The ring of fire from cars and buildings spread in France over the week, as riots that began Oct. 27 in the north-eastern suburb Clichy-sous-Bois spread to over 300 cities across France. With more than 1,300 vehicles burnt, hundreds of arrests, reports of injury among police and fire fighters and at least one death attributed to the riots, fears of the riots spreading and escalating has been seen as a threat. Indeed the government has attempted to quell the violence by sending in extra troops and imposing a curfew on the area.
The fires were lit in anger over the deaths of teenagers, Zyed Benna and Bounda Traore, who were electrocuted after hiding in a power substation, apparently thinking police were chasing them. Flames have been fanned and expanded by a long-simmering current of rage and resentment within the immigrant communities in France, particularly the resentment felt by the youth of these communities who see systemic racism, disrespect from officials and a growing ignorance of their voices as problems that have led to high unemployment in the areas, police searches, high crime rates and a disintegration of the infrastructure of the ghettos.
For many French Arab and African young people in the suburbs of France, the death of the two teenagers (who were of Mauritanian and Tunisian descent) was symbolic for the growing problems they see in the ghettos, and many reportedly see their actions (such as burning cars, official stations and schools) as one interviewee in the BBC suggested, "their only way of 'sounding the alarm.'"
Estimated at making up 10 percent of the population, French Arab and African immigrants (and their French citizen children) suffer the legacy of colonialism as many are shuffled into slums in the suburbs. The youth in particular feel disenfranchised, suggests Katrin Bennhold in the International Herald Tribune, saying "theirs is a defensive identity, an identity that by default has sprouted in any real sense of belonging."
"How many times have I gone into Paris and have been shouted at 'Go home!'" said one young man of Algerian descent in Bennhold's report. "Home is here… But it doesn't really feel like home."
A sort of "no-one's land," the youth of Arab or African descent in the area see high unemployment rates and report police harassment as consequences of the racism present in the broader French society.
"A man, who would only identify himself as Awax, said looking Arab in France was more than just having darker skin: It was also a ticket to a societal pigeon hole from which there was no escape," Bennhold reported.
Many report going through lengthy job application processes, only to be denied positions after potential employers either noticed an Arab or African sounding name or saw them in person. With an employment rate at a startlingly high 21.7 percent in the ghetto suburbs, many of the youth feel they have no chance thanks to the rampant discrimination.
Conditions of the housing in the ghettos where housing projects are falling into ruin are also a major complaint. Called to attention by the a string of fires, one of which killed 24 immigrants crammed into a dilapidated apartment, the problematic conditions in the slums is seen as yet another way the immigrant population has been ignored and marginalized in France.
Further exacerbating the situation was recent comments by Interior Minister (and presidential hopeful) Nicholas Sarkozy who referred to those involved in the riots as "scum" and "riff raff" and has called for a plan to "clean out" the ghettos and other remarks some call "barely coded racist language," as Emma-Kate Symons of the "The Australian" notes.
While the violence is indeed horrible and the riots are likely serving to only further damage caused to those already suffering in the decaying ghettos, perhaps some can be salvaged from the wreckage.
In the light of the riots, President Jacque Chirac noted the problem of "the ghettoisation of the youths of African or North African origin," and noted "the incapacity of the French society to fully accept them," reported Latvian president Vaira Vike-Frieberga after a meeting with the president.
Perhaps this will serve as (albeit a horrible) wake up call about recognizing the discrimination and racist policies in the country, as well as allow for the now-disenfranchised voices of the African and North African youth in France to be heard, hopefully something that will stop any future violent outbursts.
We hope, as well, we can see this and reflect upon currents of discrimination and disenfranchisement here at home as well. The problem of voices being ignored and subjugated is not just a problem in France; we see it all too often in America as well.
Meg Burd is a graduate student in anthropology. Her column runs every Thursday in the Collegian.