[URBANTH-L]NEWS: The Fight Against Urban Apartheid

Angela Jancius acjancius at ysu.edu
Wed Dec 14 20:51:18 EST 2005


Le Monde Diplomatique    December 2005

Dossier on France

The fight against urban apartheid 

The French government has used the recent unrest as an excuse to tighten up
on law and order. It has handed down prison sentences to hundreds of
youngsters, announced the deportation of several foreign nationals and
pushed a three-month extension of the state of emergency through parliament.
The interior minister now advocates other controls. But civic order cannot
be achieved in the midst of social disorder.

By Dominique Vidal 

For a powder keg to explode it needs powder and a fuse. Without the fuse,
the powder will not ignite. Without the powder, the fuse will fizzle out.
Recent events in the banlieues - the deprived districts around France's
cities - provide a simple demonstration of this.

If the interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, is to be France's next president
he must secure a lasting advantage over the prime minister, Dominique de
Villepin, and the rival leaders from the extreme right, Jean-Marie Le Pen
and Philippe de Villiers. So, in an attempt to demonstrate his fire-fighting
skills, he has resorted to arson. Some members of the police seized upon his
provocative language as a pretext to behave like a colonial army in deprived
areas whose inhabitants, though French, are of Arab or African origin.

"You can drive out nature," said Voltaire, "but it will return at the
gallop." This axiom was demonstrated by the decision to impose a curfew
based upon emergency legislation from 1955 that contributed to the massacres
of several dozen Algerians in the Paris area in October 1961, and of 19
Kanak activists in a cave in Ouvéa, in New Caledonia, in May 1988.

Sarkozy's call for sink estates to be power-cleansed of their "rabble" was
followed by two events in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, where two
teenage boys died in an electricity sub-station (1) and a teargas grenade
exploded outside a mosque. Certainly Sarkozy - who could have stopped things
right there if he had gone to the area to apologise - bears a huge
responsibility for ensuing events. But the attempt by Socialist leaders to
pin sole blame on him reeks of hypocrisy, since a year earlier the Cour des
Comptes, the state auditing body, had already pointed out that "the current
crisis was not caused by immigration. It is the result of the way in which
immigration has been handled . . . The situation that now confronts the
authorities has developed over a number of decades" (2). The concentration
within the banlieues of all the evils that afflict the working classes
epitomises the failure over 30 years of a succession of governments from
both the right and - with a few exceptions - the left.

Although some conspiracy-obsessed ideologues have claimed to detect the hand
of organised crime and Islamists behind the crisis, most observers insist
that the explosion was spontaneous. Serious crime, after all, prefers a
quiet world, and religious leaders tried to mediate - at least until
France's Muslim umbrella organisation, the Union des Organisations
Islamiques de France (UOIF), issued its bizarre fatwa against the violence
(3). Anyway, a few villains or a handful of Muslim "brothers" can hardly be
held responsible for the ghettoisation of more than 700 zones urbaines
sensibles (ZUS, government-designated problem areas) and their 5 million
inhabitants. As Laurent Bonelli points out (see page 2), it makes more sense
to attribute the recent violence to a process of urban apartheid - a stark
contradiction of the French integrationist model - and to the discrimination
and racism that afflict young Arabs and blacks. The smokescreen generated by
the controversy over Islamic headscarves has blown away, revealing a brutal

Point of intersection

The drama in Clichy-sous-Bois would have had less serious repercussions if
so-called problem areas had not found themselves at the point of
intersection of three major crises: social, post-colonial and concerning
political representation. These demand comprehensive solutions and the
abandonment of the neoliberal logic applied by the right - as previously by
much of the left.

This certainly explains why, when the vast majority of the political elite
rallied to the government's call for "order and justice", it had far more to
say about the former than the latter. But as calm returns, is anyone
prepared to address the crucial question of long-term solutions? If the
banlieues are to have any future, there must be reflection, debate and

"Integration" was a very seductive concept when it emerged during the 1980s.
Unlike "assimilation", it seemed capable of respecting the culture,
traditions, language and religion of France's new citizens. But it turned
out to be a trap. The failure of integration should have raised questions
about a society incapable of guaranteeing the equal rights and opportunities
of all its children, whatever their country of origin, creed or colour.
Instead the finger was pointed at youngsters from the banlieues, as if
accusing them of not making the effort to integrate.

It is a question not just of basic morality, but also of national interest.
The children of yesterday's immigrants and their descendants have little
chance of a decent life while they remain excluded from French society. And
the nation has equally little chance of surviving its current crisis if it
deprives itself of the support, energies and abilities of a tenth of its

Reducing the resources devoted to support and regeneration is
counter-productive. Since Jacques Chirac became president in 2002 the
banlieues have borne the brunt of budget cuts imposed in the sacred name of
the European stability pact. Rightwing governments have slashed credits for
renovating run-down housing, done away with hundreds of thousands of
temporary jobs for the young and posts as school assistants; reduced the
number of teachers and civil servants; hacked away at grants to voluntary
organisations; and sacrificed local policing to the creation of
rapid-response teams. The plan that De Villepin announced early in November
does no more than restore some of the credits eliminated by his predecessor,
Jean-Pierre Raffarin. And he used the opportunity to undermine the principle
of compulsory education up to the age of 16 introduced by De Gaulle in 1959.

Jekyll and Hyde

Otherwise, the only solution most of our politicians can come up with is to
make an offer to a small immigrant elite: social success in return for
keeping the rest of their communities in line. Nobody has presented this
argument better than Sarkozy, who has turned into a Jekyll-and-Hyde figure:
at once proponent of law and order, and man of change. Despite his current
hard-line stance, he previously opposed legislation that allowed French
courts to deport convicted immigrant offenders on their release from prison;
he supported the foundation in 2003 of the Conseil Français du Culte
Musulman (CFCM) to represent France's Muslim population; he sat on the fence
during the controversy over displaying symbols of religious identity in
schools; he favours positive discrimination and even granting immigrants the
right to vote in municipal elections. In comparison, the "secret" report
drawn up by the Socialists' immigration spokesman, Malek Boutih, looked so
reactionary that it had to be buried by party central office (4).

Even the smallest changes are welcome - provided they are constructive. One
example is the convention signed by the Institute of Political Studies
(Sciences-Po) in Paris and several high schools in education action zones.
There were dire warnings that students from the banlieues who were allowed
to bypass the competitive examinations wouldn't come up to scratch. But
these proved unfounded, and almost all of the students shone - although it
remains to be seen if they will do as well in the job market. The hopes
raised among high schools in deprived areas by the success of this
experiment have been further buoyed by the tutorial role adopted by some of
these "big brothers". The extension of minor reforms like this throughout
third-level education - on a social, rather than an ethnic basis - would be
a real breakthrough. But the potential impact should not be exaggerated
since it can affect only a few hundred students out of the million young
people in the ghettoes.

Half-measures will not satisfy the expectations of most of those living in
the banlieues. As Patrick Braouezec, the communist MP for Seine-Saint-Denis
(which includes Clichy-sous-Bois), has pointed out, these areas need
something like the Grenelle agreement that brought workers some gains after
the crisis of May 1968. A recent government report indicates that
unemployment and drop-out rates in ZUS areas are double the national
average; meanwhile taxable income is 40% lower, there are half the number of
medical facilities and crime is 50% higher (5). It is hard to do this
changing without radical and expensive reforms.

If we want to end ghettoisation we must speed up regeneration in poor areas
and encourage diversity in rich ones. But this will take tens of billions of
euros and the political will to implement new planning laws introduced to
promote urban renewal and combat social segregation. As Georges Monthron,
the rightwing deputy mayor of another Paris suburb, Argenteuil, put it
recently, "If we don't apply them . . . our towns and cities are going to
explode" (6).

Only significant material and human resources can reduce school drop-out
rates in the banlieues. The necessary campaign against unemployment demands
an enormous effort to create jobs in both the public and private sectors,
going far beyond the current zones franches urbaines (regeneration areas),
which have more to do with tax exemptions than with local job creation. It
doesn't cost much to fight verbal and physical racism and to combat
discrimination, but it does require an inflexible determination to work
against the grain of historical habits. We should debate all these
objectives and come up with concrete proposals.

We have to come together nationally to campaign for housing, schools, jobs
and public services. In particular, we must mobilise the estates themselves.
They have become political wastelands abandoned by the traditional left -
even the surviving bastions of the Communist party are more institutional
than active (7). Anti-globalisation has never caught on in these districts.
And two decades after 1983's milestone march for equality and against racism
and its recuperation by SOS Racisme, the autonomous movement remains
unstructured, deeply divided and cut off from the new generation.

In the absence of a political space where the aspirations of the young can
meet those of progressive forces, it is hardly surprising that the tragedy
in Clichy should have led to an outburst of violence against all the symbols
of ghettoisation. But these "peasants' revolts" are also directed against
the barriers erected by a state that has long been discredited at the ballot
box and in the streets.

This structural weakness is all the more serious because time is running
out. France's politicians must make the banlieues one of their main
priorities. If we delay necessary reforms we risk widening the abyss
separating the haves from the have-nots - of both immigrant and French
origin - who inhabit our ghettoes. The eventual result will be a low-level
guerrilla war that will be impossible to contain.

A few months ago, Tarek, one of the fortunate few chosen by the Sciences-Po,
issued a warning: "In the end they have to grant equal rights to the second
and third generations. Otherwise one day, in poor areas, Ma 6T va crack-er
(8) won't just be a film: it will be a terrifying reality" (9). The
countdown has begun.

(1) An inquiry has been set up to investigate the claim that the police were
chasing the two victims, Zyed and Bouna, when they entered the transformer
enclosure, and to determine whether senior officers, once they were
informed, did all they could to save them.
(2) See www.ccomptes.fr/Cour-des-compt es/pu...
(3) Le Monde, 7 November 2005. Did UOIF officials attribute the violence of
the rioters to the fact that they were Muslims?
(4) In particular, Boutih - a former president of the pressure group SOS
Racisme - proposed training courses in the country of origin before
emigration, the introduction of quotas, the ending of dual nationality and
the right to bring in family members, and the introduction of flexible
residence permits. The far-right National Front's newspaper France d'abord
(France First) applauded his "good sense" (13 May 2005).
(5) See www.ville.gouv.fr/index.htm
(6) Le Figaro, 4 November 2005. In the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine,
for example, council housing represents only 2.6% of the housing stock.
Since fines seem ineffective against towns that refuse to implement the loi
SRU (law on solidarity and urban renewal), perhaps their mayors should be
disqualified from holding office.
(7) See Olivier Masclet, La Gauche et les cités. Enquête sur un rendez-vous
manqué, La Dispute, Paris, 2003.
(8) A 1997 cult film directed by Jean-François Richet; produced by Actes
prolétariens and Why Not Productions.
(9) Le Mal-être Arabe. Enfants de la Colonisation, Agone, Marseille, 2005. 

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