The Outsiders: John Lichfield in the Banlieues - one year on

It began with the deaths of two youths fleeing the police. Soon, Paris's suburbs were engulfed by riots and over the next three weeks violence spread to every major town and city across France. One year on, John Lichfield returns to the benighted banlieue where the trouble first erupted to find out what - if anything - has changed
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Nothing has changed. Nothing has changed. Nothing has changed." The two boys are shy, gentle, polite, respectful, slightly built, good-looking. Both are 16. A year ago, they were burning their neighbours' cars.

We are standing outside the Lycée Alfred Nobel in Clichy-sous-Bois, about 10 miles to the north-east of Notre Dame cathedral. We are 10 miles, and a million light years, from the Paris of boulevards and brasseries.

Mohammed Ali, born in France of French-born parents of Algerian origin, is a short and innocent-looking boy with intelligent, distrustful brown eyes. Lheidi, born in Algeria, is taller, with striking pale blue eyes and curly hair.

Both admit, after an exchange of glances, that they took part in the suburban riots that began near here almost 12 months ago and spread like a bushfire across France. "I went. Yeah. I went along," says Ali. "Yes, I was there. I was there," says Lheidi.

They do not seem especially proud, or ashamed, of what they did. "I said at the time, 'Why should we burn cars that belong to our neighbours?'" Ali says. "'These are the cars they need when they go to work.' But what can you do? If you run with a group, you have to run with the group. There was this kind of blind anger. It was like we all looked around us and asked, 'What is our future?'"

When you cross the Boulevard Périphérique, the broad ring-road that girdles Paris proper like a medieval city wall, you enter a different world: the world of the "banlieues". To the white middle classes of the French inner towns and cities, or the residents of the leafier suburbs, the banlieues have become places of cosmic dread, of outer darkness.

The two boys - polite, fresh-faced ex-rioters, who worry about how well they will do in the baccalaureat in two years' time - are not the only face of the banlieues. There are harder nuts around. Much harder. But the boys are a reminder that in a country that loves planning and logic, nothing is quite as you expect it.

For all France's on-off scorn for America, the Paris banlieues are a kind of New Jersey-sur-Seine: a multiracial patchwork of prim bungalows, grim public housing estates, fast-food joints, motorways, gang warfare, bizarre remnants of farms and villages, strip malls, pretty forests, carpet shops, abysmal public transport, casual violence, poverty, despair, extraordinary energy and hundreds of thousands of hard-working lives.

An Islamist intifada in France? Racial riots? A revolt by "immigrants"? A co-ordinated campaign by drugs barons to protect their turf? Last year's riots were none of these things. The truth is simpler - and may be much harder to address.

The Lycée Alfred Nobel is a long, drab structure. Down the road are neat estates of middle-class pavillons (bungalows) and a thick forest. Just up the road are the twin high-rise estates of Les Bosquets and La Forestière ("the bushes" and "the place in the forest"). Once showpieces of 1960s modernist planning, these estates with their picturesque names are now the neglected, cramped, rotting homes of people of a score of different races.

Almost 12 months ago, two teenage boys from La Forestière - like the ones standing in front of me - were electrocuted when they fled from police into an electricity substation. Their deaths, blamed by local youths on police racism and aggression, led to riots that spread, over three weeks, to the suburbs of almost every town and city in France.

Since then, the government has promised hundreds of millions of euros in investment in the poorer estates; it has promised an end to job discrimination against youngsters of North African or African origin; it has promised to crack down on the endemic gang violence of the cités (public housing estates); it has promised to root out racism in the police.

But has anything changed? The two boys shake their heads. "Nothing has changed," they say. "Nothing has changed. Nothing has changed."

Lheidi says: "They said we would find it easier to find jobs. I can't even find a 'stage' [work experience job]. I want, maybe, to work in electronics. On the phone, they say yes. Then you write and as soon as they see your name and where you live, hop, there are no places left. Nothing has changed, nothing has changed."

As the anniversary of the riots approaches, the tension in parts of the banlieues is palpable. Violence against the police has risen sharply. In other parts of the suburbs, there have been several attacks by gangs of youths on police cars - organised "ambushes", according to the police; spontaneous reactions to police violence, say local residents.

"From when you are a small child, if you live in a place like this, you learn to hate the police," says Ali. "They constantly stop you to ask for your papers. They insult you. They call you 'gorillas', or 'macaques' [monkeys]. They call you 'tu', instead of 'vous'. They arrest you for nothing. They beat you up."

In Les Bosquets and La Forestière, the place where the riots began, nothing has changed. No visible effort has been made even to mask the surface indignities of daily life. Paint peels off the blocks of flats in jagged flakes. Large graffiti read: "Fuck police" or "Fuck les balances" (fuck informers). Rotten pipes drip. The lawns have not been mown for months.

The police may be the favourite target, but any official-looking car that enters a cité is at risk. I spent a day in Clichy-sous-Bois and the neighbouring town of Montfermeil, with a group of young local people and the French-Tunisian "street" photographer known as JR.

In the two estates, we met with much anger but no aggression. An hour after we drove out of Les Bosquets, a car bearing the stickers of a French television station drove in. Minutes after the crew walked away from their vehicle, it was set alight.

Everything begins with Bouna and Zyed. On 27 October last year, the two boys from La Forestière, aged 15 and 17, were playing football with friends on a building plot a couple of miles from their homes. To reach the makeshift pitch, they had to pass close to some bungalows. Someone in there called the police.

The police arrived as the boys were walking home. The boys ran away. The police gave chase. According to the police, this was a routine identity check. According to the boys, it was routine police harassment.

Bouna Traore, 15, and Zyed Benna, 17, were separated from the rest, with a friend, Muhittin Altun, 17. To escape, they climbed a four-metre-high wall into an electricity substation. All three received massive electric shocks. Bouna and Zyed died; Muhittin survived, seriously burnt.

Police said initially that the boys were "wanted in connection with a burglary". They said the dead boys had criminal records. Violent protests - mostly the burning of cars - began in Les Bosquets and La Forestière that night.

The police admitted later that there had been no burglary and that the boys had no records. The police flatly denied that they had been chased. They said that the officers on the scene did not know that the youths were in the electricity substation.

Muhittin, when he recovered much later, insisted that they had been pursued by four groups of policemen. Records of police communications have since shown that the police did chase the boys and did know that they were in danger.

The riots spread to nearby towns in the département of Seine Saint-Denis, north and north-east of Paris. A few days before the boys' deaths, the interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, had called the youth gangs "racaille" - "rabble" or "scum". The previous summer, he'd vowed to clean out the gangs with a "Kärcher" - a pressure cleaner. The kids in the suburbs - criminal and non-criminal - decided that the deaths of Bouna and Zyed were the first example of Sarkozy's "Kärcher" at work.

The riots spread all around the Paris suburbs, and then to the "quartiers difficiles" of almost every town and city in France. These were the latest, and largest, instalments in a series of suburban revolts going back 20 years. Never before, however, had the protests spread so widely, reaching - at their peak - 274 towns and cities on the same night.

More than 10,000 cars were set alight. More than 200 public buildings - nursery schools, sports centres, training offices - were destroyed or seriously vandalised. More than 100 police and gendarmes were injured. There were 3,200 arrests, and 400 rioters were given prison sentences.

But consider what did not happen. There was no concerted attempt to shift the rioting into the centre of Paris or the wealthier suburbs. There were no deaths directly attributed to the riots. Guns were very rarely used.

Although the word "émeutes" - riots - was widely used, these were not riots in the usual sense. There were a few confrontations between youths and police, but mostly there were random attacks on cars or buildings. The police, who bear some responsibility for causing the riots, behaved with enormous restraint.

Whether they were riots or not, they certainly weren't race riots. The estates in the banlieues are social ghettos, but they are not racial ghettos. Any group of youths is likely to consist of three or four different races - white, black, brown - just like the national football team. This fact - one of the positive, hopeful facts about the banlieues - is often obscured in media commentary.

Ladj Ly, 26, French-born of Malian origin, is one my guides through Clichy-sous-Bois. A film-maker, he lives on Les Bosquets. His documentary on the unrest and its aftermath will be shown next week on French television.

"In the early 1990s, there were gangs based on race," he says. "All the North Africans together, the Malians together. There would be confrontations, battles. Now, all that has finished. People know they are all in the same jam - the blacks, browns, whites, Asians. There is a kind of respect, a tolerance, a solidarity."

An official count of rioters arrested in the Yvelines département west of Paris found that roughly one-third were of North African origin, one-third of African origin and one-third white. Most were between 10 and 20. All but 2 per cent were born in France. More than half already had criminal records. Most had jobs or were still in school.

So much for an Islamist "intifada". So much for race riots. So much for "immigrant" unrest. So much, perhaps, for the suggestion that the riots were born of complete social alienation. Many of the rioters had jobs or had expectations of French society; frustrated expectations, but expectations all the same.

But why was the violence mostly against the cars of local people and against schools and gymnasiums? "It is heartbreaking that the kids should attack nursery schools and sports clubs," Ly says. "But it was a kind of self-harm, an auto-destruction, a social suicide. They were saying, 'You, you France, you the government, you people in authority, you say that we have a chance but then you give us none. We're going to smash up or burn the things that seem to represent something positive, but are really a lie. We are going to burn the buses that are supposed to take us to jobs we don't have.' In that sense, these were not riots. They were a revolt."

As I talk to Ly at the foot of a staircase in the La Forestière estate, a debate begins on what the riots were about, what they proved. Some passers-by join in, others walk past. People of a dozen races come down the stairs.

Byron Gamthety, 29, of African origin, says: "Do you know why nothing has been done in the last year that will make a difference? Why? Because the politicians - Chirac, Sarkozy, Royal, none of them - have any idea what it is like to live in this place. If they want to make a difference, if they want change, let them come and live here, just for a week.

"We are only 16km from Paris. But there is no railway station, no Metro, no RER. It takes an hour and a half to get to Paris by changing buses. If your job in Paris starts at 7am, you have to leave home at 5.30am.

"And look at these places. For six years, they have been saying they are going to knock them down and rehouse us. There are families of 10 people or more living in three rooms. Of course the kids go and live on the streets."

Some French newspapers and foreign press comment suggested that the riots were some kind of revolt by Islam against the West. Is there any truth in this? Are there pockets of Islamist extremism in Clichy-sous-Bois? Nicolas Sarkozy, the interior minister, possibly the next President of France, said the riots were fomented by drugs barons protecting their turf against his campaign to abolish no-go areas. Is there any truth in that?

Amad, 25, of Senegalese origin, says: "All of this is stupidity, based on ignorance of the way things are here. Nothing was planned. Nothing was organised. The drug caids [barons] did not want these riots, It was bad for business. It gave the kids something else to do. Their business was terrible during the riots.

"Islam may be a factor, in the sense that many people here are Islamic and they believe that their religion is under attack in France. But this was not driven by extremist Islamist movements. This was spontaneous, driven by anger and despair."

But how is it that some young people in the cités manage to reject the call of drugs or violence? How do some manage to find jobs and succeed? "Sure, you can succeed here," says Gamthety, "or at least you can survive, if you are 10 times as determined and competent as people who live in Paris or in the whiter suburbs. There are people like that here, and you have to salute them. But not everybody has that courage. It is easy to blame the unemployed for being unemployed, to blame the violent for being violent. You have to ask what makes them that way.

"Most of the kids in gangs started with the same aspirations anyone has. Then they see that their fathers, their brothers, their cousins, who started out hopeful, got nowhere. Failure, generation after generation; that's what makes the anger, that's what turns people violent."

A man in his thirties, of North African origin, joins in the conversation. He has heard me mention "extremist Islamist movements". He is angry, almost incoherent. "Islamist? Extremist? Who are they? What do those words mean? They have nothing to do with what happens here. People are just trying to survive. This is not about Islamists.

"Look, just look at this place." He points to the rotting pipes overhead, the jungle of graffiti on the walls, the muddy, unmown lawns. "This is about basic things, about being allowed to live in a decent way, about respect."

At least in the banlieues of the 1960s and 1970s, there were jobs. The tower blocks were new. Expectations among first-generation immigrants were lower. Four decades on, jobs are scarce (there is 40 per cent unemployment at Les Bosquets). France is a country that works well for those on the inside, in good schools, in jobs. Even white, middle-class kids find it increasingly difficult to enter this charmed circle. The rings of exclusion become more forbidding if you live in a place like La Forestière, even if you're white. If you are brown or black...

The schools in the banlieues are often poor. Teachers are often young and inexperienced. Older teachers have a union-enforced right to transfer out.

The same, oddly, is true of the police. The prefect in Seine Saint-Denis protested in writing to Sarkozy in June that even his senior policemen were too young and poorly trained for urban policing. The casual racism towards suburban kids is documented not just by the youngsters themselves but by a growing number of officers of North African or African origin. (That such officers now exist is one of a few hopeful signs.)

Above all, the police are overstretched and stupidly deployed. There is not one police station in the whole of Clichy-sous-Bois. Even law-abiding citizens regard the police as an occupying army.

There are 27,000 police in greater Paris. The city of Paris, with two million people and few social problems, has 17,000 of them. The other 10,000 are supposed to police the six million people in the banlieues.

Nicolas Sarkozy may bear some responsibility for last year's riots. His language in the months before the revolt was unnecessarily provocative. In other ways, he seems more aware of the reality of the banlieues than other French politicians. He talks of the need for positive racial discrimination, and wants to abolish the "Republican" idea that all French people are uniformly French and that there should be no official statistics based on race (a ban that hides a thousand faults). Sarkozy's greatest failure, however, has been to fail to tackle the vested interests, corporatism and racism of the French police.

Many foreign commentators, and some French ones, suggested that last year's riots were the death knell for French "monoculturalism". The solution to the problems in the banlieues was they said, to recognise the cultural and racial diversity that exists now in France.

This may be partly true, but the protests - insofar as they were coherent - were asking for the opposite. Some of the rioters, admittedly, have plunged so deeply into violence in their everyday lives that it has become a banal pleasure. Many other teenagers who rioted last year - white, brown or black - wanted the same chance to advance their lives as everyone else.

The two ex-rioters outside the lycée in Clichy - politely shaking hands, worrying about their Bacs - are unmistakeably French boys. What are they asking for? They are demanding the rights France says they already have. Written in big letters outside their lycée, and outside every state school in France, even in the banlieues, are three words - Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.