Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité …and Racism –
France’s suburbs explode

— By Kalpana Wilson

In 1961, in the anti-colonial classic ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ based on his experiences in Algeria, Frantz Fanon described the ‘compartmentalisation’ of French colonial society along lines which were both economic and deeply racialised. Nearly half a century on, he could have been writing of cities in France itself in which the country’s black communities, French-born descendents of those who were invited to migrate from France’s colonies in Africa and the Caribbean in the post-war period, are condemned to live literally on the margins: in bleak housing estates ringing the outskirts of the cities, recently described as ‘open prisons’ where half the inhabitants are under 20 and employment is over 40%. While, as in its colonies, official French policy was one of ‘assimilation’ into French society, in practice communities have been kept segregated. But it is racism, endemic and institutionalised, which both perpetuates these conditions and is the single most important trigger for protest against them. In April, an Amnesty International report criticised the ‘generalised impunity’ granted the French police for their violent treatment of young men from African backgrounds during identity checks. As French – Algerian commentator Naima Bouteldja writes, the riots are ‘a fresh wave of the violence that has become common in suburban France over the past two decades…almost always sparked by the deaths of young black men at the hands of the police, and then inflamed by a contemptuous government response.’

For many it was the language of Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy which was the most provocative: in an attempt to win over the substantial far-right section of the electorate for his bid for the 2007 Presidency, Sarkozy called the rioters ‘vermin’ and ‘scum’ and said the suburbs needed ‘to be cleaned out with Karsher’ (a brand of industrial cleaner used to clean the mud off tractors). Sarkozy’s rival for the presidency, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin responded with a move which made explicit the continuities with colonialism: reviving a 1955 curfew law which was used to repress Algerian protests at the height of Algeria’s independence struggle.

Yet even more disturbing than these racist and repressive responses to urban unrest is the level of explicit racism considered acceptable in day-to-day French politics. Only a few years ago, President Jacques Chirac talked about North African ‘immigrants’ driving French families ‘mad’ with their ‘noise and smell’.

While the impact of such institutionalised racism coupled with unemployment and endemic poverty is easy to grasp, some on the left in India have been confused by France’s much-vaunted commitment to ‘secularism’. In the wake of France’s boycott of the US-led imperialist aggression in Iraq, last year’s ban on the wearing of hijab in French schools was viewed with cautious approval in some quarters. As far as imperialism is concerned, perhaps it goes without saying that (while contradictions with US capital may have led its government to take a progressive stand on Iraq) France has not only a colonial past but a thriving imperialist present, with its interventions on behalf of French multinational capital, in Africa and the Caribbean in particular, ranging from its military backing for the genocidal government in Rwanda in 1994 to collaborating with the US in the physical removal of the Haitian President Aristide in 2004 for his refusal to comply with the demands of the IMF. But what of France’s secularism? Leaving aside the fact that due to historical compromises with the dominant Catholic Church, France’s education system is in fact far more Christian than might be imagined, the 2004 ban on headscarves – and the resistance to it by young women – has to be understood in the context of the nature of racism in France.

With the majority of France’s black communities being Muslims from North and West Africa, the discourse of French racism was specifically anti-Muslim long before the ‘War on Terror’ was declared. This has of course only been reinforced by the rise of anti-Muslim racism on a global level (some right-wing commentators are now attempting to incorporate the current riots into a perceived global phenomenon of ‘Islamic terror’ – even though in reality political Islamic groups have few roots in the French suburbs, where what is being forged appears to be a very different political identity centred around being both black and French).

On a more general level, French notions of universal citizenship have meant that it is illegal to collect data based on ethnic origin, so that racism remains statistically invisible and it is therefore impossible to act against discrimination in employment, housing or by the police. This French notion of ‘integration’, officially defined as resting on ‘the refusal to distinguish citizens according to their origins and their particularities’, is currently drawing unfavourable comparisons with Britain’s ‘multicultural’ policies. It should not be forgotten however that these policies in Britain – including, for example, the setting up of the government-funded Commission for Racial Equality and laws against racial discrimination – were introduced in response to the concerted struggles by Britain’s black (primarily Caribbean and South Asian) communities from the 1950s onward, as well as Britain’s own riots of 1981 and 1985. In a clear parallel with the Indian state’s post-independence policies, multiculturalism was an attempt to incorporate a section of the oppressed groups into the establishment, and promote ‘community leaders’ representing the most reactionary elements within them. A similar phenomenon is visible in the context of the US where riots by African Americans in 1967 had a huge impact and signalled the beginning of the creation of a black middle class.

It remains to be seen whether the French state shifts towards the multicultural model, but as significant for those on the left as a comparison of these various capitalist strategies for containment and control are the strategies and forms of organising of the black communities themselves. Many factors – historical, economic, social –may explain why a concerted movement rooted in France’s black communities has not emerged till now. But with resistance to state racism and opposition to imperialism globally coming together to shape the consciousness of many of the youth of the banlieues, this may be set to change.