Of the many graffiti to be found in the Paris banlieues just now – and creeping into the city itself – the most apt has surely been the simple injunction: ‘Riot!’ In French, this newish addition to the lexicon is reflexive: ‘Emeute-toi!’ in canister white; the imperative singular of s’émeuter. Thirty years ago, it would have been faire une émeute or something like it. Cassell’s dictionary gives a transitive verb émeuter, ‘to stir up’, and though none of the public commentary on the upheaval in France in the first two weeks of November used this word, the view of what’s been happening is pretty clear: the trouble was whipped up by the attitude and language of the minister of the interior. Even so, with the worst of the breaking and burning done and an inkling of confidence among the political class that the ‘crisis’ is surmountable, Nicolas Sarkozy – who’d begun to look isolated in the government – has seen his position steadily improve.

The public, no longer quite so nervous, has rewarded him for his outspokenness with a boost in his popularity rating and the Sarkozy show rolls on, with its own imperturbable, riveting script, watched with fascination by those who love him and those who don’t. The two young boys, Bouna Traoré and Ziad Benna, both in their teens, who were electrocuted in the suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, north of Paris, on 27 October, are all but forgotten, though their deaths set the rioting in motion. Few recall that when they died Sarkozy wasn’t the only public servant to argue that it was their own fault: several officials, from the administration in Seine-St-Denis to the prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, took a similar line. Where Sarkozy suggested that the boys, or their friends, were implicated in a petty theft, Villepin opted for the vaguer and loftier formulation ‘thieves at work in the area at the time’: a nuance that confirms the different styles of the two rivals for the presidency in 2007, but leaves them substantially close in this instance. The most understandable assertion from officials, and yet the unlikeliest of all, was that the boys weren’t being pursued by the police when they scaled the wall around the substation. A combination of these unfortunate pronouncements turned the localised rioting in Clichy-sous-Bois into a nationwide phenomenon.

Even so, it might not have happened without Sarkozy’s rhetorical flourish, a few days earlier, in another tricky Paris suburb, where he spoke of the trouble-makers on a local sink estate as ‘racaille’. It’s a powerful word, whose force has been deliberately weakened by ironic usage: disaffected, disabused youth (and well-educated, not-yet-disabused youth who wish to slum it) talk about themselves as ‘racaille’ in much the same way as African Americans used to call each other ‘niggers’. To be described from on high as ‘racaille’ (riffraff? rabble? trash?) is a different matter. Sarkozy insists that he knows the racaille from ordinary, disadvantaged young men trying to find a way for themselves, but his judgment on this point was under attack even before the incident in Clichy-sous-Bois. Since then, the term ‘racaille’ has carried over to include the rioters. Whatever the majority of French people think, there is a fierce sense among young black and North African French that the government’s position has been unacceptable: that the moment certain words were uttered they should have turned to ashes in the mouths of various talkative ministers, Sarkozy in particular. Perhaps that’s what so much of this burning has been about.

Now there is a state of emergency, a proper symbol of national crisis, and a bitter reminder of the colonial past in as much as the law the government has resurrected dates from 1955, three years into the Algerian war. It allows local dignitaries to impose a selective curfew – on minors, notably – or ban gatherings, and gives extraordinary powers to the police. In mid-November it was renewed for three months. In these circumstances, it will only matter to a handful of people if an inquiry finds that the two dead boys, or some of their friends, were cutting themselves a slice of zinc cladding or kick-boxing a Portakabin. That another young man, also electrocuted but since recovered, has described a police chase taking place is similarly unimportant. Everyone had figured that out.

The dead boys were from a little section of Clichy-sous-Bois called Le Chêne Pointu, parts of which are moderately comfortable; others are distinguished only by running water and electricity from the housing projects (built at roughly the same time) in a city like Kinshasa. On the night Bouna and Ziad died, the cost of the reaction, spreading out from Le Chêne Pointu, was high but containable: a smashed-up shopping mall, damage to a police station, a school and parts of the local town hall, plus 23 cars set on fire. Three hundred police were deployed. Once Sarkozy and Villepin had put their case to the media, suburbs all over France took it to heart and by 6 November, probably the high-point of the reaction, about 270 communes, scattered anywhere between the Pas de Calais, Pyrénées Atlantiques and the Bouches du Rhône were affected. Thousands of police were on the streets (35 of them were injured that night), 1400 vehicles were torched, roughly 400 arrests were made and an elderly man died after being roughed up.

French public opinion seemed horribly uncertain whether elected officials and public dignitaries should face up sensibly, and carefully, to incidents of the kind that took place in Clichy-sous-Bois, or simply face them down. Perhaps at the outset, Sarkozy’s line looked like a rash gamble with the public interest but as time went on, and the rioting began to subside, the gamble appeared to have paid off. Sarkozy, in any case, has stuck to his uncompromising posture.

Were he not at odds with so many of his colleagues – including Chirac and the prime minister – the government’s position would look very much like a good cop/bad cop strategy: for every impenitent word Sarkozy utters, there have been kinder noises from the rest of the administration. More likely this is a political struggle inside the UMP, of which Sarkozy is also president, and as Villepin’s popularity has picked up in the polls, Sarkozy has seen the wisdom of moving further to the right: the suburbs, and the frightful ‘cités’ that define so many of them, supply the harsh truths that men of the right prefer.

One of the problems of big public housing estates around the larger cities in France is their physical isolation from the centre: places like Clichy-sous-Bois, or nearby Aulnay-sous-Bois, which has seen some of the worst damage, are versions of the leafy suburb with bolt-on sink estates. That might be manageable except that there is not enough conjugal sprawl between these workers’ dormitories and the big town centres themselves. The quiet residential streets that stand back from the estates consist mostly of small detached houses with a yard or garden. As neighbourhoods go, these suburbs hold few attractions for people from further afield who might want to move nearer to a major city centre, and fewer still for those who wish to get out of the city. In the 1970s they were far more approachable than they are now and I remember thinking they were livelier, in their reticent way. Nowadays they have an invariable, battened-down feel; the sociology seems fixed and ugly, the air a little motionless; there is not much new blood; there are not many new businesses; estate agents, I imagine, are forced to take the long view, over their long but inexpensive lunches.

It was not the idea, when the ‘cités’ went up – and building peaked thirty years ago, with half a million homes under construction in 1973 – to create huge, peripheral camps for workers, but it became a reflex as France was forced to create housing at enormous speed, first to cope with the acute homelessness that brought the Abbé Pierre to prominence in the 1950s and then to accommodate the growing numbers of migrant workers living in shanty towns on the edges of the cities: in many cases the demoralised public housing estate is the legacy of the shanty town. It was also some sort of answer to the postwar rural exodus – and, in 1962, to the influx of pieds-noirs from Algeria. Finished in record time, the high-rises and the long, balconied blocks, or barres, had the same shortcomings as a lot of council housing in Britain. Mediocre high-density building on designated out-of-town aprons – creating an exurbia within suburbia – is at the root of the ghettoisation that’s taken place in France.

On the face of it, one solution would have been to manage immigration according to the requirements of the labour market. This was tried in the mid-1970s as Giscard presided over the beginnings of de-industrialisation. Cutting off work permits did, in fact, reduce the number of new arrivals in France by about half, but there’s been no decline in the steady rate of immigration under the family reunion regime. The brutal coincidence of interest between the migrant and the host has changed enormously since the Trente Glorieuses, when more than 200,000 work permits might have been issued in a single year. In 2003, according to one statistic, right of residency was given to 6000 people on grounds of work and to 80,000 on grounds of family reunion – something successive administrations keep trying to tighten. Immigrants still want to get here, but fewer employers or local councils wish to have them, even though the building sector is said to be running on clandestine immigrant labour in much of France.

Where there isn’t the opportunity to work undeclared, there is very little work, not just for the quarter of a million migrants who’ve entered on family reunion grounds during the last ten years, but for the French themselves – which is to say the children, and increasingly the children’s children, of the (mostly) Maghrebi men and women who came during the 1960s and 1970s. French unemployment figures, which hover just below 10 per cent and include one in four young people coming into the job market, are now notorious. But in the suburbs, and especially the suburbs classified as ‘sensitive urban zones’ (ZUSs) – there are about 750, including most of the riot areas – it’s somewhere between 19 and 21 per cent. Roughly one in three young people in these parts of the country is unemployed. The last census in Clichy-sous-Bois and neighbouring Montfermeil – parts of which are as rough as Clichy – showed that 41 per cent of the population was under 20. Almost more worrying than the latest rioting in the ZUSs is the fact that it doesn’t happen more often.

France, which has not yet recovered from de-industrialisation, has agreed to begin winding down agriculture in 2006 – not a high employment activity, but central to old ideas about the nation – and is now wondering what unemployment as a long-term phenomenon might look like. Aside from tourism, the concept of a service sector is something people have been reluctant to grasp. Now, though, the heroic creation of busy management tiers is underway. So is the rise of takeaway sushi bars, complicated financial instruments and video-game stores. But France will have to run more state provision into the ground – health and transport especially – to get the proper dystopian buzz of confusion and profligacy which lets you know the service sector is really on the up and up. When it does, and if it does, there may be a few more jobs for young people in the suburbs, where so much of the vibrant secondary industry that provided work for their parents – textiles and electronics especially – disappeared years ago.

Occasionally, through the haze of immobilism and racial prejudice that’s kept the drama of ghettoised France in semi-obscurity, there have been genuine attempts to assail the problem. In 1981, after riots around Lyon, Mitterrand created priority education zones – lots of money and smaller classes for selected groups – with depressing results. There were various renovation schemes in the most run-down neighbourhoods and then, nine years ago, Alain Juppé started a Free Urban Zones plan, not unlike the Free Trade Zones in the Third World: businesses would have incentives to start up in deprived areas and, in this case, a duty to hire a proportion of staff locally. The Free Urban Zones have provided jobs for about 3 or 4 per cent of the potential working population in run-down areas. There are also any number of employer, state and local authority ‘contracts’ and youth employment schemes, which have created 80,000 to 90,000 jobs or job-training opportunities in the last four years – nothing to compare with the ‘emploi jeunes’ of Jospin’s jobs and solidarity minister, Martine Aubry, which saw nearly a quarter of a million people into work.

None of these initiatives by themselves, or together, has managed to defuse the problem. The 2006 budget, when it’s passed, will include at least seven billion euros for the ZUSs, spread between job creation, education and reconstruction, with the most money going into ‘security’, i.e. anti-delinquency programmes involving the police for the most part. Local government will add another billion to the package. Recently, the administration has pledged even more, as part of a curious dialogue with the rioters, for whom the five-door saloon car in flames has been the rhetorical device of choice. (More than 20,000 cars get torched every year anyway, so a flurry of burning cars – 9000 in a fortnight – is simply a way of making a point.) The response, from Villepin and indeed from Chirac, was that money and initiatives were on their way, some would now be coming ahead of schedule, and there would be a bit extra, including the formation of a volunteer corps to help get unemployed youth back to work. A bit more in the pot, then, and some sort of gesture. One way or another, the crisis means that France will be sticking its dusty head a little further through the 3 per cent overspend ceiling of the EU stability pact, but what option does the government have? From a budgetary point of view, the puzzle of how to create civilised conditions for unemployed French people, born to immigrants for whom there was a lifetime’s work where now there is nothing, must seem frighteningly like the puzzle of how best to manage growing numbers of elderly.

We shouldn’t always expect a riot to mean something. There’s been a carnival air about some of the destruction in France, and as anthropologists know, the meaning of carnival is to be found in the ordinary days of the calendar. The crudest question seemed simply to be whether there was anybody out there. Would anyone who wasn’t the descendant of a Maghrebi or sub-Saharan migrant living in abject conditions be willing to acknowledge the existence of these conditions and the people afflicted by them? But with that came a threatening message about mistaken or ill-assigned identity that briefly clarified the cities like a flare over an earthworks: ‘we will become the people you imagine we are, just watch.’ It is the defensive-aggressive strategy that Sartre discerned in Genet’s ostentatious criminality.

Unless you really are the racaille Sarkozy has in mind, it takes more than a little exasperation before this strategy gets lowered into place. B., a youngish resident on an estate in Aulnay-sous-Bois, has spent the last fortnight rioting, then pulling back, feeling it’s beneath him or that it’s somehow wrong, then rioting again, because if he can keep summoning the courage, this is the moment to make himself as conspicuous as possible, even in the guise of the destructive figure everybody takes him to be. There is no point dressing smart casual and trying to impress indigenous French people – a verdict he’s reached after failing, frequently, to get a job, and mostly even an interview. He has a qualification – a job-friendly version of the baccalauréat – which would sooner or later see a white person into work as a trainee manager of nothing very crucial. B. is now one of the long-term unemployed, living in an apartment with his parents, first-generation immigrants from Morocco. Most of his waking life is spent out of doors, in Aulnay, with other people, male for the most part, who are in the same situation.

B. had come into Paris, unusually, to attend a rally. The rally itself was strange enough: it was called, three days after the emergency had come into force, to object to ‘the logic of colonialism’ that had taken hold of the authorities. The day before, however, Pierre Mutz, the chief of police in Paris, invoked the state of emergency to ban any gatherings in the capital that could lead to ‘disorder’. It was thought for a moment that the event would have to be called off, but it turned out that Mutz had made an exception for the rally protesting the very law he’d just invoked.

B. was not impressed by the contradiction when I met him later that evening. To him it was just part of the pathetic, hypocritical mess the state was in. He spoke of the routine ID checks he’s been through on many nights, even before the rioting began. One involved him lying on the ground while a policeman stood on his face. But in the criminalised cités of Aulnay, the police were just one dangerous element among others, detached from the rest of the French state apparatus, which B. couldn’t quite condemn out of hand. Maybe that was just good manners in front of a foreigner. His real hatred was reserved for the employment agency he visited all too often and the prospective employers he occasionally got to see. He said he felt a ‘physical discrimination’ at reception when he sat next to a white job-seeker. The very purpose of these agencies, he was convinced, was to ‘close down’ people like him. He was about ready to set a ‘boss’ alight, though a car would probably do.

I sat in with B. and Mouloud Aounit, the leader of the main anti-racist group that had called the rally, as they fielded questions during a phone-in on Beur FM, a popular commercial radio station that got off the ground in 1981, and has a very much wider and more diverse audience now than it had when it started out. (The beurs are the children of North African immigrants growing up in France.) The show was hosted by the head of the station, Ahmed el Keiy. Towards the end, he turned to B. and asked him what he thought of the word ‘racaille’, but he couldn’t keep a straight face – and you could feel the ironic safety nets coming out again. Well you should have a view, he was saying to B; after all, you’re the rioter here. I mean, it’s not just that you know the rabble, you are the rabble. There was a brief moment of conspiracy between three very different people trying not to laugh too loudly: the radio journalist, the activist and the unlucky young man from Aulnay-sous-Bois, live on air. Plausibly serious, B. leaned into the microphone and conjured some sort of answer.

When he insists on the ‘colonial’ character of the emergency, as he does, I think Mouloud Aounit wants to make a more forceful point than the obvious one about the fact that the emergency powers date from the Algerian war: his point is about the general situation of so many Africans – North Africans especially – living in France. So little in the mentality of the indigenous French and the French of Maghrebi origin has changed in the last forty years. So many beurs are worse off than their parents. The shanty town is a vertical structure now, built in ugly, pockmarked concrete, like something on a set for a film about an underdeveloped country plunged into war. And the shanty town is an aspect of things, a piece of mental topography which distinguishes a ‘them’ and an ‘us’ in ways that most British people simply can’t imagine any more. Across the divide the exchanges are perfunctory, or downright hostile. ‘When we come into town,’ I remember B. saying, ‘it’s a completely different world, and we know we’re not wanted.’ I’d heard the same thing said by a young man on TV a few days earlier. It’s true. You can see a group of young men from a cité walking in Paris and mostly what you think about is the clatter of their footsteps on the stairs of the dismal block they’ll be going back to in a few hours’ time.

After his show, Ahmed el Keiy wondered if there really was a ‘colonial’ thread in this impasse. He seemed vaguely suspicious of the word. But in the end, after several remarks about the mono-racial character of the fourth estate (no black or brown faces to speak of on the TV, for instance), and indeed of most French institutions (there are no non-white MPs), he felt that a Republic which could only really conceive of itself with the skin colour, and the habits, of its indigenous citizens was in poor shape. Why were immigrants, or the sons and daughters of immigrants, so invisible in France’s self-representation? He thought the answer could be found in Fanon. ‘The gaze of the other,’ he said. ‘It’s all still there.’ A colonial question after all, then.

Most of the youth rioting at the end of 2005 were not alive at the time of the Beur March 22 years ago, when the children of North African immigrants, scandalised by the way their parents had been treated and worried by the discrimination that lay ahead for themselves, set off in their thousands from Marseille on a long, well-publicised hike to Paris. It was a moment of optimism and truce. A delegation was received at the Elysée; a major concession was made on the rights of non-naturalised residents to remain in France: the introduction of a ten-year permit gave young people of Maghrebi origin a bit of space to think about where they were and the ways in which they belonged. As it turned out, that was the only significant gain. The occasion was, in the end, a wasted opportunity for France to become the thing it is trying, late in the day, to become: ‘this multiple France of ours’ – the equivocal phrase on every troubled politician’s lips, though I last heard it on Sarkozy’s.

The riots may make the country readier to face the fact that it is ‘multiple’, even if the idea is disagreeable. In that much, the rioters will have achieved something, even for their own. But the episode will do more, I guess, for Sarkozy. He’s made his position clear about the rabble, and cleaning out the bad guys from the estates with a power hose – and most recently about the vices of polygamy among the Africans in France – and altogether he’s caused a stir. But his most significant point was apparently rather mild by comparison, and nothing much has been made of it. He was appearing on a TV programme about a week and a half into the riots, and remarked that the problem with the underprivileged suburbs was that they’d always been approached within the framework of ‘social policy’ – benefits and patch-up funds of various sorts – when really it was a ‘jobs policy’ (‘politique du travail’) that would revive them.

It was a brief, powerful statement of intent, about the need to effect a more rapid and thorough transition to the all-in neo-liberal market economy that so disturbs the French. Sarkozy is in favour of positive discrimination (unlike Chirac) and more minority representation in the media (like Chirac) – both of which can be found in the top-dog neo-liberal culture of the US, and both of which have become more available issues for debate in France than they were a few weeks back.

Joblessness is a major motivating force of these riots, which is why the politicians and the press turn endlessly around the question of job creation in the banlieues. But ‘job creation’ is only all right so far as it goes: not much further than the ‘social policy’ which Sarkozy can claim, quite rightly, hasn’t worked. A ‘jobs policy’ is not at all the same thing: it is Sarkozy-shorthand for a freer, fuller, more competitive market, with a less cosseted, more ‘mobile’ workforce, plus bigger tax breaks and a smaller national insurance burden for businesses; all this in a new-look France which must start shedding civil servants, vexatious laws on employment and working hours, and old protectionist attitudes that can no longer hold the real world at arm’s length. Racism is part of the bad old Republican way. An injection of vigorous enterprise, a big deregulating kick, and racial discrimination would evaporate in the tremendous, creative release of market forces. No race riots in an untrammelled market economy: that’s what Sarkozy really means. It’s an ingenious, high-pressure sales pitch for the ‘Anglo-Saxon model’ – indeed, it’s bordering on blackmail.

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