Ian Coller: Paris Unrest (A doctoral student's perspective from the trenches of banlieue research)

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Ian Coller is completing a doctorate on the history of the Arabic populations in Paris during the nineteenth century, at the University of Melbourne, Australia.]

Having lived for a year in the middle of a medium-cost housing estate in the Paris banlieue, and having many close friends among Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian students in Paris, I have been watching the riots unfolding with distress over the last week. I was in Paris researching the history of the Arabic population, which gave me a rather different perspective on cultural and ethnic divisions in France. I hope that the following observations may be of interest - they are the result of a great deal of (sometimes heated) conversation with friends and colleagues in France,observation of the French media responses, and my own experience as a temporary banlieusard.

Quand la banlieue brule...

From one perspective, Paris is a vibrant and multiethnic city, which often celebrates its diversity: during the Fête de la Musique I saw Egyptian dancers near the Metro Luxembourg, Sufi drummers in the Virgin Megastore near Barbès and young Franco-Algerian DJs performing to happy crowds in the streets of the Goutte d’Or. This is the proud face of what some French academics have called “pluriculturalism” – an alternative to the multiculturalism which has been the model in the Anglophone world.

It celebrates diversity on the basis of a unified national culture and a strong sense of identity, encouraging assimilation as a model of coexistence. One language, one culture, one flag.

But this public celebration masks deep problems with this model, problems which have recently spilled over into the streets of the Paris suburbs, and are spreading out into the urban conglomerations of provincial France. All at once, the French media are asking questions about a failure of “integration” which has been obvious for a decade or more to those prepared to listen.

The current crisis is only the culmination of a long series of confrontations between the state and underprivileged populations living in increasingly ghetto-style environments. Municipal authorities have set out to ameliorate these physical conditions – all too slowly – but without facing up to the cultural exclusion into which whole categories of French citizens have been trapped by the stark choices offered in contemporary France.

In Australia, and elsewhere in the Anglophone world at present, questions are being raised by serious commentators about the so-called “failure of multiculturalism.” These critics are calling for a strict model of assimilation to national values. The current crisis in France is an indication of where this thinking can lead.

There is little doubt that the majority of French people have an intense and passionate attachment to their national culture, and a deep interest in other cultures – something I feel that others can admire and learn from. In 2003, all of France celebrated the “Week of Foreign Cultures,” an expression of cosmopolitanism and tolerance. The festival’s slogan was “I love you… from afar.” This, for me, sums up the limits of this cosmopolitan idea, the need for a clear separation between “French” and “foreign”. French people have had greater difficulty loving these “foreign” cultures when they are in the apartment above their own, in the streets of Saint-Denis, in the “wall” apartment blocks of the outer suburbs, or in the high-schools of provincial France.

The major groups of immigrants in France today are a consequence of France’s colonial empire: Algerians, Vietnamese, Senegalese and Congolais. Unlike other colonial powers, France had a shortage rather than a surplus of population at the beginning of the twentieth century, and imported hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers from the colonies both before and after decolonisation. But North African workers in particular were viewed as a threat. Exposed to “French” ideas of liberty and equality, they began to demand these things in France and Algeria. From the 1920s onwards a special police force was created, using the state institutions including the hospitals and the mosques, for surveillance and control of North African immigrants, leaving many with a deep-rooted suspicion of the state.

Hundreds of thousands of colonial soldiers fought and died for France from the Crimean War to World War Two. Many of those who liberated Paris in 1945 were North and West African soldiers. They suffered particularly heavy casualties as general de Gaulle threw his Free French forces into devastating confrontations in order to assure that France took a central role in the liberation. I have seen little evidence that this Arab and African role in French history has been celebrated alongside that of Clovis, Joan of Arc and Napoleon.

Algerians, Moroccans, Senegalese and other former colonial subjects have as much right to be considered the makers of modern France as any other French men and women. Some have never lived anywhere but France, as far back as 1848 when Algeria was declared an integral part of the French nation. Their culture - for most, a Muslim culture - is also French culture: their history is also French history.

This is the collective experience of many of the young men and women of the suburbs today. Certainly, as elsewhere in the world, there are individuals among them who for various reasons take readily to violence as a solution or as an end in itself. But when this occurs, the response of many “Franco- French” people (to use a bizarre but very common term) is to suggest that they should “go back where they came from.”

This is racism. Yet many French people will not admit that racism exists in France. France is the land of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. To suggest otherwise is an attack on the Republic. Those who do so with stones and petrol cans are called “racailles” (thugs). Those who do so with words and arguments are told that they are playing a “double game,”
that they are the pawns of Islamic fundamentalists or Leftist radicals.

The problem was crystallized for me in the televized debate presented on the program “Mots Croisés” on Monday 31 October. The program opened with an interview with Azouz Begag, the first government minister of North African background, responsible for the “ascenseur sociale” or upward mobility for underprivileged groups. The interviewer, Yves Calvi, asked him if he was a “beur alibi” (a “Token Arab”), and why he did not think about resigning. Begag’s suggestion that he would try to speak to the families of the boys who were killed, “in Arabic if necessary” provoked outraged reactions on the on- line forum after the program. The tone was one of incredulity that a “French Minister” should speak Arabic to “French citizens.” For many outside France, it is simply not obvious at all what is so outrageous about this proposition. American ministers have spoken in Spanish to their citizens, and in Australia government brochures are printed in at least five languages (including Arabic).

In the panel discussion which followed it was clear what Calvi meant by a “Token Arab,” since the panel contained only one member from North African background, a local educator and youth worker from Clichy-sous-Bois, Samir Mihi, who had been very much in evidence in the news stories as a leader encouraging dialogue rather than violence, working in close contact with the youths on the street. When he began to explain the anger felt by the communities in the cites at the death of the two boys, and the particular anger felt by Muslims when a police tear-gas canister was fired into a crowded mosque, Calvi simply cut him off and demanded “Will you make a statement now that these youths should go back to their homes?” When Mihi replied that he was working for this result every day, the interviewer began to insist over and over that he make a direct imperative statement to the rioters to go home. (Again, there is no sensitivity here about the meanings of “Rentrez chez-vous!”) This confrontation, to me, is quite representative of the crisis as a whole. It was not sufficient that this young man should be engaged in the “mediation” between rioters and the authorities, he must declare himself - through an enunciative act - as a representative of ‘order’, of French culture.
The implication made immediately by another panel member, the UMP deputy-mayor Manuel Aeschlimann, was that Mihi and other mediators were using a “double language,” secretly encouraging attacks against the police while claiming to be working toward calm. Mihi was then ignored for the rest of the program while a group of “French” politicians and intellectuals discussed the restoration of order. At no point in this discussion was Mihi respected as an equal voice in the debate: he was hounded, told what statement to make, and implicitly accused of “treachery” toward the French state.

This is fairly indicative of how North Africans and other immigrants have been viewed across the French Republican establishment. They have been discussed as a “problem”, a “challenge” or a “failure,” but rarely as a constitutive part of French society and history. There is only one solution to these “problems” – become French. But they must become French in a way defined by the Republican consensus built since the 1880s (not coincidentally the era of massive colonial expansion) and not by their own understanding of what “French” might mean.

The recent riots in Clichy were sparked by a tragic incident which bore an extraordinary similarity to events which took place last year in Redfern, one of Sydney’s poorest suburbs, where indigenous Australians are concentrated in shocking poverty and joblessness. In that case also, a young boy allegedly under pursuit by the police was killed in an accident, sparking riots which lasted several days. The power of these incidents seems to lie in its symbolic force: whatever the circumstances, the majority of people of all ages in these communities saw it as an act of aggression by the state, harrying the underprivileged to their death. Almost every member of the community (judging by the interviews I’ve seen) experiences these deaths as a symbol of deep injustice and neglect by the society in which they live.

The failure of the French government and the media to deal effectively with this anger and the violence which followed arises from a deeper failure to listen, to comprehend, and to admit that the "universal" values which are constantly trumpeted have failed in significant ways.

The current government consciously reversed all the socialist attempts at solution through community action, in its attempt to impose order through “zero tolerance,” an absolute stress on “public order” (santé public?), and the restriction of the police to the role of investigation and arrest rather than community involvement, closing down the “police de proximité”.

Perhaps because of the votes attracted by the Front National in 2002, the government is nervous about confronting racism as a reality in contemporary France. Instead, it is concerned to bring the racists on board with the mainstream Republican right, by offering a hard-line stance which may attract those voting for the Front National. This stance has been most aggressively exploited by the Minister of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy (a clear Presidential contender for 2007) who has repeatedly spoken of “racailles”, “voyous” and “caïds” (an Arabic word for a local leader); of “nettoyage” (cleansing) using a “karcher” (vacuum cleaner) – language which can be best understood in English as referring to “scum” who need to be “cleaned out” of the urban communities. It was after Sarkozy used such language during a visit to Argenteuil immediately after the first riots in Clichy, that the violence spread to other suburbs on the outskirts of Paris. Young men interviewed on camera made it clear that they were incensed by Sarkozy’s language, whose effects they felt every day in a sharpening of the colour and cultural divide, and in the actions of police.

The problems in the suburbs of French cities are real, and affect all their inhabitants, regardless of how recently they or their ancestors arrived in France. The underlying economic and environmental problems have to be solved in order to turn around this worsening situation. But the cultural question is one that also needs urgently to be broached. The “values” to which the children of immigrants are expected to adhere cannot take root unless these values are open to a recognition of the diversity of French society today, its new forms of connectedness with Africa and Asia as well as Europe, and a new sense of history. It is worth remembering that after the failure of Republicanism in 1848, and the fires of the Paris Commune, the republican project of the 1870s was built on painstaking work in the rural communes of France – what Daniel Halévy called “the revolution of the town halls.”

French “pluriculturalism” has failed, but needs to be rebuilt painstakingly from the ground upwards. A new and more inclusive Arabo- African- Indochinese- French history of modern France needs to be written, against the immobile and conservative Revolutionary-Napoleonic-Third Republic version which dominates at present. It must talk about the slave trade, colonialism, Islam, the Algerian War - in Algeria and in France - the Holocaust, the role of immigration in France, and develop new perspectives on the customary landmarks of French history. It must teach other languages and other cultures, respect the rights of individuals to choose their cultural expression, while still defending them from abuses.

It must stop trying to choose for them, demanding that they speak only in one language and one discourse, demanding that they abandon their roots and identifications. It will not be the same as the multiculturalism of Canada or Britain or India, and nor should it be.

These societies, like my own, have their own fractures, wrongs and exclusions to deal with. But all of these models need to enter into dialogue with one another in order to bring the best elements of these different approaches together.

It will be difficult to turn around the momentum of a government committed to repression as an answer to social injustice, and the groups of young men caught in a cycle of violence and destruction. These riots are an appalling waste of badly-needed resources, and a terrible infliction of fear and injury on all concerned. Simply repeating "C'est inacceptable!" (How many times have I heard this phrase in the last week?) and decrying the "racailles" will not make this problem go away.

But standing in the middle of the concourse at Châtelet-Les Halles Metro station, it is possible to feel what France is and can be – a society pulsating with energy and movement, colour and life... but also with a powerful undercurrent of exclusion and injustice.

A minister in the National Assembly shouted a few days ago "This is not a Revolution!" If it is not, it should be - but a peaceful revolution which will tear down the walls of exclusion, injustice and mutual incomprehension.

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