Guest Writings
6/11/05 The Anger of the Suburbs Laurent Mouloud

Translated by Henry Crapo

Suburbs: Incidents continued these recent days in several cities, and have even spread outside the department of Seine-Saint-Denis. Our reports from Clichy-sous-Bois and Aulnay-sous-Bois show a real social exasperation of the youth.

Suburbs: Incidents continued these recent days in several cities, and have even spread outside the department of Seine-Saint-Denis. Our reports from Clichy-sous-Bois and Aulnay-sous-Bois show a real social exasperation of the youth.

The Anger of the Suburbs

“An immense hopelessness”, sums up the situation, Vincent, 21 years of age. This was the week that flames rose in (the department of) Seine-Saint-Denis. Overnight Thursday-Friday at least 150 cars were destroyed by fire in this one department. There had been as many the night before. The death of two adolescents, electrocuted in a transformer enclosure of the EDF (public electricity company) in Clichy-sous-Bois, Thursday 27 October, after a police control, doubled by provocations by Nicolas Sarkozy, crystallized an anger that awaited only such a signal to awaken it. And started a veritable guerilla movement, the end of which one sees with difficulty.

CortégePhoto: Last Saturday, the people of Clichy joined in a silent march dedicated to Ziad and Bouna, whose deaths by electrocution provoked an explosion in neighborhoods where discrimination and misery rule.

Vincent is not surprised. He lived in Aulnay-sous-Bois, and knows Clichy-sous-Bois like the palm of his hand. For him, the observation is evident. “Everyone knows that misery reigns in these neighborhoods, and that they let the situation rot. Moreover, they make it worse every year. Do you expect that it won’t explode? I don’t approve of this violence, but I understand it.” And this time, for sure, it’s serious. Very serious. “It’s been for years that certain have seen this coming. They’re not going to sit by and watch the train pass. And don’t believe that it’s only delinquents in random violence. I have friends who were in the high-school movement last year, who were very disciplined, and now they’re out burning cars! In their minds, this is a new way to continue the struggle. I believe there is here a new branching point, a breaking-off.”

Clichy-sous-Bois, example of a pauperized neighborhood

These fires in the suburbs were just waiting to be set. Nicolas Sarkozy blew on the coals. His provocations awakened the memory of years of frustration, of more or less contained rage. There was this week of violence, which is unacceptable. But over and beyond this, there is a generalized feeling of having supported too much injustice. A packet of neighborhoods where the law has been social exclusion, discrimination, misery, as much economic as cultural.

It is not by chance that all this takes place in Clichy-sous-Bois. This little city of 28,000 inhabitants, with its ordinary poverty and an astronomical unemployment rate, its buildings shamefully degraded, its public services bled to death. Clichy-sous-Bois, the cradle of the rebellion, remains a model of the pauperized community where the youth is disqualified in advance, stigmatized in the press when it is not directly labelled “scum” by a government minister in his perpetual electoral campaign. The sickness of these suburbs didn’t arrive on the winds. Injustice is not merely a feeling. “Just take the school for example”, explains Samir, a sports educator in Clichy-sous-Bois. “All the youth know that they won’t find equality if they go to high school here. They will have the chance of a snowball in Hell to enter one of the ‘grandes écoles’ (national system of specialized higher education leading to the best jobs). How do you justify that?”

Clichy-sous-Bois, it’s the history of a town that accumulates handicaps. 20% unemployment on the average, with neighborhoods where this rises to 40%, even 50%. A population among the youngest in France, where more than half of the residents are under 25 years of age. Thirty-six different ethnic groups and many “new arrivals” who land often in great financial difficulty, an isolated geographic situation, with neither metro, railway station, nor national highway. A half-starved municipal budget in a town where few enterprises (and the professional tax which comes with them [normal source of town budgets]) accept to come and establish work sites. And as if this were not sufficient, the town has the particularity of having a great number of heavily degraded condominiums. Almost 1570 of the 9000 housing units, where there are crowded often several families forced to pay rents of 1000 euros per month to unscrupulous “sleep-merchants”. “The complex ‘La Forestière’ has even become the national show-window model of this sort of condominium in sad state, where it is difficult to intervene because it is private property”, laments Stéphane Teste, communications agent. “All this gives rise to a real feeling of abandonment on the part of the residents.”

Despite all this, at the the city hall of Clichy they say they are surprised by the amplitude of these events.”It is true that Clichy is a difficult town. In the ten years since our election, we have had a number of crises”, says Olivier Klein, first adjoint to the Mayor, in charge of town policy. “But we have never had an explosion like this one, with such a rise in violence.”

Here, everyone, the Mayor Claude Delain (of the Socialist party) at the lead, points his finger at the heavy responsibility of Nicolas Sarkozy. “His remarks created tension in the neighborhoods. And when the youth and the not-so-young, whose daily lives are infected by social injustice, hear a minister talk of them that way, it is very difficult for them to find tranquility and reason.”

By all evidence, the propensity of France’s Cop Number 1 to defend his “men” rather than to call for an impartial inquiry, taken together with the absence of official condemnation by the state following the launching of a tear-gas grenade into the Bilal mosque, have confirmed once again that the forces of justice will not be on the side of the inhabitants of the housing complex. “Among many of the youth there is a real revolt against the institutions”, says Olivier Klein. “They don’t believe in those institutions, they no longer feel involved, because they see that the institutions do not play a role of reducing social inequalities. And the attitude of the government in this affair has only reinforced this conviction and multiplied the anger.”

The suffering is intense. And the short-comings of the public powers is evident. “Just in Seine-Saint-Denis, there were 160 teaching positions not filled at the reopening of schools this fall. There are still 80 posts vacant”, observes a school director. This is too much, the needs are enormous. In Clichy-sous-Bois the three middle schools and the high school are classified for educational priority since 1995. “That’s OK”, continues our director, “but the ministry of National Education has at the same time closed special advancement classes that permitted a more individualized approach. Today, this is no longer possible.” The level of education in primary school is low, very low. The average of national evaluations in CE2 and in 6ème (equivalent of grades 5-6) is lower than in all the other other ZEP (educational priority zones).

Social exclusion continually on the rise.

For many, in Clichy, social exclusion has gotten worse these past years. “We have the feeling of being trapped in here. We are not the ones who have the keys, it’s them …”, says Skarj, a strapping lad who got involved in the rap, after having “escaped” via a high-level effort in soccer. “That permitted me to travel, to open the world. But the majority of the youth don’t have this possibility. For them it’s difficult for them to imagine another future than in the housing complex.”

The word discrimination comes up in all the conversations. The idea that in France, not everyone is lodged under the same sign. “The kid who watched his older brother, for years, kicked out with his Curriculum Vitae because of his Arab name, what do you expect him to think?”, asks Samir, again, the sports educator. He grew up with the idea that the society expected nothing of him, or worse, that it didn’t need him. “This sort of thing, it kills all hope in the heads of the youth. ..” But not just that. It also brings them together. They are united in this terrible vision of living a common destiny: that of the abandoned, the cast off, the disdained.

In Clichy as elsewhere, the youth of the housing complexes feel themselves branded with a hot iron. And if, by chance, they forget it, the incessant controls by the heavy-weights of the anti-ciminality brigade, the famous BAC, are there to remind them. The police, this is the favorite subject of conversation at the foot of the apartment buildings. Stories of unsheathed “Flash-Balls”, identity controls, and humiliations of all sorts, abound. “Just during the last month, I was subjected to three controls”, says Vincent. Each time I felt myself literally aggressed. The cops don’t look for pacification, just to crush you, to make you shut your face. Me, every time I tried to talk with them they would say “Stop trying to play intelligent” “Don’t get clever — we can break your life”. One evening, assures us, the young man, things turned bad. “They came to control us. They went up to one of my friends who is black. “You, you’re involved in something!” They handcuffed him, put him in a car, and carted him around like that for hours. He came back with his cheeks swollen by the blows to his head.”

Between the youth and the cops the divorce is complete. Many explain the flight of the two adolescents who were electrocuted by this visceral fear that men in uniform inspire. “In the heads of the young, the cop is the nasty guy, with whom no dialog is possible”, says Eric, thirty year of age, who is producer for rap groups in Clichy. It’s true, the police aren’t here for talk. The dialog, it’s for the politicians to organize, to channel. But since they don’t do that, or do so very little, it’s on the police that we dump all the hatred.”

EricPhoto: Eric is producer for rock groups in Clichy. “In my youth, we didn’t have fear of the police as we do now. They didn’t carry out controls all the time.

Despite this, there exist true social meeting-places

Sure, the warlike discourse of the minister of the Interior only makes things worse. Including for the police, who are caught in this impasse. “Now, it’s them against us”, resumes a youngster, boiling with anger. Finished with talking, time for the billy-stick. Sign of the times, since 2002 the commissariat of Raincy, from which Clichy-sous-Bois depends, saw its forces devoted to local urban police (PUP) diminished from 30 to 15. As for the local office of the police for proximity, constructed already in 2002, it has never been put in service. “In my youth, we didn’t have fear of the police as we do now. They didn’t carry out controls all the time.” And then with a deep breath: “I think we grew up with more hope that have the youth today”.

Reasons for hope exist, truly. In Clichy-sous-Bois, the social fabric is a reality. And the solidarity that comes with it. Associations, educators, teachers, all exert themselves to regain lost territory. As is the case of “Arrimage” (anchorage), an association for prevention. In teams of three or four, these educators have walked the streets of the neighborhoods for years, to meet the youth. They make contacts, they provide encouragement and direction, be it about education, health, or justice. “We follow a hundred or so children in each neighborhood, and about 70 families, emphasizes Christian Ruffail, its director. “It’s detailed work, like in a colony of ants, and one that really works.”

But, there again, finances are lacking. Financed at 90% by the department, Arrimage is not yet affected by the spectacular collapse of credits allocated by the government these past years and by the effects of transfer of financial responsibilities due to decentralization. This in not the case for a multitude of small associations that work in Clichy-sous-Bois. “It’s dramatic to see associations like Parcours (pathway), which provided school aid for about 300 students, or Asti, which works on alphabetization, forced to run to the banks to obtain advances (on government support not yet received)”, laments Ruffail. “All this time and effort spent to save the structures, that means less time on in the neighborhood. It’s a true scandal”.

All the more enraging, since the inhabitants of Clichy-sous-Bois are actively looking for help. “We have to be clear”, says Christian Ruffail, “the parents we are talking about are good parents. They don’t abandon their children to the streets, as one often hears said. They want to to be integrated.” And when the director of Arrimage hears Nicolas Sarkozy say that the immigrants will have to make an effort to catch up with the French, he jumps up. “They haven’t waited to express their will to do this. Except that, needing financing, there are waiting lists long as a day without bread at the associations for alphabetization. We don’t need a Sarkozy in order to know what needs to be done in the suburbs. We need financing in order to face up to the solidification of these problems.”

In the meanwhile, anger continues to growl in the housing complexes of Seine-Saint-Denis. Under his casquette, Eric, the rap producer, assures us he keeps his hope. He just wants to pose one question: “They say that France is a land of equality. Where does this equality start?”

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