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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: L’autre monde que réclame la révolte des banlieues

by By Cyrille Poy

French Suburbs: Youth Demand "Another World" - a book review

Translated by Patrick Bolland

Translated Thursday 23 March 2006, by Patrick Bolland

"Banlieue, lendemains de révolte" [The Suburbs: In the Wake of the Uprising], co-edition Regards/La Dispute, 2006, 160 pages, 9 euros.

This book is an eye-opener analysing what has been called “the November 2005 urban violence” in the French suburbs (1)in its political context. A book containing a number of different voices in order to understand, “to act and prevent the long-term institutionalization of battle-lines between the outbursts of revolt and the police repression, and to create an urban environment in which people can live side by side sharing the same space”, as Clémentine Autain, co-editor of the monthly magazine “Regards”, writes in her introduction.

Rejecting the simplistic binary distinction between “the rabble” and “the real youth” (2), sociologists Stéphane Beaud and Michel Pialoux remind us that the youths who participated in the violence were not dangerous delinquents but that many of them were “swept along by a shared feeling of revolt ... and by the consciousness of belonging to a generation that has been sacrificed”. What was new was the “social desperation”, which led these youths to “acts of self-destructive behaviour that had previously been limited to the most marginalized fraction of youth in the housing estates”.

What was also new, for sociologist François Dubet, were political institutions of the Left that had become paralyzed and “which limited their vision to asking for more money for investing in these neighborhoods” while the Left should have, according to him, been able to look beyond the Republican model, simply because it was no longer working. Our society no longer has a “collective project” with the result that “people have lost their bearings” explains Patrick Braouezec, member of the National Assembly and president de “Plaine commune”, a sprawling area of largely working-class estates north-east of Paris and if he calls for a “Grenelle of the suburbs”, referring to the agreements signed following the 1968 revolt, it is because the cry of these youths was not that “another world is possible”, but that “another world has to be created”.

For anthropologist Alain Bertho, exploitation and confrontation now occupy the urban space. The challenge is to “construct an urban space in which all have their rights and their equality”, but also a space that the inhabitants can be called “our own”, and this has been too absent, philosopher Jean-Louis Sagot-Duvauroux points out.

So we have to “re-invent the political” and this has to be a common societal project in which the whole population become involved because “rights are not handed out on a plate, cannot be defended and will not advance - except through the active exercise of a truly social form of citizenship”, in the words of Jean-Pierre Dubois, president of the League of Human Rights. Laurent Mucchielli calls for “a change in the way of policing our society”. Recalling that the origin of all the riots remains associated with the enforcement of order by the police, this sociologist hypothesizes that, far from being reassuring and reducing tensions, the police play precisely the opposite role. And magistrate Évelyne Sire-Marin, who is also co-chair of the “Fondation Copernic” - an independent think-tank analyzing the multiple effects of globalization on our lives - hits the nail on the head by underlining the completely inappropriate behaviour of the police in the suburbs. So let’s turn this whole thing inside out. What if the insurrection in the suburbs was actually, as Christiane Taubira suggests, “a moment of extreme civility”, in the face of a system of power that scorns and despises, “sacrificing the public well-being to shelter the affluent”.

[Translator’s notes]

(1) For some readers, “the suburbs” may be synonymous with a middle class refuge, as in “the flight to the suburbs” following the so-called “breakdown” of city-centres. In all the major cities of Paris there are such affluent suburbs, but also high-rise low-income housing estates, built in the post-war period, that have become ghettos of poverty and alienation. “Banlieue” has come to mean principally these heartless housing projects, occupied by the poor, particularly the poor of immigrant origins.

(2) It was French interior minister Sarkozy’s use of this phrase (“la racaille”, meaning “scum”, very close to “trash”) to depict the rioters that turned a series of bush-fires into a sustained revolt, principally by Black and Arab youth, a large proportion of whom were born in France, but remain the object of numerous forms of discrimination.

article published in l’Humanité on 13 March 2006

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