Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The flames of Villiers-le-Bel

There are sometimes in life when you would rather be proved wrong.

In September, for the Inter Press Service, I penned an article examining the state of the banlieues, as the impoverished suburbs that ring many French cities are known, two years after the deaths of two youths, Bouna Traore and Zyed Benna, electrocuted while trying to hide from the police. Following their deaths, rioting erupted around France that resulted in the torching of 9,000 cars and dozens of buildings, injuries to 130 police and firefighters, the arrests of nearly 2,900 people and the murder of retiree Jean-Jacques Le Chenadec, beaten to death by a hooded rioter after attempting to put out a fire near his home in a suburb north of Paris.

I visited the banlieue of Clinchy-sous-Bois, where Traore and Benna died and where the riots began, looking for evidence that the French governments of Jacques Chirac (in power at the time of the disturbances) and Nicolas Sarkozy (which took power in June) had taken any steps to address some of the stated causes of the social explosion, including dismal community-police relations and unemployment hovering around 20 percent, double the national average (the figure for 21-29-year-olds stands at more than 30 percent). I spoke to local residents, as well as to Fatima Hani and Mehdi Bigaderne of the Association Collectif Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, Ensemble (ACLEFEU), a community group formed in the wake of the 2005 unrest, and whose name is a pun on the phrase “enough fire.”

"The problems are just the same," Bigaderne told me at the time. "We see the same comportment of the police, the same discrimination, nothing has changed. The relations between the police and the citizens continue to be very, very negative. The big questions -- the question of work, the question of housing, the question of discrimination -- are still with us."

Now, following the death of two teenagers whose motorbike collided with a police car in the banlieue of Villiers-le-Bel, the days of violence appear to have returned. Last night, for the second night in a row since the accident occurred on Sunday, police battled hundreds of rioters, the sides squaring off with rubber bullets and tear gas, and petrol bombs, bottles filled with acid and baseball bats, respectively.

Nothing can excuse random and wanton violence such as the type that some of those taking to the streets in Villiers-le-Bel have engaged in, injuring over 50 police officers and burning automobiles that working people save for years to afford, buses which take them to their jobs and shops where they buy the necessities of life. But, in my travels around the world I am convinced that there is no more potentially lethal cocktail than that of large numbers of idle young men, without work or hope for the future. In Haiti and Jamaica, I have watched them be recruited as armed enforces by cynical politicians. In Guatemala and El Salvador, I have seen them seduced in the life of the maras, as the gangs in the region are known. In Brasil, I have seen them recruited from lives of dead-end poverty in the favelas into the three major drug cartels there, which provide a greater immediate financial reward but a perilously short lifespan. The conditions in France are far less desperate than in those places, but the sense of oppressive exclusion and isolation in the banlieues is a physical as well as psychological one. Cut off from the rest of France by poor transportation networks and badly served by governments that seem content to adopt an out-of-sight, out-of-mind policy, the banlieues only figure in the national discourse in times of trouble, such as the last two days.

Having previously denounced delinquents in the suburbs as racaille (rabble), and vowing to clean them out with a kärcher (a high-pressure hose), France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, came to office promising reforms that would address the joblessness and discrimination that many see as the root of the malaise, and is supposedly set to outline a plan to address this inequity next month. But so far, there has been precious little change in the lives of the people, particularly the youth, in France’s suburbs. They remain as excluded as ever from the life of wider French society and little, if any, attempt to ameliorate their situation has been evident in my visits to the neighborhoods since Sarkozy took office. Speaking to reporters on a state visit to China, Sarkozy asked that "all sides to calm down and for the judiciary to decide who bears responsibility" for the incident involving the teenagers.

Staggering from crisis to crisis, which characterized the administration of Sarkozy’s predecessor Jacques Chirac, is not a policy. As long as the underlying causes of idleness and hopelessness remain, all the mano firma rhetoric in the world will only serve as an imprecise extinguisher of scattered embers of a larger fire. If the French government and, more broadly, France’s political class as whole, is serious about addressing the problems of the banlieues, now, not tomorrow and not next year, is the time for them to put aside their solipsistic, internecine quarrels and focus squarely on bringing job opportunities to and ending the isolation of the suburbs. Otherwise France will be destined to repeat this destructive dance time and again, the stakes and the damage and the mistrust growing more grave and dire all the while.

The vast majority of people in the banlieues, the non-violent people who struggle daily to make ends meet and to find work and to support their families, deserve better than France’s politicians have given them thus far. Likewise, France’s politicians can no longer claims that they are ignorant of the need for action. I hope there is no need for any more wake up calls.

No comments: