The slums of France have risen in revolt.
Young people have burned cars, and attacked police and government buildings. Their rebellion has engulfed towns and cities from the Mediterranean coast to the German border—and now threatens the survival of the government.
Night after night, rioters have confronted the forces of law and order in what the French police have labelled a “civil war”. The chief of police has even called for the army to intervene.
The right wing minister of the interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, who has made no secret of his presidential ambitions, has staked his political career on taming the riots. His failure to rapidly quell the violence has led to growing pressure for him to resign.
The rebellion began on Saturday 26 October. Two teenagers in the Parisian banlieue (suburb) of Clichy-sous-Bois were electrocuted when they tried to hide from police in a power substation.
Their deaths sparked off a night of rioting. On Sunday the CRS riot police flooded the area and fired tear gas into a mosque causing panic among Muslim worshippers celebrating the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
The CRS attack unleashed years of pent-up anger.
In Clichy-sous-Bois and the neighbouring banlieue of Aulnay-sous-Bois the whole community rebelled.
Hanane is a young Muslim woman from Seine-Saint-Denis, which includes the sink estates of Clichy and Aulnay.
“Before, if a young man was picked up by the police, his parents would say, ‘You must have done something,’ or ‘It’s your fault for hanging around the streets at night.’ But now parents are telling their sons ‘Get into the streets and defend our neighbourhood’,” she said.
While the media and the politicians are blaming “vandals” for the riots, Hanane says on the first day of the riots in Clichy-sous-Bois the whole community was behind the youths. “During the height of the riot both old and young were leaning over their balconies pelting the police with anything to hand.”
The banlieues of Seine-Saint-Denis have come to represent the belts of misery and grinding poverty that exist on the edges of many towns and cities across France.
In some areas of Clichy-sous-Bois half the population are unemployed. This is an area with no station, by-passed by all the major roads and bus routes through Paris.
Antoine is a teacher who has worked in the run-down schools of Seine-Saint-Denis for seven years. “The sons and daughters of Arab and African immigrants face terrible discrimination,” he said. “Often their CVs would be set aside simply because of their names.
“This racism has bred despair and these youngsters find it difficult to find a route out of poverty.
“Meanwhile they face daily harassment by the police, especially from the anti-criminal brigade, or Bac, plainclothes policemen who rule the banlieues like an army of occupation.”
“The Bac are like cowboys,” said Hanane. “They are the hotheads of the police. They hang around the entrances to tower blocks harassing any youth they see. They are cruel and violent.
“They stop you and ask for your ID papers. If you say anything you get a slap in the mouth. If you resist you get a beating and end up in jail. One lad I know was stopped ten times in one day by the same policemen.
“They knew who he was and they knew he had done nothing but they just provoked him then they pounced on him. This is not an isolated experience. This is unfortunately the daily reality for many people.”
Through the first week of November the government’s response to the troubles was mass arrests and increased repression.
Over 1,000 CRS riot police descended on Seine-Saint-Denis in a massive act of intimidation, but the focus shifted to other towns and cities.
Over the following ten days riots spread to Marseille, Lille, Dijon, and Saint-Etienne. Even the resorts of Nice and Cannes were touched by the revolt.
The increased repression has fuelled deep mistrust and anger among the peoples in the banlieues, Hanane said. “The Bac act with impunity, they know that if they shoot you nothing will happen to them.
“It is for this reason that the two young lads tried to hide in an electricity substation—they were terrified of the police.”
The nightly rioting has almost become a personal battle between Sarkozy and the young “casseurs”, or vandals, as they are known. “This scum,” Sarkozy declared in one of his provocative visits to a banlieue last week, “will be washed off the streets.”
For the youth, the tally of cars torched or buildings attacked has become an affirmation that Sarkozy and the police no longer control their estates.
“But the young are fighting on their own doorstep,” warned Hanane. “The political parties have abandoned them. It is easy to say that these lads are simply destroying their communities, and although I think it is wrong just to torch cars, no one is providing them with an alternative.”
Hanane said that the “community leaders” have no solution to the despair.
“Now the rebellion is not just against the police, but also against the elders in the community, whose only answer is to invite the chief of police and right wing politicians for ‘dialogue’. But it is these people who are behind the racism. Why are we having a dialogue with them?”
She added that Sarkozy was appealing to supporters of the fascist Front National in his bid to win the 2007 presidential election, and that he was sending the Bac, the “political children” of Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, onto her estate.
Aziz al-Jawari runs the Tawhid cultural centre in Seine-Saint-Denis. He dismissed out of hand any suggestion that the young rioters were driven by fundamentalist ideas, a frequent accusation in the media.
“They say we are trying to build an ‘alternative France’, and the banlieues have become hotbeds of Islamic radicalism,” he said.
“They say the Arab youth are under the control of ‘foreign forces’. Their logic runs: ‘Islam means terrorism, so all Muslims are terrorists.’
“The young are not rioting because they are immigrants, or because of Palestine, the war on Iraq or even Islam. They are rioting because they are French.
“Their parents may have been immigrants who came to live in a new country.
“They expected little and received even less. But this generation were born here and went to school here. French is their mother tongue.
“They are angry because even though they are French, they are treated as second class citizens.”
“We don’t live in the banlieues out of choice,” said Hanane. “Our parents did not come here and say, ‘We want to be poor and live in ghettos.’ We are forced into these areas by the deep racism in French society.
“I don’t travel into the centre of Paris because I wear a veil and I’m sick of the dirty looks I get. There is an unofficial curfew for young blacks and Arabs.
“If they are caught in the centre at night they will be get trouble from the police. So we have no choice, we have to stay in our areas.
“It is the racists who want a divided France, not the immigrants or the children of immigrants.
“No matter how many generations have lived here, we cannot change the colour of our skin. We cannot become white, so for them we will never be acceptable.”