Nicolas Sarkozy’s invective has focused on the “criminals” of France’s suburbs, and in particular the underground economy. But those we spoke to in Seine-Saint-Denis took a somewhat different view.
One young man reacted to the interior minister’s threat to “clean up the suburbs” particularly bluntly. “If Sarko comes for the underground economy, we’ll bring our guns onto the streets,” he said.
Like so much else that happens in the most impoverished areas of cities, the underground economy is produced as a direct consequence of urban deprivation shutting down the avenues normally available to those who want to make quick profits.
Yet the poorest areas are not separate from the rest of society. They simply feel all the contradictions of a capitalist economy more sharply — from the impact of neo-liberal policies to the fallout from 11 September 2001.
Communities in every town and village have sharks and opportunists. The only difference is that they are usually known as chancers, used car salesmen and politicians — whereas in the suburbs they’re labelled hustlers, hooligans, or criminal gangs.
Working life in the poorest areas is distorted by extremely precarious conditions. But temporary workers, the unemployed and those employed clandestinely all form part of France’s new working class. And precisely because the contradictions in society as a whole are felt more sharply in the poorest areas, the need for political organisation is much greater there.
One of the most incisive interventions made last week was by the footballer Lilian Thuram who grew up in the suburbs.
“When I hear that the suburbs need cleaning out with a power hose, I take it personally,” he said. “They used to say ‘You’re scum’ to me. But I’m not scum — all I wanted was to work.
“The violence is never gratuitous. We have to understand where things have gone wrong. Before talking about law and order we should perhaps talk about social justice. The youth often see footballers as their idols. That’s good. But they need other idols.”