Social poison, by Benoît Bréville (Le Monde diplomatique

Vaulx-en-Velin, Lyon, 6 October 1990. Thomas Claudio, 21, was riding his motorcycle when he was hit by a police car. He died instantly. Riots erupted in the city and lasted four days. Shops were looted, cars set alight, schools ransacked, firefighters injured and journalists attacked. ‘Unemployment and lack of education for young people are responsible for these events,’ according to Nicolas Sarkozy, then a rightwing deputy mayor (1).

Clichy-sous-Bois, Paris, 27 October 2005. Two teenagers being chased by the police, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, took refuge in an electricity substation and died from electrocution. Clashes broke out in Seine-Saint-Denis and soon spread nationwide. After three turbulent weeks, President Jacques Chirac expressed regret that ‘some places accumulate too many disadvantages, too many problems’ and called for a fight against ‘the social poison of discrimination’. He also condemned ‘illegal immigration and the trafficking it generates’ and ‘families that refuse to take responsibility’.

Nanterre, Paris, 23 June 2023. Nahel Merzouk, 17, was shot in the chest during a traffic stop. Riots spread at lightning speed across the country. The episode was short (five days) but intense: 23,878 fires on public roads, 5,892 torched vehicles, 3,486 arrests, 1,105 buildings attacked, 269 police stations targeted, 243 schools damaged. ‘These events have nothing to do with a social crisis’ but everything to do with ‘the disintegration of the state and the nation’, according to the likely rightwing candidate for the next presidential election, Laurent Wauquiez (Les Républicains, LR) (2). And woe betide anyone claiming otherwise: they are instantly accused of justifying violence, fuelling a ‘culture of excuses’, or even being guilty of sedition and a ‘threat to the Republic’ (3).

In the reactions they provoke, these successive urban riots reflect how the French political landscape has been flattened by the steamroller of security and identity politics. The social explanation, which was once put forward as self-evident, however disingenuously, has been relegated to the background; mentioning it is now off-limits. In the past, any government that faced such events would announce a plan for the banlieues, to address the multiple disadvantages these areas suffer. Once public attention had subsided, this would be scaled back — a few subsidised jobs, grants to local organisations, credits for building refurbishments…

There have been around a dozen such plans since the 1980s, and they’ve solved nothing: not unemployment, not segregation and certainly not the tensions between young people and the police. Yet as each one follows the last, they have created the sense that the state has already done too much for the banlieues and that it’s now time to refocus on the ‘real’ problems: immigration, Islam, parental neglect, the leniency of the justice system, video games, social media… A discourse tailor-made to artificially set banlieues against the countryside — when both are abandoned territories where the working class live. Social poison, by Benoît Bréville (Le Monde diplomatique

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