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 French Suburbia 2005: The Return of the Political Unrecognised
 Rada Ivekovic
 December 3, 2005

As Alessandro Dal Lago wrote recently ("Rogo d’Europa", il manifesto 28-10-2005), "it is just the beginning". It concerns Europe. It is only a warning. Angry desolate French males in the depressing suburbia and some city centres have vandalised public or private property, burnt thousands of cars, scorched schools and kindergartens, terrorised their neighbours, public opinion and the well meaning universalist France de souche. Triggered but not caused by the (not so) accidental death of two boys fleeing the police (as they are constantly confronted for identity checks), the violence is inevitably perceived by the mainstream protectionist discourse, unwilling to catch its political gist, as blind and irrational. Those rioters and their movement are the symptom of a very serious malaise. To one coming from the former Yugoslavia, the French events and situation is reminiscent of unpleasant recent memories, toute proportion gardée. There, like here, since the fatal series of wars (I am leaving aside their history and complex reasons)—which, far from being caused by ethnicised identities, had produced them—it has become impossible to claim multiple belongings and crossed identities. Here like there and elsewhere, from a point in time on, which becomes a landmark, you cannot be anymore both a Hutu and a Tutsi, or you have to perish. And this becomes a process.

The "unexpected" appearance of suddenly visible revolted bodies and of their direct, unmediated violent action beyond language cannot at all be received as carrying political claims within the existing public space. It is a wild demand to topple the existing hegemony and replace it with a new, a just one. The riots were neither communal nor ethnic, nor organised by leaders; no political project came from the rioters who have no representatives, and the ruling class, who predictably tried to speak to some imams, can consider themselves lucky so far. But there is a difference between luck and intelligence. We should not be induced to believe that the problem is not political and also class based. Before the debate about what has happened and what should be done ended, while neither the left nor the right have any political solutions to give, the riots died down. If there are no new riots soon, France will forget again its suburbia, and a very strong additional right wing and repressive turn will have been taken, having its effects also in Europe. The repressive move is impressive and unmistakable, and it gives excellent chances to the current interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who positions himself to the right of Chirac and Villepin, not that the latter had anything better to offer. He emerges winning from this episode with his chances for the presidentials boosted, shifting the whole political scene more to the right and comforting significantly the extreme right, whose policies he is introducing, together with a bitter taste of the return of colonial policy.

There is no significant political left in France, especially not on these issues, which homogenised the French republican nationalist and xenophobic feeling. When the government reactivated the law about the state of emergency, passed during the Algerian war in 1955, the French learnt that colonial legislation had never been abrogated. It is no surprise, since, after what was felt as an amputation (Algerian independence), there has never been a renegotiating of a new social and political project for postcolonial France. There has never been the acknowledgement of a historic defeat of France, maybe because it was not really accompanied by a definitive historical defeat of colonialism in international relations, in spite of the independentist enthusiasm of the sixties. And, as Günter Grass remarked (concerning Germany, but it seems to be a general truth), "c’est peut-être une ironie de l’histoire que l’on n’arrive à une analyse de son propre comportement que grâce à une défaite […] totale" ("La littérature, un antipoison contre l’oubli", Le Monde, 7-12-2005). It makes us think that France still needs to be decolonised, and Europe too. All the colonial generals still have their avenues in Paris, and history teachers have recently been asked to stress the "positive aspects of colonisation". The emergency law has now been extended for 3 months although the riots have receded. Even during the Algerian war it had never been applied to metropolitan France; it had really been used only once since, in 1984 in Nouvelle Calédonie, again an "extra metropolitan" French territory. Exceptions are thus being introduced all the more inside the country, as so many new borders. This is where and why the French "troubles" meet the current phenomena in the making of Europe through closure and refusal to face its historic, colonial and other, responsibility: the fires in several cheap hotels and dormitories where undocumented foreigners or simply foreigners from former colonies died during the summer of 2005 in France, their subsequent violent expulsion by the police everyone could witness on TV (the Abbé-Pierre Foundation and others have shown that kicking out the squatters regularly opens excellent business opportunities for real estate dealers), the flames at Schiphol airport on October 27, 2005, where 11 asylum seekers or "illegal immigrants" burned to death, the tragic events at Ceuta and Melilla, the Fence being built there, the horrible conditions at Lampedusa, all the unfortunate would–be immigrants drowned in the Mediterranean in undeniably by now great numbers and on a regular basis, the endless refoulements, the invisible detension/retension centres for the undocumented, the racist incidents in the Netherlands, the aggressions against homes for foreign workers or immigrants in Germany over the years, the exportation of European borders into neighbouring candidate countries as buffer zones policing for us, whose price it is for accession to Europe; the now regular and mainstream criminalisation of international migration of the poor and militarization of the police methods concerning the poor, the migrants, foreigners. But it is also where the French riots meet, in a broader sense, such cases as Guantanamo—extra-constitutional exceptions on a larger scale where political action is bypassed. There is certainly a continuity between the exceptionality of colonies (colonies are extra-constitutional per definitionem) and the generalisation of exception today in terms of internal and international "security". But what if the exceptions become the rule, thanks to that continuity? After all the 17 October 1961 in Paris, when an undetermined but great number of peaceful Algerian demonstrators were killed has not been forgotten by all, as well as 1988, when independentist activists were killed in Nouvelle Calédonie. Not to mention earlier events of many documented massacres more directly linked with colonisation and decolonisation.

Treating the causes would give results only in the long run. It is urgent to stop the disorder, so police have been sent in in impressive numbers, and cases have been witnessed by TV watchers of their brutality beyond what is tolerated in peace or in other neighbourhoods. One policeman had been put under arrest for excessive brutality but was soon released, under the pressure of the police union. There are measures to put off the fire while not cutting off the gas: substantially, no serious long term solutions are envisaged, the reaction of the government is purely repressive and treating only the consequences of the riots. Apprenticeship at the age of 14 is introduced for the banlieues instead of 16, which means cutting for the concerned the obligatory general schooling until age16, and deepening a class fracture. Also, government promised that three times more scholarships would be given to those neighbourhoods (what is 3X0 anyway?). The rest, besides the emergency law which meant curfew for youngsters in some 5-8 communes and didn’t prevent the riots: immediate appearance of the rioters in the tribunals was introduced and judgement passed; punishing the parents for not controlling the minors (of course, the demise of parental authority has to do with those parents having no jobs and integration having not worked for them, but the state will not consider itself responsible), cutting aid to families having a rioting son (a sort of collective punishment), expulsion from France of any foreigners in the affair without access to a lawyer, which also amounts to double penalty, all these are some of the new measures. Chirac introduces a voluntary civil service for 50000 suburban youths over the next two years. Texts of rap singers—supposed thereby as a matter of principle to be suggesting violence—will be controlled! Censored?! Unspecified aid would be given to neighbourhood associations formerly not listened to, the same ones which have been warning for years and had been the only ones in the field. No prevention programme, let alone long term social programmes. The police themselves have been spoiled of a possible preventive action, the police de proximité have been discontinued, and officers see in advancebanlieue youngsters exclusively as troublemakers and probable criminals to be checked for their identity. What do those boys, in a grave adolescence crisis, react to? They and their parents have no jobs, their habitat is pitiable, the neighbourhood ugly, the suburban schools are poor if existing, transportation to the city centre is too expensive and in any case bad and insufficient. Besides a supermarket there may be nothing at all in the neighbourhood. Dealers and racketeers are all around, the police are the only aspect of the state they have ever seen, they have no vision of a future, no chance to get integrated. They can tell the difference. Calling it "dignity" and asking less than their due because they have no language that can be heard, those boys are unwittingly actually fighting for the possibility to be listened to politically. They want access to the citizenship promised them by the universalist horizon of the Constitution and by the Declaration of the rights of man and citizen, but refused them by the practice of that same universalism.

Citizenship (in a full, and thus wider sense) is also the aim of many legal and most clandestine immigrants into Europe, and it is necessary to see the connection between the two, between trespassing the inner and the outer border, both in relation to history. All this makes those boys wild, unfit for articulating properly their claims should they have access to public space (and they don’t have it), and provokes ever more racist reactions. They affront the "good society" and are the new dangerous classes. Both sides are intolerant, but for different reasons. Those neighbourhoods, however, are mixed "ethnically", and this is why the revolt has not expressed itself at all along communal lines or religious lines, indeed, some labels of sexist but non racial solidarity "black-blanc-beur" ("black-white-arab") have appeared. Of course the government "worry" and wish it may take a religious form; worry, because that would link the inner borders and violence to the outer and international ones, and it would make things much worse. But the authorities also ethnicise the conflict themselves. An "ethnic" dimension has been completely avoided this time, but not thanks to any intelligent action of the authorities. It may happen soon enough however. The rupture is economic, social, racial, class articulated and in that sense also indirectly yet very fundamentally political. But nationalistic public opinion, much of the media, the political class, have been irresponsibly trying all these days to construct the unrest as a communal and religious one, and to identify the rioters as only north African or Muslim, which they are not. Most of them have been French for one or several generations: for how long will they be considered immigrants? As for their parents’ origins, they are very diverse. Nationalistic public opinion is boosted in pointing to immigration as being the cause of their and all French misfortunes. The riots are welcomed by a xenophobic public. A conservative public discourse uses the case of the riots to corroborate and justify the recent French refusal of the European Constitution, taking it as a proof that it was the right thing to do. They are also the occasion, as well as the antiterrorist discourse and the securitarian blueprint, for the legitimating of a rampant and unmistakable general liquidation of public and individual liberties. Civic freedom is indeed generally jeopardised by a "war on terrorism", or, in Bush’s inverted semantics, by a "war on terror", which is also a good occasion for the criminalisation of ever new categories of people who thereby are made de facto non-citizen.

A tendentious policy war has been going on in the off between the French or the British and USA models of integration or of treating recent and former immigrants or distinct communities. It is obvious that they all have their very serious limits, all are insufficient for distinct reasons and in the context of different histories, and none can be said to be better: each society and political system produce their own inner and outer exclusions and "exceptionalisms" while pretending not to. It is also this planetary mechanism that should worry us in the not so long run, as well as in the construction of Europe. Such insurrectional episodes are likely to become more frequent everywhere. In France, there is no willingness on the part of the political class, of the Right, but also on the part of the Left or on that of a big chunk of the population, to face these problems. This indifference will last as long as there are banlieues out of sight where the problem can be dumped. It is likely to be addressed when the latter progress towards the city centres. As is often the case in France, public opinion still seems to believe that you can solve such problems through a formal, legalist approach, by creating new laws or by simply reshuffling old ones. New bill proposals rain on us, while comforting at the same time, with the pretext of limiting immigration, of maintaining security, the principle of laïcité, the "antiterrorist" state imperative as well as the criminalisation of different groups. All this becomes blurred in one, while liberties are cut and social welfare is cut at the same time as a general tendency. There is not much opposition to all this with the parties or the population of mainland France. A debate has however been opened, and will certainly grow now, by the article 4 of the 23 February 2005 law, which enjoins teachers to lecture on "the positive aspects of the French presence in North Africa" (this amendment was added and passed without the socialists opposing it). But the general impression is that of the sphere of politics being more and more openly converted into a dimension defined by the police and by police action. The violence of the state is not an issue.

Let’s have a look at the gender structure of the rioters: only boys, under age or just of age. Very macho boys, deprived of any material or language capital, of any material goods or instruments. Very good to confirm that the enemy’s women can be assimilated when they behave nicely, and when it is useful to some other purpose. We should do well to remember that in 2002 the girls of the same French suburbia had also irrupted in public with their own claims. As much as the boys, those girls were a symptom of the same malaise, only to them some public space was given since it could be used for other purposes too by power structures. As a result, the girls could articulate, and were helped, unlike the boys, to articulate their grievances. Some of the girls’ important demands are shared with those of the boys no doubt, but there is also an important additional one—gender justice and the end of bullying by the brothers, fathers, community and by a male culture, the end of violence against women, the end of gang rapes (fairly widespread in the suburbia) and constant humiliations. Let it be clear: the claims of these girls and women were irreproachable on both counts, both the universal and the particular (gender) one. Their diagnosis too. Those girls went on a march around France, gained considerable national audience, also quite some sympathy, created the movement "Ni putes ni soumises" ("Neither whores, nor submissive") and were important both symbolically as well as in raising their issues (universal and particular), opening important debates about conditions and culture in the suburbia, about the condition of women. In spite of this, they eventually became established and finally became recuperated by Socialist Republicanism and by the anti-"communitarian" Franco-French nationalist discourse both left and right, though mainly on the left (by the socialists). This is not so much these girls’ mistake, as it is the perverse functioning of mainstream ideas, securitarian consensus and power. The general depoliticising power, which functions as much through the state as it does through the parties, through civil society and through the general consensual mood and the "dialogue of cultures" ("dialogue des cultures") idea, operates through opposing groups of the population to each other wherever it can. The girls’ were also bodies irrupted on the scene which stunned the public. They were soon to be used in the anti-scarf hysteria of republican laïcité (the result of which is exclusion by law of the supposed victims of veiling including the collateral damage, which came handy to "prove" the impartiality of law, of some inturbaned Sikhs evicted from school). Ni putes ni soumises were mainly used to segregate the new dangerous classes, to separate the good from the bad grain. They were supported against the newly constructed Muslim fundamentalism, against a no doubt existing terrible and violent macho culture not only in those neighbourhoods; support for the girls against the boys (although the reasons they have, and every women has, to resist macho culture, can only be recognised) was used to depoliticise the problems.

A new inner enemy is needed and is under construction. Women are traditionally domesticated and considered as domesticable. As we know from experience with the law passed last year prohibiting "ostentatious religious signs" and in particular the "Muslim" headscarf in school by under age girls, but as we know also from any colonial experience and, for that matter, from any nation-building process, the gender stake and women themselves can be raised at any time against dangerous classes, whichever these be, because of the women’s double-bind position. The gender question is an instrument in achieving other political aims than redressing gender justice, though there may also be a side effect on the latter. It is not surprising, therefore, that there should be no significant reaction to the recent riots by the movement Ni putes ni soumises. Or not yet. They, as much as the riots, represent two sides of one and the same medal: there is an incompossibility for them to be seen as interlocutors at the same level, now that the boys are criminalised. This incompossibility, though certainly also internal to the configuration due to the amount of violence, and not only outwardly constructed, is orchestrated, supported and framed by the French political culture, by its incapacity to integrate a population long immigrated and to which it has a historic responsibility, and by its unwillingness to adapt its long insufficient republican principles to post-colonial and post 1989 conditions. The French context of the existing public space should facilitate a debate also between those two expressions of a shared malaise and some other ones too (they are not the only ones here). But that will not happen: associations, NGOs may be doing it in the quartiers, but it will not catch the public eye which prefers a fractured to a compact dangerous class. It needs to be said that the gender fracture is of course very profound and that it really exists, and that the distress and also the courage of the suburbia girls can only be praised. There is no tradition, and also the unwillingness of most males, to think of the gender question as political. Yet it is. It appears as the first partage de la raison which comes "naturally" even before thinking. The gender fracture persists not only in the suburbia, it is everywhere in French society. It is for everyone to see how few women there are in Parliament, in the political class, in leadership or shared responsibilities of any kind, in the governing body of the CNRS (Centre national pour la recherche scientifique) etc.

Why are there no post-colonial studies in France? There is research and there are riots. But in between, no public debate so far, yet an imminent and painful one to come certainly. And a necessary one, in order for the country to re-found itself from a new beginning, after self-examination. Indian historians, to make a comparison, started the critical school of Subaltern Studies called after the series of books they produced in the eighties. For that, an incubation of a few decades after the independence of the forties had been needed. They were helped by the already twenty year old second-wave of 20th century independencies of the sixties, by feminist movements and studies, by critical Marxism, by the deceptions due to independent governments, by third-worldism etc. They dared three critiques: a critical re-reading of colonial and post-colonial history, a re-reading of Marxism (mainly Gramscian and reinterpreted), and a critique of the nationalist liberation movement. These ideas circulated through the English language (and languages that have bridges to it, which excludes French) via US universities, became Post colonial Studies embedded into Cultural Studies and were globalised thanks to the globalisation of English. French is not a global language. For one thing it never received, circulated, and could not appreciate or take note of post-colonial concepts or studies—because, being globalised and diversified, these exceeded the French language and culture. Post-colonial studies spread North-South having received a lot of important input from the South. Whatever one may think of them (with drawbacks or advantages) or of the globalisation of and through the English language, these are already a global fact, a fait accompli. The feeble counter-idea of Francophonie, pleading for universalism, can paradoxically only be unveiled as a narrow provincial particularism here. Historically, one might go back and compare the Algerian contribution (French language, over France) and the Indian one (English language, over Great Britain) to a contemporary globalised culture starting with the end of colonisation. There was a war of independence in Algeria, whereas the British had left South Asia with some panache, through an act of partition it is true, but nevertheless after having built elites and institutions there, and handed them over in a sort of devolution once it became too expensive for them to keep the colony. This does not mean that British colonialism was less cruel. Indian intellectuals addressed their own as well as the British, USA and world public in a globalised language that they had adopted making it one of the Indian languages. Thanks to that language, they had direct access to US universities and an international public space, which was not to be the case for Algerian intellectuals for several reasons. The latter did not share with the French a globalised French language—which would have meant also a language accessible round the world. Moreover, Algeria turned to the Arabisation of its public education, losing even a partially international tool for generations to come. That, added to the fact that, due to the inexistence (or limits) of citizenship for Algerians or of home rule in French Algeria, due to the violence of war and the resulting lack of democracy within the FLN , there was no Algerian elite significant in numbers and with access to publicity challenging and critiquing the French state and intellectuals or the domestic liberation movement. The French got away with it and the post-colonial question is re-emerging only now. The British too got away with a self-critique and an analysis of colonial history, but for different reasons: their debate was diluted and defused (désamorcée) in its transiting through US campuses and through globalised post-colonial studies. One could certainly ask the twin question: "why are there no post-colonial studies in France?") to: why are there post-colonial studies" in the USA? The peculiar anti-colonial Wilsonian orientation, in a new post WWI 20th century international perspective, and in a package with "national security", produced the doctrine of "self-determination", of which the USA made itself the champion. Also, in the US culture, whatever is promoted to a "PC" status gets its public recognition as an academic discipline, as the moralising of public life which replaces positing the question in political terms. It is the reverse of the French laïcité. This is not at all the case in France, where academic disciplines have been defined and introduced by the Ministry of Education and by the Conseil national des universités practically once and for all. (Which is one of the reasons for the stagnation of scholarship in France, but that is another story.) The USA declared itself the champion of decolonisation, itself a former colony decolonised in earlier times when decolonisation had not been achieved by the people or the population (in spite of "We, the people…") but through the latter’s previous elimination, the elimination of the American Indians and the non recognition of the African Americans. The historic link between the doctrine of self-determination and of national security is now there for everyone to see. Both the US promotion of PC public issues with corresponding academic disciplines, as well as the French utmost laicisation, have, through different approaches, the effect of depoliticizing political issues unrecognised. Post-colonial studies in English speaking universities, but mainly because of the US international agenda, defused and depoliticised colonial historic questions. Nothing of the sort defused that topic for France, whereas the earlier republican concept of laïcité was no instrument for the new (post-colonial) political configuration. The Algerian war was how France managed the direct and first problem of (de)colonisation, and latent conflict through the non-integration of colonial immigrants and a brutal treatment of the poor and the plebs (out of which many, but not all, are immigrants) was how it managed the follow-up. This peculiar French type of secularism was conceived from a Christian and basically Catholic platform, completely unprepared for other religions or political configurations as well for decolonisation which were to appear later. The problem has much less to do with current immigration than with the non-digested colonial past which is at the basis of the construction of the national state as well as of historic capitalism. After all, it all finished in a bloodbath experienced as an amputation of the French motherland (or so was it felt by the French nationalists), and there was never a re-foundation on a new basis, a new beginning, or a project of a postcolonial French and European society. The process may not be finished, as we hear that even the soft spoken Aimé Césaire in Martinique refused to talk to Sarkozy. This is what the USA and France, and probably the state as such, have in common: a constant and important aspect of colonialism is colonising one’s own people, or parts of it, thus separating portions of the people and depoliticising massively every wake of life: "the Nation" from "the racaille", "Français de souche" from "Arabs", "good society" from the "wild boys of suburbia", but also "good (immigrant) girls" against a criminalized youth of the same neighbourhoods. Memories and histories have also been cultivated as segmented per group; everyone has and celebrates his or her own separate memory: the Shoah; the Palestinians; the Pieds noirs; the Algerians; the One Republic; the immigrants. As Edouard Glissant and Patrick Chamoiseau pointed out in the follow up of the riot, concerning the Caribbean (Antilles) identity and the slavery heritage in Martinique," Que disent les Antillais que nous sommes? Qu’il faut une solidarité des mémoires, que la mémoire est commune." (emphasis added; "Il faut une solidarité des mémoires, E. Glissant et P. Chamoiseau, écrivains, détaillent leurs refus de la loi de février", Libération 8-12-2005; E. Glissant, P. Chamoiseau, Lettre ouverte au Ministre de l’Intérieur de la République Française, à l'occasion de sa visite en Martinique. DE LOIN,, 6-12-2005; Raphaël Confiant, La créolité contre l’enfermement identitaire, Multitudes, n° 22, automne 2005, pp 180-185.) Separating populations and memories is the mechanism of producing apartheid, together with territorial and schooling opportunity segregation. For the Republic, once colonies and now former colonies (both space and time) are outside the horizon: extra-territorial, extra-constitutional and, today, considered to be a question of the past. But this considering them to be of the past locates them right in our present as a political issue.


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Rada Ivekovic is a philosopher and university professor in France and Programme director at the Collège international de philosophie, Paris. Until 1991 she practised the same profession in Zagreb, the former Yugoslavia, where she was born. Her PhD is from Delhi University, her Habilitation from the University of Paris-8.

A first and shorter version of this paper was published as "Gefärliche Klassen," in Lettre International , no. 71(Winter 2005), pp. 120-21; a French version, rewritten by the author, is forthcoming, under the title "Le retour du politique oublié," in Lignes, no. 19 (February 2006).