Members of Paris’s African community have been rioting in the streets of Paris for the past 9 days. The riots were triggered by the death of two youths of African descent, Bouna Traore, aged 15, and Zyed Benna, 17, were electrocuted at an electricity sub-station in Clichy-sous-Bois as they ran from the police. A third youth who escaped death, said they panicked and ran because they found themselves near the scene of a break-in incident where police began to arrive. The police deny any involvement in the boys’ death. It should be noted that these young people are not immigrants. Their grandparents and possibly their parents are but they are born in France and are French citizens. Constantly referring to them as "immigrants" is a problem in itself and reinforces their exclusion from mainstream French society.
The boys did not have criminal records, nor were they known to the police, so why did they run? The explanation given in Indymedia Paris by Laurent Levy is very plausible given the appalling racist record of the French police. They knew what would happen to them if they were stopped for an ID check. They would risk being detained and spending several hours being humiliated at the police station – you do not have to have much of an imagination to know the kind of taunts the boys would be subjected to. It was late and they wanted to get home where they were expected by their families. Levy also asks why the Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy had to say that this drama took place after a burglary attempt implying the boys were invovled or boys "like them": i.e. Africans and Arabs.
Following the death of the boys on Thursday there were two days of riots. On the Saturday community members in an attempt to calm the situation organised a silent march in memory of the teenagers. In the evening, some 150 young Africans met with the Mayor to discuss the events. The mayor talked about the cost of the damage but did not make any reference to the heavy handed policing. The youths became very angry at the police, the repression, the abusive language directed at their mothers, calling them sluts. The police began to arrive with flashballs (for shooting rubber bullets) and riot gear provoking the crowds. They then told the brother of one of the dead youths to go home. He took three steps towards the police who then began to fire tear gas at the crowd. The following day, about 8.30pm on Sunday evening there was another incident which took place around the local Mosque. By this time according to Netlex things had calmed down but it seems the police presence was heavy in the area. It is not clear what exactly happened but the police released tear gas grenades one of which landed in the local Mosque during prayers which was full of families. A panic followed as the building filled with smoke and people were crying and coughing and running. It is this incident that triggered the riots again and they have continued ever since spreading into a worsening situation and spreading to other French cities.
Tarik parle : «J'aimerais rappeler les faits, dit-il d'une voix posée.
Il y a eu énormément de comportements agressifs, d'insultes, vis-à-vis
des gens qui habitent ce quartier. Dimanche, il y avait des policiers
qui étaient là pour taper du bougnoule, il faut bien le dire. Il y a eu
des femmes insultées en sortant d'ici. Les policiers en sont venus à
tirer une grenade dans la mosquée. Et la violence est repartie.» Il conclut : «On
est dans un Etat, mais on ne sait pas si c'est un Etat de droit. Je
demande aussi un message du gouvernement pour nous rassurer.
Tarik said"I would like to remind you of the facts. There was a lot of aggressive behaviour and insults towards the people who live in this quarter. On Sunday there were police here who came for a fight. There were women who were insulted as they were leaving the mosque. The police came to throw a grenade in the Mosque and the violence started again. We are in a state (government) but I don't know if it is a state of rights. I am also asking the government to reassure us.
The riots are reminiscent of the inner city riots in England during the mid-1980s when racial tensions came to ahead and Black people in a number of inner cities took to the streets in running battles with police following arrests of Black youths. The reasons then are the same as the ones facing North and West Africans in France today; inferior education, lack of job opportunities, appalling housing conditions in run down estates (three arson related fires have taken place this year in properties lived in by West Africans) exclusion from the political process with no representation in government or in the police force; institutionalised racism, racist police who systematically harass young West and North African males; the criminalisation of wearing headscarves.
Senegalese blogger, SEMEtt ou l'étincelle noire explains how minorities feel in today's France (translated).
France has to get a grip of itself. It is becoming less and less a prized destination because of the increasing racism and the incongruous nationalisms and xenophobia. The bad treatment of Africans and minorities in general such as the fires in the buildings and expulsions from our point of view constitute violations of our human rights. This makes us look at the coup d'etat of the French National Front at the last elections as the symptom of the social explosion that is lying in wait for France.
In other words the two issues, first the abuse of people and secondly the popularity of Le Pen's Front National, when the two are put together you get what is happening in Paris and other French cities today – explosions of people.
The response of the Government has been to encourage the police's heavy handed methods of control including the use of arms. A video recording shown on Afrik.com shows what appears to be plain clothes policeman shooting at civilians on the streets of Paris. Their intransigent refusal to acknowledge the economic and social deprivation that ethnic minority communities face is further proof of France's failing race relations. Nicolas Sarkozy ( minister of the interior) has further inflamed the situation by describing the youths as "racaille" – scum.
en avez, assez, hein! Vous en avez assez de cette bande de racaille. On
va vous en debarrasser" (You have had enough eh! You have had enough
of these gangs of scum. We are going to get rid of them for you.)
adds that by borrowing the language of the extreme right to stigmatise
"the Scum" "le ministre ne joue-t-il pas les pompiers pyromanes?" – literally – "isn't the Minister playing at being an arsonist firefighter?"
One interesting factor emerging in the blogosphere and mainstream media is that references are now being made to "terrorists" "Islamists" and "fundamentalists". LittleGreenFootballs, makes reference to a report in an English speaking French paper, Expatica, that claims an "Algerian" group has called France "Enemy no.1".
"The only way to teach France to behave is jihad and the Islamic martyr," the group's leader Abu Mossab Abdelwadoud, also own as Abdelmalek Dourkdal, was quoted as saying in an Internet message earlier this month.
The report goes on to say that nine people arrested by the French police on Monday were supposedly part of this group – the GSPC (Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat).
Another blog, AndrewSullivan.com, has a report from the New York Post which concludes that
This is still a religious war: of fundamentalism versus secularism. And Chirac is discovering that no amount of appeasement can stave it off.
Palemtto Pundit continues with the references to "terrorists and islam". This kind of language is inflammatory and distracts from the root cause of the disaffection and marginalisation of ethnic communities in France.
One has to ask who benefits from spreading this kind of information when the reality is that the Muslim community leaders have themselves tried to calm the situation.
There will people out there who will say – nothing justifies the rioting and vandalisation that is taking place. Of course one could say that but I do not think it is particularly helpful or constructive as the rioting is happening and there are reasons why it is happening. What is taking place in France today has been brewing for the past 30 years. People and especially young people who are constantly and incessantly faced with racism and marginalistion in their daily lives whether on the streets of the US, Europe, Palestine, apartheid South Africa, or Bolivia will eventually take to the streets. The riots are the outcome of a culmination of experiences and incidents over a period of time, they are not simply happening in a vacuum of nothingness. France will have to face the reality of this otherwise it and Europe will sink into further violence as communities become even more polarised.