Unity of purpose in the French banlieues

Unity of purpose in the French banlieues


Written by: Liz Fekete

For the second year running, French grassroots anti-racist associations joined forces to organise the Social Forum of the Banlieues (FSQP, Le Forum Social des Quartiers Populaires).

This unique and exciting gathering, attended by over 500 people from across the country, was held over three days (3-5 October) in the northern Parisian suburb (banlieue) of Nanterre.

The Forum’s roots

The roots of the Forum go back to 2005 and the biggest ‘riots’ France has witnessed since the May 1968 student protests. The revolt of the youth, which began in the poor eastern Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, soon spread to every major city in France. Triggered by the deaths of two youths of African origin, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré (attempting to evade police pursuit following an identity check they climbed into a power station and were electrocuted), it led the government of President Chirac to declare a national state of emergency.[1] Soon afterwards, grassroots organisations made the ‘Call for the National Social Forum of the Banlieues’.[2] Fed up with the media demonisation of the banlieues as ‘the lost territories of the Republic’,[3] and ‘no-go areas’ populated by ‘scum’ and savages’, these associations sought to establish through a collective mode of organisation a unity of purpose which would counter local fragmentation of the struggle for social and political rights. Thus, from the outset, the Forum was designed to ‘be a place of reflection and a meeting place of different local struggles’, while ‘offering them political visibility at a national level’.

The history of Nanterre

When North African and other immigrant workers first came to France, principally from Algeria. Morocco and Tunisia in the 1950s and 1960s, social housing was not provided. The new immigrant workers were forced to occupy the most marginal of housing conditions in the squalid shanty towns (bidonvilles) surrounding the major cities of France. It was fitting, then, that this year’s Forum was held in Nanterre for, in the 1960s, Nanterre (then an industrial area) had been the site of one of France’s largest bidonville (thirteen shanty towns with a population of 8,000 – half of whom were women and children). Today, the children and grandchildren of these first immigrant workers live alongside the undocumented and marginalised in the huge sprawling estates which towered over the conference venue (a series of marquees in the Parc André Malraux). Close by was the gleaming glass of city-skyscrapers and the gentrified housing estates and gated communities which are now home to better-off Parisians.

Unity in action

Just about every French minority community was represented at the Forum – Black, White, French-Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians and (sub-Saharan) Africans, etc as well as, of course, the sans papiers represented by the Committee from the 9th Arrondisement. An enormous range of issues was discussed in raw, and often heated (but always democratic) debate: racism, discrimination, educational exclusion, social housing, police violence and media stigmatisation; Islamophobia, feminism, colonialism and its legacy (particularly in the French Overseas Departments); the war on terror and Palestine, an issue that is part of the very heart-beat of the banlieue. What emerged from the debates was the strong unity of purpose of communities fighting as a people, and as a class.

One of the most important themes discussed at the Forum was the destruction of social housing – all part of Sarkozy’s urban renovation plans (read gentrification of the banlieue and demolition of estates and dispersal of inhabitants). The session on police violence was addressed by civil rights activists campaigning around recent deaths in custody, such as that of Lamine Dieng in Paris in June 2007, Reda Semmoudi in Seine Saint Denis in January 2008 and Abdelhakim Hadijmi in Grasse in May 2008. The justice and policing session was accompanied by a moving exhibition, with photographs and campaign literature recalling the many young men (mostly North Africans) who have died over the years in police custody or suspicious circumstances involving the police. The exhibition also recalled the tragic events of 17 October 1961 when the Paris police vented its fury at Algerian immigrant workers rallying in support of Algerian independence and in opposition to the nightly curfew. As many as 200 Algerians died when police drove the demonstrators into the Seine where they drowned; others were clubbed to death.

Cultures of resistance

The Forum was not just about political discussion. There was a Cinéma des Quartiers, theatre and other cultural events. The first theatrical performance on the opening night of the Forum was by Al Houda, a Muslim feminist organisation from Rennes. Its production ‘Le son du tissus’, (The sound of cloth), a one-woman performance explored the personal impact of the stigmatisation and exclusion from society of Muslim women who wear the headscarf. It was based on Al Houda’s experiences with French feminists who, amongst other things, banned it from taking part in their annual event on International Women’s Day (on the grounds that wearing the veil is incompatible with feminism). Islamophobia and the veil was also discussed the following day in a seminar where school teacher and writer Pierre Tévanian and social activist Ismahane Chouder discussed their new book, Les Filles voilées parlent (Veiled Girls speak out). The book explores the experiences of stigmatisation and exclusion of fourty-four French Muslim girls following the introduction of the 2004 law against the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in schools.

What next?

In the Forum’s final session, participants discussed their ideas for the future. Just as in the UK, activists were anxious about increasing alienation of young people and much of the focus was on strategic interventions capable of reaching out to them. The many documentaries and cultural films broadcast at the Forum are to be shown in community venues. And there was talk of extending the forum into regional forums, addressing national themes.

Related links

Read an IRR News Story: Organising in the banlieues – Interview with Pierre Didier

Le Forum Social des Quartiers Populaires – Social Forum of the Banlieues

[1] As many observers noted at the time, the last occasion the State of Emergency was applied by the French government was in Algeria 1961. [2] See www.habitants.de/en/news/movements/index.php/art_0000003. [3] In 2002, a book entitled The Lost Territories of the Republic: anti-Semitism, racism and sexism in the educational sphere, edited by the Holocaust historian Georges Bensoussan (under the pseudonym Emmanuel Brenner) blamed problems of violence in schools on 'Arabic-Muslim culture'. Following that, it became fashionable for the media to talk of the banlieues as the lost territories of the Republic.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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