Le Monde diplomatique
WHAT REALLY HAPPENED IN NOVEMBER '05?
France: state of the estates
Just nine months after the young on France's immigrant estates
erupted into dramatic nationwide disorder, the subject seems to
have been dropped by both the authorities and the media. The
problems remain as they were, but nobody is talking about them.
by Denis Duclos
With the benefit of hindsight it becomes clear how hasty were
many of the conclusions drawn by analysts on both the left
and the right after the urban unrest in France in November
2005. They took little account of the many in-depth studies
on the subject (1) and generally failed to put the troubles
in their proper perspective, both in time and in their
relation to similar events elsewhere in the world.
Inside and outside France, there have been three main
explanations for the troubles. One was that ethnic, cultural
and religious tensions, exacerbated by a failure to integrate
successive waves of immigrants, caused the problems on
underprivileged banlieue estates. This view was defended by
Alain Finkielkraut (2) and Hélène Carrère d'Encausse (3), but
disputed by Olivier Todd (4).
Another explanation was that the structure of immigrant
families had broken down, the only remedy for this being to
restore the moral, educational and disciplinary standards of
the young generation and of their parents.
It was also suggested that the root problem was mass
unemployment of the young on sink estates, and the wider
socio-economic deprivation of their inhabitants.
Comparing the crisis in France to similar events elsewhere
may help to clarify and put in perspective these
explanations, and in some cases contradict them. There are
even specific features of the French events that might
encourage some optimism, which is seldom the case elsewhere.
For example, racial, cultural and religious strife were not
in fact major factors in the banlieue revolt, which partly
explains why there were so few casualties. Urban riots
triggered by religious hatred can cause thousands of deaths
(as was the case in India in 1992-3 when members of Mumbai's
Muslim and Hindu communities clashed). Fighting between
racial groups has claimed lives elsewhere, including during
urban riots in the United States, particularly in Los
Angeles, between the 1960s and 1990s.
In other situations, local enmity, which may become a
political issue, can cause the sort of recurrent, long-term
suffering that is still experienced in Palestine and Northern
Ireland (5). It may suddenly change and escalate, especially
with outside interference, into civil war (Beirut at the end
of the 1970s) or genocide (Rwanda in 1994).
These examples remind us that extreme urban violence may
erupt in situations in which the "problem", often minority,
population (African Americans, Indian Muslims, Northern Irish
Catholics) is not foreign, but has been settled for
centuries. It may even, as with the Northern Irish Catholics,
be the indigenous population. Just as in any social class,
the opposing groups have similar mores and are only
differentiated by faith. So it seems unreasonable to put all
the blame for the French troubles on conflict between the
cultures of recent immigrants and the national culture.
Not a recruiting ground, yet
The social and political unrest in France does involve young
people of foreign parentage, but religious activists have so
far failed to turn that to their advantage. As even the
police have emphasised, fundamentalist Muslim clerics have
not tried to find new recruits among young rebels. Perhaps
egalitarian, liberal forces already exert too great an
influence over them, since they seem more sympathetic to
republican, perhaps even anarchist, ideals than to some quest
for spiritual purity. The unrest has not caused a deep rift
in the identity of these youngsters.
However, once a separatist identity has taken root in a
community of believers it becomes far more durably dangerous
than sudden outbursts of juvenile resentment. To rely on
community and religious leaders, and their pacifism, to
restore order, as some politicians and analysts advocate,
would be a serious mistake. This would merely contribute to
the climate of religious and racial confrontation
increasingly rife in northern Europe, especially the
Islamophobia gripping Holland, Denmark and the Flemish part
It would make little sense to do so in France anyway, there
being no open conflict between ethnic groups, though a return
to racist beatings and victimisation by the police, as
happened in the past, is always possible. The remaining
far-right groups are not strong enough to risk provoking the
"foreigners" in their "ghettos", unlike the British National
Party in Britain, which was responsible for baiting Pakistani
and Bangladeshi youth, thus indirectly triggering riots in
Oldham and Bradford in 2001.
We should ask a rather different question. France has a
secular tradition and a reasonably open mind on differences
of race, culture and religion (6). And it has no religious or
political groups that would dare openly to provoke the youth
in a particular community. So how has it been possible to
foment rage in one location and for that rage then to spread
to other parts of the country?
It seems clear that only the state is in a position to
trigger or restrict confrontation, a view borne out by recent
events. Successive rightwing governments since 2002 have
deliberately demolished all the real or symbolic firewalls,
such as the youth employment scheme, which were introduced by
their socialist predecessors to reduce social tension in
underprivileged areas. Last autumn they began to pay the
In a country such as France only the government can incite
officials to behave in a hostile or aggressive manner.
Political leaders and the government have taken the place of
popular antagonism, in the process reaping several indirect
benefits. They can claim to be upholding law and order,
whereas in fact they contribute to unrest. This may seem a
dangerous political gamble, but it may also be seen as a last
stand before some final acknowledgement of the Other, whose
existence cannot be denied much longer without causing people
to suspect that the political leaders and government have
malicious designs, possibly against a wide range of
So there is no need to look far for the basic, recurrent
cause of urban revolt, even among the young. It mostly
results from a lack of respect. The authorities have failed
to recognise people on the problem estates, particularly
youths, as cultural and political subjects in the
sociological sense. This is the fault of the representatives
of the authorities, and is reflected in their indifference,
implicit distrust and sense of superiority. This causes
harassment by police or officials and deliberate attempts to
make it difficult for the estate-dwellers to find work.
We know that a climate of official distrust inevitably
provokes trigger events. There have been comparable outbursts
in the US, and each time the pattern is strikingly similar,
with a member of a "difficult" minority being wrongfully
pursued, arrested or sentenced, or beaten up during a police
raid. (Rodney King was assaulted in 1991 by Los Angeles
police; boys running away from the police in Clichy-sous-Bois
were electrocuted in a substation.)
Friends soon find out what has happened to the victims. The
community quickly hears the news thanks to modern media,
prompting an immediate response, particularly among the
young. Their anger focuses on symbols of authority and
economic power, rather than other groups or individuals. They
cause considerable material damage, although serious injuries
or fatalities are unusual unless the police deliberately
provoke confrontation in a show of force.
There is a guaranteed ratchet effect. The more a repressive
state consciously or unconsciously seeks vengeance, the more
deaths there will be. The French state has so far exercised a
certain restraint, avoiding mass confrontation and the risk
of involving older members of the community, who would use
the many firearms readily available but usually reserved for
crime. Perhaps the authorities remember May 1968 or the Malek
Oussékine affair in 1986 (8). It is possible that police on
the ground now have a better understanding of what is at
However, the more the government authorises educators, social
workers and above all the police (or in future the army) to
adopt the approach of controlling people, the more likely it
is to cause humiliation, inevitably sowing the seeds of
further urban unrest. Preparing for the worst with plans for
armed occupation of estates would lead straight to what such
measures are meant to prevent: civil war.
Keep the tower blocks
About the physical context of urban unrest, and drawing on
the work of Loïc Wacquant (9) and other commentators, we
should consider a few points which suggest that the wholesale
demolition of the much-maligned banlieue tower blocks is not
Contrary to the claims of some sociologists, the arrangement
of the flats within each block hinders the formation of
ethnic or religious ghettos. The film director Mathieu
Kassovitz (10) noted that groups of young people were
relatively mixed and research has since confirmed this.
Luckily, a melting pot really exists, which is not true in
Britain, where poor whites seem relatively segregated from
coloured communities. Nor is such exchange possible in
segregated US neighbourhoods, where a fear of other
minorities prevails (11). The 1992 riots in South Central, a
poor suburb of Los Angeles, were partly due to friction
between three "racial" communities - Latinos, Asians and
African Americans (12); there continued to be an annual
average of 300 murders until the end of the 1990s. Just as
the American poor are lumped together in racially defined
units, so the rich are self-isolated in ethnically exclusive
gated communities (13). The spread of such estates is
fuelling forms of racial hatred almost unheard of in France.
The tower blocks, which rise like medieval fortresses, are
difficult to police, but do help discourage provocation by
racist thugs, unlike the small terraced houses so common in
Britain. The towers are also too visible for it to be
possible to hide Albanian slaves labouring for the local
population as has happened in Italy and Greece.
France's large out-of-town housing estates are generally the
preserve of people, with all the necessary permits, who have
demonstrated their ability to support themselves; unlike the
slum dwellings still found in town centres, often occupied by
unofficial immigrants. Income on the estates is nevertheless
30% below the national average and youth unemployment two or
three times higher (14). Many of those who want to find work
must drive to a distant workplace without a licence or
insurance. But thanks to government grants and subsidies, a
range of public and community initiatives and a genuine local
economy, people do not die of hunger in the banlieues.
Some of the estates are in a poor state of repair, but this
is due as much to real economic difficulties as to banlieue
culture. Vandalism owes much to impotent rage, a sentiment
often shared by the young in more prosperous quarters with
their streets of detached houses. This raises the issue of
recognition. Ideas such as delinquency, anti-social behaviour
and cultural disintegration do not much help engagement with
the need for recognition. They tend to encourage observers to
disregard the issue.
Ready for life outside the nest
Some commentators have suggested, groundlessly, that certain
lifestyles are incompatible, citing the deculturation caused
by transplantion to a new setting, especially for the
youngest members of an immigrant community. Pre-adolescents
in Africa enjoy considerable freedom and it is traditional
for them to form gangs, grouped by gender and age group. But
this does not mean families have lost control of their
offspring, rather that it is an early trial period for life
outside the nest (15), corresponding to ancestral practices
designed to prevent incest.
There is no doubt that problems can arise when the chill
control of European society replaces the village's more
congenial authority. But that should perhaps encourage us to
consider the solitude and disregard for the law to which our
own, supposedly superior, system leads.
Analysts have found many ways of describing the banlieue as
an inferno where mental and moral decline is inevitable, but
such terms only partly describe a material reality, and
mostly fail to convey the perceptions of people actually
living there. Such descriptions are often a part of the
denigration of the homes of working people from distant
countries by the prosperous, fashionable classes. The
well-off like to believe the occupants of poor estates are
overwhelmed by their afflictions and terrorised by their
neighbours. The rich forget that a neighbourhood is often the
only thing that the young can call their own. It is a place
about which to complain and joke, a patch to defend and a
base for petty crime. The young estate-dwellers long to
escape, but surely anyone who is young dreams of leaving his
or her childhood environment. Many French rap songs remind us
how often such dreams are shattered, but they also stress the
solidarity that prevails on the estates. They may want to
leave but they are nevertheless proud of their concrete
Segregation in the US is far worse than in France, but even
there it has been exaggerated by commentators and outside
observers. Even today people live quite normal lives, sending
their children to school in Watts, a neighbourhood of Los
Angeles where just venturing out is supposed to be hazardous.
Insufficient attention has been paid to the effects of
automatic vilification, the way it helps destroy a sense of
neighbourhood solidarity and fosters a gang spirit, provoking
widespread antagonism and revolt, even if it does not
contribute directly to the development of organised
The unruly behaviour of gangs can be unbearable, but a
distinction needs to be made between rebelliousness and the
ordinary explosive energy of the young. Exuberant young
people make a noise, but no more than they do in many
middle-class homes. Nor is it unusual for the young to take
less interest than their elders in the problem of employment,
or the matter of work. Sometimes the authorities want to
quell this exuberance (labelled as hyperactivity or lack of
inhibition in repressive psycho-speak), thus provoking a
spiral of hatred (17).
Some commentators have been irritated by the way that this
turbulent vitality has produced an expansive culture which is
much easier to share than the middle-of-the-road culture of
the commentators. They implicitly attack not rootlessness or
poor integration but the enthrallment of French youth and
media by banlieue culture. The hip-hop movement, which came
out of poor estates, is making banlieue culture into a force
for integration, perhaps even more powerful, given its
international inspiration, than the working-class culture it
The intrinsic value of rap music is uneven, as is the case
with most other popular music, but it often contains
political and philosophical comment, even moments of poetry,
that make it preferable to the bland material that schools
serve up as art. Cultural integration is speeding up, but it
is moving in the opposite direction from that expected. Young
people in remote French country villages pick up banlieue
accents as the bourgeois youth of Paris used to imitate
working-class speech. They listen to the misfortunes of Diam,
take lessons from Doc Gyneco (particularly N'oublie jamais
d'où tu viens), and hear appeals from Disiz la Peste, 113,
Busta Flex, or La Brigade. There are even new versions of
numbers from the mid-1990s by artists such as NTM, MC Solaar,
Passi, Assassin, Menelik and IAM, whose rage has been
sublimated in artistic and political expression.
A different French
No one will be surprised to learn that they do not speak the
same French on the estates as they do on highbrow radio
stations. Culture, especially in hard times, is not a
top-down process, but may rise phoenix-like from suffering.
The West Indies slave trade may have destroyed much of the
original African cultures of its victims; however, the
children of imported slaves, forbidden by their masters from
speaking their mother tongues (18), invented a new creole
language and culture from the scraps of what they heard
around them, from orders shouted at them and conversations
between the whites.
We are a long way from creole culture. French schools do a
good job and the media reach people on the estates as they do
everybody else. Estate youngsters show considerable technical
skill with mobile phones and the internet, and considerable
organising ability, surprising and fooling police who try to
predict trouble spots.
We must stop vilifying the estate adults, youths and children
who draw on their predicament, sometimes unwillingly, to
produce this dynamic part of modern French culture. They are
part of the switch "from an atavistic culture to a composite
one" along with the global market (19).
The events of October and November were unpleasant for the
owners of the 8,000-10,000 burnt cars and for taxpayers who
"own" the many wrecked public facilities. But we should
perhaps consider the participants not as rioters but as the
protagonists in a crisis of integration. By crisis we mean
the upheaval that happens in adolescence, which is in fact a
rite of initiation. We could see the changes in France's
relationship with its estate youth as a successful
experiment, made possible here because ethnic and religious
factors play a fairly minor role. If this experiment proves
successful, it may offer a new way to achieve greater
solidarity in society.
In which case tough talk about enforcing stricter,
military-style discipline on difficult families makes no
sense. It will only perpetuate the inability to accept the
current osmosis, and underpin policies that turn the state
into an agent provocateur (20).
Only a genuine integration policy can achieve both short and
long-term results for those youngsters playing outlaw games
with the police and fire service. But to succeed it has to
fulfil two conditions. First it must coincide with a radical
shift in attitude and discard any paternalism or unconscious
denigration, acknowledging that the Other has a right to his
or her place in a more unified world. We demand just that
when we retire, en masse, to Morocco's sunnier climes to make
our pensions stretch further.
The second condition is not specific to the banlieue young.
We cannot expect all French pupils to appreciate the process
of going through state school to get a job some day, while
aligning pay and working conditions with the lowest levels
prevailing in emerging countries. As a wise old man
suggested: "We must find an occupation for the young. But we
have to give them jobs that pay. That way, one day they will
become nice and friendly" (21).
Denis Duclos is a sociologist, research director at the CNRS,
Paris, and author of `Complexe du loup-garou' (La Découverte,
(1) See work on the banlieue published over the past decade
by Annales de la Recherche Urbaine, under the supervision of
(2) Interview in Haaretz, Tel Aviv, extracts in Le Monde, 24
(3) Interview on Russia's NTV channel, November 2005.
(4) Libération, Paris, 21 November 2005.
(5) The mechanism of provocation by politicians and the
military, leading to a massacre, is perfectly analysed in
Bloody Sunday, the film by Paul Greengrass about the
Londonderry riots in Northern Ireland on 30 January 1972.
(6) A survey by the Pew Research Centre in Washington reveals
that 65% of the French have a positive opinion of Muslims,
compared with only 36% of Germans,http://pewglobal.org/reports/pdf/252.pdf
(7) As illustrated by such recent polls as the TNS-Sofres
poll dated 22 June, which found that the interior minister
Nicolas Sarkozy "worried" 55% of those surveyed.
(8) Malek Oussékine died during a student demonstration in
December 1986; he had probably been beaten up by two police
(9) Notably his remarkable work comparing the Woodlawn ghetto
in Chicago and the Courneuve estate outside Paris, Urban
Outcasts: Colour, class and place in two advanced societies,
1994, but also "Pour en finir avec le mythe des
cités-ghettos", in Annales de la Recherche Urbaine, no 54,
March 1992, and Parias Urbains: Ghetto, Banlieues, Etat, La
Découverte, Paris, 2006.
(10) In his film La Haine, 1995.
(11) Julia Nevarez, "Vivre aux confins de Central Park et de
Harlem à New York", Annales de la Recherche Urbaine, no
83-84, September 1999.
(12) Cynthia Ghorra-Gobin, "South Central = Watts 2: De la
rivalité entre anciennes minorités et nouveaux immigrés",
Hérodote, no 85, 1997.
(13) Klaus Frantz, "Gated communities in the USA: a new trend
in urban development", Espace, Populations, Sociétés, no 1,
(14) Observatoire des Inégalités, "Chômage: le diplôme
protège moins dans les quartiers sensibles", 16 March 2005,
drawing on the National Institute of Statistics and Economic
Studies survey of employment trends published in 2003.
(15) See the contribution of Dr Régis Airault on the bangas
on Mayotte and the Comorres islands, in Catherine
Bergeret-Amselek, ed, De l'âge de raison à l'adolescence:
quelles turbulences à découvrir?, Erès, Paris, 2005.
(16) In the US it has been shown that gangs of youths do not
necessarily join criminal organisations when they grow up.
(17) It has long been recognised in the US that public
vilification of a specific ethnic community feeds and worsens
tension; Daniel Romer, "Blame discourse", Political
Communication, vol 14, Philadelphia, 1997.
(18) See "Les langues créoles", in Jean-Marie Hombert, ed,
Aux origines des langues et du langage, Fayard, Paris, 2005.
(19) See Edouard Glissant, Traité du Tout-Monde, 1997, and La
Cohée du Lamentin, 2005, both Gallimard, Paris.
(20) Loïc Wacquant, "L'Etat incendiaire face aux banlieues en
feu", Combat face au sida, no 42, December 2005 - January
(21) Interview with Roland de La Poype, a Normandie-Niémen
fighter pilot who fought in the Soviet air force during the
second world war, Libération, 3 July 2006.