PARIS IS BURNING. The continuous rioting and seemingly wanton acts of destruction suggest a lot of built up frustration among Arab and African minorities, especially the youth. The duration of the riots and the rapid spread to other cities in France seem to have caught everyone, including the centre-right government, by surprise. Thus far, its rather heavy-handed response has not quelled the unrests. On the contrary, if anything, it has fuelled the underlying anger and resentment more. Where do these expressions of anger, frustration and defiance come from? And why should we in South Africa take note of disturbances that take place about ten thousand kilometres away? We have our own protests and clashes that take place in different localities across the country, which in some or other way have to do with issues of power, influence, access to resources and identity. In this sense, then, there are some similarities between the situation in France and recent local protests in South Africa. Of course, there are many differences as well, too many to mention. One other similarity, not uncommon in cities all over the world, is the spatial manifestation of inequality, with enclaves of poverty, marginalisation and exclusion far removed from social and economic opportunities. Is it far-fetched to conceive that one day the townships across South Africa, like the banlieus in France, will be burning and that local protests will spill over – once again – into a national uprising against a lack of services, income and employment? Surely, if the ambitions of the developmental state bear out, such a scenario is highly unlikely. One decisive factor will be whether South Africa’s governance system is as indifferent, if not hostile, to all its people as the French system seems to be.
In Thought Matters we reprint an article that first appeared on Aljazeera.net on 8 November. The author, Soumaya Ghannoushi, is a researcher in the history of ideas at the School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London.
The corrosive division in France
By Soumaya Ghannoushi
JUST AS HURRICANE Katrina has exposed the ugliness of America's segregation system, the ghettoes, racism, misery and poverty that lurk beneath the thin surface of economic prosperity and social harmony, the recent riots in Paris have laid bare the darker side of the ‘city of lights’. Paris, the capital which had once mesmerised generations of artists, intellectuals and politicians from around the world, looks today like a city of ghosts, violence, social alienation and economic marginalisation.
Watching the TV scenes of wretchedness, anger and rioting I had to remind myself that this was France, not some poverty ridden, war-stricken third world country. The violent riots that have convulsed Paris' banlieus for over a week are not a passing event, or the isolated acts of gangs of delinquent youths, dismissed by the hawkish French Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy as "rabble", "scum", "yobs" and "louts", who need to be "cleaned up". These disturbances are a vivid symptom of the profound crisis at the heart of the French social and cultural system, a crisis that has been accumulating for decades, growing like a snowball with the passing of every day in the bleak enclaves of Paris' immigrant suburbs.
The clashes began when two terrified teenagers, Bouna Traore, 15, and Ziad Benna, 17, desperately clambered the 2m wall of the electricity station on the rundown estate of Clichy-sous-Bois to hide from the police. Bouna and Ziad died promptly, electrocuted by 20,000 volts of electricity and France erupted into urban rioting such as it has not seen for decades. Furious youths hurled stones at the police, set light to hundreds of cars and buildings. The mayhem soon swept from the dark suburbs of Paris to become a nationwide crisis. With Bouna and Ziad's deaths the violent tensions seething in the depths of French society spilled over across its loathsome racial barriers beyond its poor immigrant estates into the spotlight. I remember once asking a group of young men of Arab descent, whose families have been living in France for decades, whether they felt French. All answered in the negative. "I do not belong here" one of them said. "There is nothing for me. There are jobs. But if your name is Muhammad, Ali, or Rashid, don't even bother to apply. The most I can hope for is a job at the local McDonald's." Another added bitterly: "I was born here, and so was my father. How many generations would it take for me to be considered French?"
The rioters setting nursery schools ad shops ablaze are French by birth, language, education and culture. Yet France still refuses to acknowledge them as its own, still refers to them as immigrants and sons of immigrants. The majority are incarcerated in poor housing estates, where unemployment figures are three times the national average. Those who defy the odds and succeed in gaining a university qualification are five times more likely to end up in unemployment than their white counterparts (26.5% compared with 5%). Most are trapped in a hopeless downward spiral of joblessness, racial discrimination, and clashes with the police. What the inner cities are to the United States, the banlieus (suburbs) are to France. France's "beurs", the sons and grandsons of its former colonials have no sense of belonging to the French nation, not because they are intrinsically unpatriotic, or naturally hostile to France, but because this land where they, their fathers, sometimes even grandfathers, were born and brought up continues to deny them a dignified existence, or a sense of respect and recognition.
No one makes more noise about integration than France does. But the gap between France's rhetoric of equality, and abstract citizenship and its policies of systematic discrimination and hostility to its ethnic minorities could not be greater. Beyond Paris' official discourse, the reality on the ground, inside the fenced-off rings of wretchedness and misery that border its affluence, is one of chilling social marginalisation, destitution and profound feelings of forced otherness, and exclusion. With more than 20% of those born in France having immigrant parents or grandparents, France is a land of immigrants. Yet France does not perceive itself as a multicultural country. Its national identity is founded on the demand for unconditional assimilation into so-called "republican" and "French" values. Prompted by the myth of cultural and racial uniformity, France insists on keeping its immigrants invisible and turning a blind eye to the endemic racism of its socio- political system. Instead of confronting its spiralling crises with a measure of moral and political responsibility, the French government continues to resort to repression and the greater policisation of the poverty-ridden, rundown suburbs, further stigmatising its African and Arab communities and turning them into a scapegoat for its failures and troubles.
The corrosive division in France's heart between "indigenous" and "foreigners" is no doubt an extension of the dichotomy of the "inside" and the "outside", which has governed modern colonial French history. The dividing walls between the metropolis and its colonies have now migrated to the heart of France itself, between the bleak ghettoes where yesterday's colonials, today's "immigrants", are confined and the forbidden white centres of power and prosperity. Today, the French slogans of integration and equal citizenship ring hollow. They have been buried deep beneath the boots of policemen, the smoke of burnt cars and rubble of ruined buildings. Of the Revolution's lofty slogans of "egalité, liberté et fraternité" France's colonial victims saw nothing but war fleets, military occupation, economic exploitation and a long trail of blood, suffering and destruction. Their impoverished descendants hear the promises of equality and integration and see nothing but a bottomless pit of voicelessness, weakness and alienation.
What we are witnessing today is the fall of the Jacobin Republican model, with its noisy slogans and radical dogmatism. A model that could not defend itself against crises in the French motherland is neither inspiring nor worthy of emulation, in Europe or elsewhere.
France's national history is intimately tied to its colonial past. Its relation to its old colonials is still one of domination. They are still denied any part in the construction of its socio-political organisation, still kept away from its public domain. France is paying the price of its history and geography. With the fragmentation of its colonial empire, the colonies in its proximities have expanded towards the colonial centres, the south towards the north.
THE WEBSITE OF Isandla Institute has recently been updated. The following new material can now be viewed and downloaded:
• Dark Roast Occasional Paper No 22, ‘Positive’ urban futures in sub-Saharan Africa: HIV/AIDS and the Need for ABC (A Broader Conceptualisation), by Mirjam van Donk.
• Monograph 1: The nature of democratic debate in South Africa, which summarises the reflections of Jeremy Cronin, Aubrey Matshiqi and Suren Pillay at the Development Dialogue in June 2005.
• Monograph 2: The role of civil society organisations and trade unions in governance, which summarises the reflections of Tony Ehrenreich, Steven Friedman and Elinor Sisulu in September 2005.
• Resources developed for the project Cape Town 2025:
• A concept note on what a normative approach to city development entails.
• An overview report reflecting development trends and achievements since the establishment of democratic local government and current development challenges in Cape Town, by Keith Smith.
• A 10-minute video ‘Hopes on the Horizon’, summarising key development challenges facing Cape Town through the lens of the personal experiences and aspirations of three women from different backgrounds.
• An extensive bibliography of research material on Cape Town since 1990, compiled by Gordon Pirie.
• Study report on the Homeless People Federation of South Africa: The report reflects the finding of a study that has been conducted as part of a larger comparative investigation into new social movements under the auspices of the Centre for Civil Society (University of Natal).
• Papers on urban integration: Edgar Pieterse has published two papers on this topic, in Development Update and Urban Forum respectively.