. Standardised commercial hip-hop has access to the means of production and distribution out of all proportion to the few rare groups, such as La Rumeur, which have managed to preserve the radical spirit of their origins.

Petty bourgeoisification

The fourth element explaining this desertification is contained in a paradox—the political consciousness of local activists emerged alongside an accumulation of scholarly and cultural capital (a higher level of study than the average, a more refined understanding of French society, etc) which predisposed them to move away from working-class areas. At the same time, the conditions under which politicisation took place became less favourable. While education in the 1980s made upward social mobility more likely, in the 1990s the deterioration in state schooling, the withdrawal of subsidies from organisations, and anti-social public policies prevented the political renewal of a minority of the young inhabitants on the estates. The growing insecurity of French society affected workingclass areas much more strongly, and even the potential activists. After a youthful commitment to activity in associations, a commitment often synonymous with ‘individual sacrifice’, many decided to ‘behave’—because the status of ‘professional activist’ lacked social stability, and because of the absence of tangible political perspectives. It is not uncommon, therefore, to find such people occupying positions as representatives or advisers to departmental councils and town halls, or following some other career where their experience and understanding of working class areas can be ‘given value’. Most no longer live in run-down estates but in the better off areas that surround them.

The phenomenon of ‘petty bourgeoisification’ also affects the
cadres of the protest organisations, who are ironically nicknamed ‘bobar’— bourgeois barbus, or ‘bearded ones’. The French government’s policy of socially and politically incorporating the Muslim faith gave a breathing space to those Muslim activists cut off from the dynamics of opening up to the social movement that the network Collectif des Musulmans de France embraced. Here again, the incapacity of a section of the altermondialist movement not to fall for the hysterics over Islamic fundamentalism (crystallised in the Ramadan affair at the 2003 European Social Forum) strongly compromised the integration of its activists into legitimate politics, which will prove to be highly contentious in the struggles to come.

Unsurprisingly, in the light of the political and social phenomena that have distorted the political space of working-class districts, the political formation of the young inhabitants of the estates is almost non-existent. The riots in 2005 amply demonstrate this, and in appealing to the ‘elders’ we are witnessing a real political regression. With the municipalities destroying local involvement with their restrictive budgetary policy, they are resorting to
calling for new ethnic ‘firefighters’ to calm or pacify people. What the riots have clearly shown is how difficult it is for ‘elders’ to exercise influence over young adolescents on the estates—some activists, whether religious or not, were even threatened physically in the worst of the fires. The rupture between the generations, between the activists with their origins in those areas and the working class kids, is unmissable. This rupture is a major obstacle to constructing a political force in working class banlieues.

Political routes

This catastrophic situation is a real challenge for the radical left. It knows it is handicapped by its lack of representativeness and is seeking ‘transmission belts’ within the estates. But it is also a challenge for the autonomous immigrant movement, which is radically questioning its history and political direction. No new major political initiative to fill the political chasm in working class districts can succeed unless the contentious 20-year relationship between the left and the estates is reviewed. A critical scrutiny of the history of immigrant struggles in the working class banlieues is the indispensable condition for moving forward and for avoiding a repetition of the same political errors. The riots are a summons to immigrant activists in these areas to take up a historic responsibility, without which no clear leftwing alternative project is possible.

Painful though this view may be, the route to politicisation is not
closed. Unexpectedly, the 2005 riots were the product of young people with no history of the police or the courts. They felt the need to express themselves violently against injustice and police highhandedness. Contrary to the lies peddled by Sarkozy (who had all the figures from his security services), it was not a matter of fighting criminality in working class districts. The state of emergency was declared in order to repress a protest that was
becoming more and more political—which was literally questioning the state’s monopoly of violence. It was not the Republic, the nation or democracy that was being questioned, but the state as an institution of repression and subjection of the oppressed in this country.

Research to establish the personal development of every rioter
would be of interest. We might be surprised to discover that the ‘depoliticised’, the ‘maladjusted’ and the ‘wretched’, who are often spoken of condescendingly on the left, are really very clear about the way society functions. One of the positive aspects of the 2005 riots will have been the strengthening of political consciousness by those living on the estates and/or by activists from a post-colonial immigrant background. As with the 1960s riots by blacks in the US, the uprising is a phenomenon with a
hook to the future—you can make the public listen, you can change the world, you are not condemned to inertia and to waiting for the Messiah. You can take your destiny in your own hands.

The working class banlieues have seen a political dynamic come to life. In Vénissieux and in Clichy-sous-Bois spaces have been created for discussion in one form or another. Yesterday’s activists, sickened by political involvement over the last 20 years, are coming back to the fore in local situations. Despite differences between local situations, one can draw up the same assessment—it is possible for a significant political force to exist in working-class areas, and it could be given concrete form in the municipal elections in 2008. For this dynamic to take hold in the months to come, what is required for its consolidation is to go back over the political history of these districts and/or of post-colonial immigration (its successes and failures), to take stock of the phenomena explaining the political desertification, to reflect on the practices of the activists (above all on the way power is
managed at the heart of a movement), and to create a clear political project for the future. This presupposes overcoming the breach between the generations (by transmitting over 20 years of experience) and above all taking one’s time. The autonomous immigrant movements and movements in working-class banlieues have for too long followed political timetables imposed from the outside—social forums, the headscarf affair, and legal actions have been just so many events diverting attention. It is better to sow the seeds of mobilisations to come than to stumble, as at present, over dry and arid soil.

At the risk of being criticised for using hyperbole, what needs
underlining is that the riots are something unique in the history of France. They have to be the electric shock galvanising the formation of a new political generation in working class suburbs.