Two years on

Little has changed since France’s deprived banlieue rose up.

Residents express themselves with anti-police graffiti

Two years ago, Clichy-sous-bois, a poor neighbourhood of Paris, was ablaze.

Then, hundreds of youths of immigrant origin clashed with police.

They were protesting against the deaths of two young men who were electrocuted in a power substation as they hid from police.

The youth of the “cités”, seething with the rage of unemployment and marginalisation, went on the rampage.

The government quickly declared a state of emergency in several departments to counter the worst riots in half a century.

Nicolas Sarkozy, interior minister at the time, chose a heavy-handed approach. He described the rioters as scum, and it added fuel to the fire.

Clichy-sous-bois is only 15km north of Paris, but it takes almost one and a half hours by public transport to get there. It is one of several mostly immigrant neighbourhoods known as the banlieue.

Here people live in apartment blocks known as HLM (low-rental housing project). Many call them the “cites-dortoirs”, or sleeping dormitories – the flats are too small and are used only for sleeping.

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First person: Remebering the riots

The French authorities have earmarked half a billion euros to modernise Clichy-sous-bois and neighbouring Montfermeil. The plan includes renovating and building new housing units. The first phase started last month.

“But it takes more than renovating,” says Vincent Gessere, who writes on immigrants and assimilation and is the author of The New Islamophobia.

“It takes changing the way people think,” he says.

Calm exterior

Clichy-sous-bois looked calm, a piece of the French countryside, when Al Jazeera visited. If it had not been for the anti-police graffiti, one could have been forgiven for not believing this was the town which made headlines around the world in October and November 2005.

Public transport in and out of
Clichy-sous-bois is not easy

Soufiane, 15, is typical of the “banlieusards”, as its inhabitants are called.

He walks with a swagger and when asked what has changed since the riots he will not answer, saying he was too young for politics then.

When Al Jaezera leaves, wishing him good luck, he responds: “What for? There is no life here to wish me good luck.”

In the Bois du Temple neighbourhood, it is a quiet weekend.

The paint of some buildings has come off – a combination humidity and neglect.

Three youths are sitting outside the entrance of a building. When they find out I am from Al Jazeera, they ask me not to take pictures of them. Here they have grown wary of journalists.

“They just talk about our violence, but no one cares about the police brutality,” one says.

The “keufs” (police) have received new American weapons, a resident named Samy claims.

“It paralyses the suspect and may cause a heart attack,” he adds, leaning on his bicycle. “Everyone is talking about our town. Even the Russians used the events to tell the world Chechnya is better off.”

France against the bled

Malek is of Algerian origin. He studies at the University of Paris and lives on campus. When asked where he comes from, he never names the town. He only refers to the region: Ile-de-France.

Police keep a low profile in the banlieue. They do not venture deep inside the neighbourhoods, but they are still aggressive, several residents told me.

Relatives of the dead boys mourn two years on [AFP]

The extreme right likes to claim that immigrants are rejecting French values. This might be true of the parents, but today’s youths have made their choice: France is their country.

“When I go to the bled, I am lost,” says Malek, using the word for homeland in the language of the French of North African origin. “My roots are here. Algeria is dear to me. It is, after all, the homeland of my parents, but France is my country.”

The 2005 riots were not against assimilation, says Gilles Keppel, a writer on the issues of Islam and the West. “On the contrary, the youth were fighting for it,” he said.

He recalls the dynamic the events created: Many of the youth participated in this year’s parliamentary elections. It was a first in the history of the Fifth Republic.

Conservative media in the US saw in the riots a “jihadist uprising”. FOX news wondered on July 11, 2005, if the riots were not the Great Ramadan Offensive. It was hosting a former secretary of state, Lawrence Eagleburger, who warned of a “very serious fifth column”.

“Islam had actually nothing to do with the riots,” said Keppel, who notes that a fatwa by the powerful Union of France’s Islamic Organisations, prohibiting burning cars, went unheeded.

You swear it is halal?

Most of France’s immigrants are Muslim. Marginalisation has made Islam for many in the suburbs a second identity, but without contradicting the country’s secular values. “We have to live with this culture,” said Malek.

A Muslim identity does not mean sticking to all of Islam’s rituals. It is quite common here to see the young people asking for food that is religiously permissible (halal) and making the grocer swear it is, and then asking for a bottle of beer, which is religiously prohibited.

For Gessere, the values of the banlieusards are French. Their consumer habits are French or global, and they see Islam through a French lens.

Some French political parties try to sign up candidates of immigrant origin, but the candidates are imposed from the Paris headquarters instead of being chosen locally.

Most of them fail. The parties’ leaders, says Gessere, are looking for the good Arab, the one they can control.

“Ca va péter encore,” concludes Samy. It will explode again.

Looking at the graffiti, it is hard not to agree.

Source: Al Jazeera

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