Merde in France

  Wednesday 16 November was a quiet day in France. Only 163 cars were burnt by urban rioters in the whole of France and the state of emergency was lifted in some places and re-imposed in others. The urban unrest of the last two weeks is fading away, leaving some dead – the guy attacked for trying to defend his area from arsonists; some injured – the disabled woman set on fire in a bus by thugs, the 18- month-old baby who received a rock on the head and a whole lot of mindless vandalism: cars burnt, schools burnt, buses burnt, kindergartens burnt, shops smashed and so on.

  The death of the two young lads who were accidentally electrocuted when they ran into an electricity sub-station in Clichy- sous-bois north of Paris following an all too routine police identity check in the area was
not in itself the trigger to these events. The trigger was the reaction of the Interior Minister, Sarkozy, (France’s answer to Blunkett, marital problems included) who called the unruly young people in the suburbs “riff-raff”, thus confirming a tendency towards the blanket stigmatization of the population who live there.

  The equation suburbs = immigrants = delinquents, is, of course, the kind of brainless reasoning favoured by members of the National Front, and by some police officers, particularly those who “know” the immigrant population largely through their experience of the dirty Algerian war of independence. But the “immigrant”
population in the suburbs have been there for three generations and as such they walk around with French identity papers.  Unfortunately for them, they have Arab names and/or black faces and thus face discrimination in employment.
  Their problems are a concentration of those faced by French workers as a whole and have nothing to do with their level of “integration” into the French nation. After all, those Arabs who fought for the French during the Algerian war of independence (the so called “harkis”) have themselves vegetated in ghettoes, the victims of post- colonial benign neglect. Even these Arabs haven’t been allowed to integrate.

Can of worms

The background to this can of worms is not the state of the housing in the sink estates (“cités”) in the suburbs of the major towns in France. Some of the housing, admittedly not all, is of fairly good quality having been built in the mid-1970s. British sink estates are a lot worse. Nor is the problem that of the absence of public services, education, health care, public transport and all the rest. These public services are present in these areas to an
extent which could only be dreamt of in an equivalent American or British ghetto. Let’s not get things mixed up. No, the main problem of these sink estates is precisely the social and ethnic homogeneity of these areas or the concentration of people with  profound social problems there. Family breakdown, sole parenting, low self-
esteem, educational  difficulties, problems of employment co-exist with an often violent social environment
where young people grow up surrounded by delinquent gangs.

 To make matters worse, the French police force is mainly  installed in the quiet small towns, the spatial
deployment of the flics having stayed largely unchanged since the Vichy epoch. The police trade unions have

resisted all attempts at redeployment. As a rule then ,the cops only come to thump people they don’t know in
areas they get lost in. Calm “middle-class” areas have a plethora of police stations. Earlier experiments with
community policing  (“police de proximité”) undertaken by the “socialist government” of Jospin succeeded
in calming the suburbs but were abandoned by the super-cop Sarko on the ground that this allowed the proliferation of a parallel drug economy (true). In these terms, the more testosterone-propelled policing of the
current administration is believed to be more effective (not true). As a resultpolicing in the suburbs has taken on the “wham bang and thank you mam” style with lots of media attention.
 Funds going to the associations in the suburbs have been cut and job-creation schemes suspended. This is guaranteed to worsen community relations with little payoff in terms of the fight against thugs whose activities do, after all, provide some cash-flow in these areas where youth unemployment often hits 45 percent – the
highest rate in Europe. No wonder then that the government has decided to park the riot police (CRS) on a semi-permanent basis in these estates. Although country bumpkins with a well-deserved reputation for
brutality, they do at least know how to react  when they get lost in an area they don’t know.

“Arab work”

  In strictly capitalist terms nothing can nor perhaps will be done to change this sorry state of affairs. The current
population of the suburbs largely consists of the sons and daughters of black Africans and Arabs brought over in the 1960s and 1970s to do the shit jobs in the factories that the French didn’t want to do. (A reality which was brought home to me when I saw an entire train full of exhausted workers returning from a night shift at the
Peugeot works in Poissy. They were all Arabs.) Whilst this earlier generation now subsists on microscopic pensions and social benefits, the new kids on the block are showing a distinct tendency towards underemployment and delinquency. When mass unemployment hit these areas in the 1980s what complacent sociology calls the “visible immigrants” found themselves trapped and underemployed in the suburbs as the earlier (“invisible”?) immigrants of Spanish, Italian, Polish or Portuguese origin had succeeded in getting the hell out. Integration after all is not so much a question of religion as it is a question of timing.

  Then came the trendy do-gooders who in  the mid-1980s launched the windy humanistic movement “Touche pas à mon pôte” (“don’t touch my mate”) with the help of heavy public subsidies from the Mitterrand government, “the Sphinx” having abandoned all pretence to defend working class interests sometime early in
the 1980s. Ostensibly a worthy movement aimed at overcoming the problems faced by those French citizens who were unfortunate enough to have Arab or black parents, this current of thought succeeding in convincing
gullible people that the real problem faced by people in the sink estates was the entrenched racism of the French and not simply shit jobs, unemployment and a brutal and ignorant police force: problems faced by workers everywhere.


The other side of the political rainbow has seen the development of a far-right extremist party, the National Front, from out of the moribund Poujadist organisation of the 1950s. Led by Jean Marie Le Pen, an ex-paratrooper involved in dirty business during the Algerian war of independence, this outfit provides a convenient bogey-man for lefties who have got lost in the banality of left/right capitalist politics. The party,
generously staffed by disaffected former colonists from Algeria (the so-called “pieds noirs”), has heavily underlined the failure of integration of the French citizens of Araborigin many of whom, incredibly, still don’t
know how to conjugate the subjunctive of the imperfect in French and this after so many grammar lessons. The party even has a radio station called, curiously, “Radio Courtoisie” (Right wing French thugs have always had impeccable manners) to beam out its Christian message of hatred and prejudice. Fortunately, only bored
housewives and retired colonels listen to this drivel.  Ordinary French workers have proved over and over again that they are not on the whole racist  bigots, thoughthey can be a bit xenophobic.  Nonetheless the party
continues to garner votes inconstituencies where it doesn’t even have a local branch or even any kind of grass-roots existence. For the party exists in fact, as a convenient way for workers to express their disaffection with the French political establishment which is all too clearly in cahoots with capitalist interests. It’s a kind
of gigantic publicly-subsidized vomitorium into which people spew their bile with Le Pen’s ugly mug providing a convenient emetic. In doing this, however, French workers have clearly been playing with fire Now they’re getting burnt.

Urban pariahs

Thus doubly confirmed in their status as urban pariahs, many of the young people in the suburbs have continued to study quietly and find work despite an ill-adapted educational system, material difficulties, postcode discrimination, the useless condescension of the politicians and crap jobs. The educational priority areas (“zone
éducation prioritaire”), modelled on the earlier British fiasco, have been starved of resources and have thus done little to erode the inequalities of an overtly elitist educational system. They receive a piddling 8 percent more than the mainstream schools, hardly enough to compensate for the learning difficulties encountered by people from poor backgrounds, not to mention those from non-French speaking backgrounds in a country
where national arrogance places on premium on speaking proper.

  Despite the difficulties there are some fine, dedicated teachers in these areas whose efforts have been
hampered by a sordid social environment and poor logistic support. In the final analysis then, 62 percent of French working-class people find their offspring back in the working-class background which they came
from (the highest proportion in Europe) in a country which presents itself as secular and meritocratic. And that’s before we put the peculiar problems faced by the denizens of the ghetto into the balance.

  So the real problem is the inability of people in these areas to escape from a highly stigmatizing spatial set-up. The association suburb = immigrants = delinquency is criminal stupidity. The Arab and black populations who live in areas in close proximity to mainstream French life do not riot. Nor did the Arabs who live in the centre of Marseilles. (In the same way quiet Alsatian villages with no Arabs vote National Front.) Where the sink estates did not riot is more important than where they did but no television cameras go to these areas. In fact, the vast majority of the third generation immigrants in the suburbs took no part in the disorders and many were as
terrified by what went on as the French population in general.

  The problem should not be thought of simply in terms of spatially delimited sink estates. The wider trends of the whole of French society should be taken into account. To a significant extent, the troubles should be seen as a reflection of the growing geographical segregation of the French population partly due to the booming housing market and the continuous rise in rents in the private sector.  And the doings of the affluent in France should also be mentioned. The rich are beginning to privatize the French republic for their own ends. Rich ghettoes,
like Sarko’s own constituency of Neuilly to the west of Paris has only 2 percent of council housing when the legal obligation is for 20 percent. The same is true of neighbouring Levallois and the pattern is repeated all over France. Clearly the rich are having some difficulty integrating into the Republic, perhaps they don’t want to.

  After all, they send their kids to private,often catholic schools, where they learn how different they are from everyone else.Thereafter they take advantage of higher education facilities to propel their horrendous offspring into the better jobs. A short sojourn in the States completes the picture.
More importantly, recent events have allowed the government to sneak through controversial tax breaks for the super-rich whilst introducing more tax free enterprises into the sink estates – but then again, perhaps, this was what was really at stake in the first place.

MM (Paris)

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