Fire in the underbelly

Written by Harsh Kapoor | Published on: December 1, 2005
A fresh look at the French riots of October-November 2005

A wide variety of oversimplified and often misplaced commentary has been made on the riots in France during October-November 2005. This piece is a telegraphic attempt to raise the hidden underside that has seemingly been missed by many.

First of all, the suggestions by some right wing commentators (including in India) that pointed fingers at politico-religious actors (read Islamists), or that these were racial or ethnic riots, have missed the boat. Sure, the religio-political actors are very visible on the social landscape, but these riots were ‘secular’ in content. Similarly, the bogey of ethnic segregation in France, as compared to the rest of Europe, is skewed. There is high propensity for mixed marriages in France (nearly 30 per cent among the North Africans) compared to just two per cent (among the Turks) in Germany or a comparably low figure (among South Asians) in the UK, which is peddled as the big ‘multikulti’ mecca. Despite big hiccups, France today is a fairly diverse place with a vast mosaic of mixtures.

Secondly, the more discerning (but rushed) view of the progressively inclined that pins the blame solely on the French model of universalism/secularism (however flawed) for social exclusion, class inequality and poverty also seems out of sync. The conditions for these exist in far sharply unequal contexts across the world, this isn’t a French speciality.

Thirdly, the Left dreamer belief that the poor underclass had rebelled and that revolution was around the corner, and that this was akin to the events of May 1968, belongs in a fool’s paradise. Sorry, there were no masses as participants. It was a minority who engaged in violence vis-à-vis the police. This was no structured movement, and based on alternative ideas.

The key perception is that this was a spontaneous reaction of despair and frustration which then took its own turn against the political elites.


The events

On the night of October 27, in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, two panicked teenagers, acting on the presumption that the police were after them, took refuge in an electricity network transformer and were accidentally electrocuted. This was a case of deaths driven by fear of the police rather than of direct police brutality. As often happens, rumour and fear did the job here too. The death of the youngsters provoked huge outrage. Kids took to the streets in the night and engaged in arson attacks. The second element, like fuel to fire, was the reaction to the choice terms used by Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s minister of the interior (and of religion). ‘Sarko’, as he is commonly known, a smart alec self-propelling bully who’d give anything to get on TV, called the rioters ‘racaille’ or ‘scum’ and said that he’d clean them out with a high pressure water cleaner.

This provocative language unleashed fresh rage from the young kids. The cat and mouse game between the kids and the police, hit-and-run arson attacks, had begun.