“Dead for nothing” read the t-shirts of mourners the morning after two boys were killed in a ghettoized banlieue suburb of Paris on Oct. 27. The two boys, part of the vast communities of sans-papiers in France, had been playing soccer with friends and fled when police began conducting a raid to check for IDs. These immigrants and the children of immigrants, many from North Africa, provide critical support for the French economy not unlike undocumented migrants from Latin America in the United States. The boys and a third friend had hid in an electrical transformer building and were electrocuted.
The mayor of Clichy-sous-Bois called for an inquiry into the deaths of the boys, and members of the Muslim community appealed for calm as they entered Lailat ul-Qadr, the “Night of Destiny” and one of the most important parts of the month of Ramadan.
Yet while many members of the community were at worship, the streets of Cité du Chêne Pointu began filling with riot police and gendarmes. French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy (a future presidential candidate who wants to appear “tough on crime”), without any contacts in the Muslim community, believed violence was imminent — despite the fact that Muslim leaders had explicitly sought help in reducing tension.
On Sunday, French police teargassed a women’s prayer room at de Bousquets masjid. As worshippers fled the building, police officers taunted the women, calling them “whores” and “bitches.” The reason for the teargassing? The Guardian explains:
Four days after the deaths in Clichy-sous-Bois, just as community leaders were beginning to calm the situation, the security forces reignited the fire by emptying teargas canisters inside a mosque. The official reason for the police action: a badly parked car in front of it. The government refuses to offer any apology to the Muslim community.
Thus the source of the rage that has since spread through dozens of French communities and surfaced in Belgium and Germany as well — not Muslim fanatics who refused to “become French” or lazy vagabonds who preferred to torch cars than find employment, but a systematic program of repression that, in the name of promoting order, ignored basic human rights and inflamed smoldering discontent.
Clash of civilizations?
Righteous and racist commentators in both France and elsewhere quickly declared a “French intifada,” building on years of fearmongering around Samuel Huntington’s 1993 essay asserting that Islam and the West were fundamentally at war and could never reconcile. Policies of multiculturalism were no more than appeasement of the enemy, they crowed, and immigration policies must be quickly reformed to keep out those who would never be able to “Europeanize.”
The funny thing about the Paris riots, however, is that only about half of the rioters are actually Muslim or people of color — at least as many are “white, working-class, post-Christian French,” according to a Philadelphia Inquirer column. Journalist Gwynne Dyer explains:
The real problem is not the failure of multiculturalism. The Paris riots are actually a splendid demonstration of the successful integration of immigrants into French culture (which has, after all, a long tradition of insurrection and revolution). The Paris riots are not a Muslim uprising. They are not even race riots. They are outbursts of resentment and frustration by the marginalized and the unemployed of every ethnic group.
The repression of immigrants and working-class residents of les banlieues had demonstrated that structural violence will breed direct violence: oppression leads to militancy. The French government could hardly be unaware of this pattern, given their ruthlessly brutal and failed campaign in Algeria. Nonetheless, they recognize “radical Islam” as an effective rallying cry for the supremacy of “law and order.” Yet as The Washington Post notes in the midst of a riot in Toulouse:
No Islamic-based grievance was evident in the crowd Tuesday. There were no imams, no beards, no chants about the Koran. A cluster of wiry boys scoffed at the notion of a radical Islamic plot to destabilize France.
Making rioting irrational
The French politicians want to stop the current violence and prevent future violence. Clearly, upping the enforcement or passing anti-terrorism laws won’t accomplish this — the strong-arm tactics of the French police were the catalyst for the violence in the first place.
But why did these individuals respond with violence at all? Why not attempt to gain rights and respect through the democratic process?
Right-wing commentators assert that the rioters (who they see as monolithically Muslim) are pathologically opposed to participation in Western democracies. They see the riots as growing out of an irrational, extremist religion that prohibits any integration with the public sphere.
This argument is based in the classic understanding of riots as “mass hysteria.” Yet a quick history of riots in the United States shows that in some cases, violence is the most reasonable — if not the most humanistic — response to systematic oppression.
As Detroit residents confronted soaring unemployment and continuing capital flight from their city in 1967, for example, they might be forgiven for looking west to the Watts riot in Los Angeles. After that conflagration, politicians who initially took a “law and order” stance ultimately initiated policies of redevelopment and reconciliation, because fears of recurring violence began to outweigh political expediency. Los Angeles leaders did not, by any means, solve deep-seated issues of racism and economic inequity, but they did begin to address them with substantive policies. When Detroit exploded in its own riot, it unquestionably put pressure on politicians to enact civil rights legislation and shore up a growing economic meltdown.
Again, I’m not suggesting that riots are an ethical response, but I am arguing that they may be a rational one for people who have no other means for achieving change.
Consider Detroit. Black residents were systematically shut out from democratic politics, had not swayed elite opinion among the ruling white class and were facing a massive process of deindustrialization sweeping the city. (As Thomas Sugrue memorably writes in the opening pages of his book The Origins of the Urban Crisis, where great factories once stood there were now fields of grass and flocks of pheasants.) Black Detroiters had no allies, no access and no way forward.
A nearly identical process had taken place in Harlem in the first part of the century. Riots in the 1920s often involved both Black and white factory workers, and Black residents enjoyed a limited amount of political access both directly, through voting, and as a result of allies in the labor movement. By 1935, Blacks had essentially been shut out of the political process and, having no other means for addressing their grievances, they rioted. While the uprisings in France are motivated less by race than by economic oppression, the democratic exclusion is strikingly similar.
Making nonviolence possible
John F. Kennedy famously said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Nowhere is this more true than in looking at structural oppression in France. French North Africans — citizens, workers with permits and sans-papiers — have for years suffered from explicit and implicit racism. The white French working-class, meanwhile, has been shut out of job opportunities, and often makes common cause with Muslim and Black residents in the French ghettos where unemployment runs as much as four times the national average of 10 percent. With no support from the supposed “welfare state” and no prospects for employment in the high-tech hipster economy, collective solidarity — and violence — seems increasingly attractive.
The attitudes of French politicians — virtually none of whom are North African or working-class — is either to ignore these communities entirely or to brandish them collectively as pathological. Years of organizing within les banlieues to provide for health, education and welfare achieved little in terms of larger gains or reforms within the political system. The Western media and French elite paid no attention to the various nonviolent social movements beyond an occasional granting of “temporary status” and continued to deny immigrants any representation politically, culturally or economically. The Paris riots, like in 1967 Detroit and 1943 Harlem, were a rational response to a situation in which no other form of power could be exercised.
Let me say this again: Had French society allowed for nonviolent social movements to form and flourish, violence would have seemed politically inefficient. Because immigrants and the working-class are so effectively shut out of French society, they have no other way to effect change than to violently demand it.
In 1969, labor organizer César Chávez wrote:
We advocate militant nonviolence as our means for social revolution and to achieve justice for our people, but we are not blind or deaf to the desperate and moody winds of human frustration, impatience and rage that blow among us. Gandhi himself admitted that if his only choice were cowardice or violence, he would choose violence. Men are not angels, and time and tide wait for no man.
The fire next time
Where does France go from here? In the short-term, French politicians must institute new programs that benefit those systematically excluded from the French economy and society. They must own up to their own racist policies that exclude Black and Muslim French from all but the most token levels in the government and media. And they must follow through on the Clichy mayor’s original request to fully investigate the incident in which the two boys died. This must include dialogue between the police force and the community, and leaders must be willing to consider changes to the policing system if it becomes clear that it is producing more violence than it is stopping. The French government has for too long ignored its own people due to their ethnic and economic standing; if it hopes to move beyond this crisis it must learn how to listen.
In the long term, the French government and the white French must be willing to give substantive political power to people from these communities. Such a policy — enabling democratic politics in order to marginalize violence — is an approach wholeheartedly undertaken by the United States military in Iraq, and there is no reason it wouldn’t work in France as well. It will quickly delegitimize violence, give all French a stake in stability (rather than continuing a status quo in which a large minority is structurally oppressed) and help guard against future violence — something no law enforcement policy will ever accomplish as successfully.
Finally, the French government must finally address the elephant in the room and acknowledge both its reliance on the sans-papiers supporting the French economy and its refusal to grant them citizenship. Some program allowing for amnesty, worker rights or, eventually, full citizenship must ultimately be instituted. The French fantasy of a nation of white French — “la France pour les français,” in Jean-Marie Le Pen’s rallying cry — must bow to the reality of a multiethnic French society.
Citizenship must no longer be a white preserve — nor should the French government continue its policies of “color-blindness” when such blatant structural inequities exist. Indeed, no hard data are actually available on racial discrimination and exclusion in France because no data on race or citizenship are even kept. France must confront its racism rather than pretending racism no longer exists.