Fire in the underbelly

Written by Harsh Kapoor | Published on: December 1, 2005

The actors

The rioters (the ones who started it) were exclusively young males, mostly in their mid-teens. There were no leaders, no public statements, no words; just violence. CRS (Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité) paramilitary units were ranged opposite and the fire brigade doing its hazardous job with great difficulty.

Television helped markedly to spread the event. It had found high value programming content, other kids in other suburbs joined in solidarity thanks to TV, and this all-male night sport spread. It was a thing of contemporary culture: cell phones, SMS messaging, blogging and TV. These kids are fourth generation French and wear the baggy clothing of the American hip-hop era. Every night it would begin again, as local gangsters also piggybacked a ride. Lasting two weeks, some 10,000 cars belonging mostly to neighbours were burnt. Local public buses, warehouses, supermarkets, clinics, schools and police stations were main targets.


The backdrop of urban crisis and the culture of violence

The so-called difficult ‘cité’ neighbourhoods in France are more common in the suburbs than in the inner cities. They are the result of decades of a deliberate urban policy to concentrate working class families in well-defined districts away from city centres. The urban housing policy dates to the 1960s where low-income high-rise tower blocks emerged close to industrial areas. The life and world of suburbia remains socially distant from the bourgeois town centres. Many of these old tower block structures in the suburbs are now decrepit and have been left to decay, with the progressive retreat of the state from high maintenance costs. The social composition of the cité is essentially working class and lower middle class with a near 25-30 per cent unemployment rate. Near 36 per cent of high school dropouts are in the suburbs. Major problems concerning parental authority mark the daily life of families.

These cités have progressively become sites of violence (domestic, street and school) and degrading social tension e.g. forms of masculine rites of passage with a phoney clan-like category of ‘big/elder brothers’ or grands frères, ‘community’ gatekeepers exercising some form of social control on, for instance, what girls wear, who they see, etc. Similarly, acts of rage that seem to represent the metropolitan centre rather than the peripheral suburb are demonstrations of belonging to the cité.

The props are a subculture that seems to interconnect low-income suburbs across France via new metaphors of slang, dress and musical expression, even dance. The term racaille used by Sarkozy has long been used in the cités. In the rap group NTM’s line, "les cailleras sont dans la ville (the gangsters are in town)", racaille (scum) is converted to caillera (gangster) using the linguistic practice of inverting syllables to create new words (verlan). The figure of la racaille/caillera has emerged as an anti-hero of cité subculture. Within cités, those labelled as la racaille due to drug peddling are viewed with envious ambivalence for their success in the illegal parallel economies. When the dropouts find work, it is in the local parallel circuit.


Suspect citizens

Heavy policing is a conspicuous aspect of state intervention in the suburbs. All the money apparently saved by cutbacks in social spending in the poor areas has, it seems, mostly been redeployed for penal and policing functions. Security mania is the new mantra of the state.

The result is fear and hatred of the police due to daily police harassment that has gone on for too long. After September 11, there was a sort of militarisation of the cités – regular checks, the detention of countless suspected terrorists and the deportation of hundreds of undocumented immigrants.

Some 10 years ago the French filmmaker Mathieu Kassovitz powerfully depicted the alienation in France’s suburbs in his cult film, La Haine.

Through the eighties and nineties there were a series of urban riots, each marked by its own dominant practices and style e.g. stealing a car for a race in the neighbourhood and/or to use it to smash a shopfront and then steal the goods inside.

The big factors that led to urban violence 25 years ago are a sort of continuum of changes that started in the seventies: the beginnings of de-industrialisation, unemployment, the end of Fordist work and the emergence of fragmented subcontracted precarious informal labour mainly for unskilled workers, and social exclusion.