“We don’t burn our neighbours’ cars — we get them from elsewhere, then bring them here and burn them,” says Hassan from Aulnay-sous-Bois. “About 30 cars a night are getting torched on this estate. The authorities come at about six in the morning and take them away — they don’t want these images to be seen abroad.”
Media coverage of the rioting has tended to measure its intensity by the number of cars burnt out each night.
But perhaps a truer measure of the depth of the anger behind the revolt lies in the number of cars torched before the riots began. Last Saturday the head of France’s police force referred to a total of 150 burnt out cars in the Paris region the previous night as “quite close to normal”.
According to the Le Monde newspaper, during the first ten months of this year prior to the uprising, 28,000 cars were torched across France, an average of 90 a night. Over the same period the police claim that 9,000 of their cars were pelted with stones.
Each area has its own specific reasons for rioting along with general ones. Nono told us that in Aulnay-sous-Bois the big issue is discrimination at Roissy Charles de Gaulle, Paris’s main airport. And this local question is linked to global questions.
“Before 9/11 everyone worked at Roissy,” he said. “After 9/11 we found ourselves in trouble with the police for nothing. If you get into trouble with the law, you can’t work at Roissy. So since 9/11 there’s more unemployment here.”
Other groups of people on the estate were eager to tell a similar story. One said, “We can’t get work at Roissy anymore. If you’re an Arab since 9/11, you’re a terrorist. You need a badge to work there.
“You have to go to the police station to get it. And what do you need to get the badge? To have never done anything in your youth. But if you’ve got white skin and don’t live in these areas you can work there.”
The government has been using the “war on terror” to whip up fears of an “Islamic threat” to French society.
In 2002 the media announced that a nuclear, bacteriological and chemical uniform had been found in the Seine-Saint-Denis area. It later turned out to be an industrial painter’s outfit. But in the same week a baggage handler at Roissy, Abderazak Besseghir, was arrested.
Weapons had been “found” in the boot of his car. He became public enemy number one — before being freed a few weeks later.
At around the same time 200 workers at Roissy had their accreditation badges revoked because they had criminal records.
In areas like Aulnay, the frustration is tangible at the injustice of being deprived the basic things in life — housing, employment, education — as is the indignity of being picked on by the police and targeted as potential terrorists.
But so too is the pride in the fact that a stand has been taken. Isaac from Saint-Denis put it this way:
“Sure there have been some excesses, but I agree with what’s happened. There’s been discontent and unrest here for a long time.
“I’m really happy that this has happened. I know that it’s not really going to last but at least we’ve made ourselves heard. At least they know there’s a problem.”
A line from a song by rap group NTM, who were arrested for incitement to violence against police in the early 1990s, was quoted to us several times during our time in Seine-Saint-Denis — “Repression will never bring you peace.”