Five years after the riots, housing estate residents share their experiences

In October 2005, the death of two young people in Clichy-sous-Bois sparked violence in French banlieues [housing estates on the outskirts of large cities]. The residents of the most volatile neighbourhoods of French towns explain what has changed - or not - since the riots.


General view of Villeneuve. Posted on Flickr by Terry_ne.

In October 2005, the death of two young people in Clichy-sous-Bois sparked violence in French banlieues [housing estates on the outskirts of large cities]. The residents of the most volatile neighbourhoods of French towns explain what has changed - or not - since the riots.

Five years ago, Zyed Benna, 17, and Bouna Traoré, 15, died of electrocution in a substation in which they had hidden to escape from a police check in Clichy-sous-Bois. The following day, 27 October 2005, unprecedented riots began to sweep the estates of France, which would last for three weeks. The two police officers accused of causing the death of the two adolescents still have not been tried. It is as yet unclear whether they will ever appear in court; there have been few developments in the situation.

Two years later, on the 25 November 2007, the death of two teenagers, Mushin and Lakamy, in a crash between their motorbike and a police vehicle in Villier-le-Bel (Val-d'Oise), sparked two days of civil unrest between young people and law enforcement officers. One police officer has just been charged with manslaughter.

The death of Karim Boudouda in the district of Arlequin in la Villeneuve, close to Grenoble, on the 15 July, again provoked three nights of clashes between young people and the police. The teenager, who had robbed a casino, was shot in the head by a police officer. Dozens of cars and several businesses were set alight.

"Since 2005 we have mostly witnessed the impact of the economic crisis"

The lake in La Reynerie, Mirail. Photo posted on Flickr by La Fabrique Toulousaine.

Zahara Moindze, 27 years old, grew up in the neighbourhood of Mirail in Toulouse. Mother of four, she works with several community associations, such as parental support and slam [freestyle poetry] classes.

Very little has changed for the young people, the ‘root causes' of their anger remains: the lack of schooling, the unemployment rate, communication problems with the police. In Mirail, we have several police stations, but the problem is that the police only come to volatile areas when they hear about a burnt car or a fight. When that happens, we see them driving around for several hours and then they disappear for a fortnight. There is no investment in the young people’s future, even though they will be expected to pay for the older generation’s pension. We would like the representatives of the law to come more often, but to re-engage in dialogue.

I think that most of the problems come from immigrant parents who do not follow their children's education. Most of them never went to school and don't know how to write, or don't even understand what the teachers are saying to them. If they do not feel integrated and at ease, how should they be expected to lend support to their children?

Since 2005 we have mainly witnessed the impact of the economic crisis. The housing sector, which used to employ many people around here, has ground to a halt. Jobs in tourism and the restaurant trade too. And when things are not going well for the parents, the young people feel it too. Not to mention the multiple community associations which have had to close due to lack of funding.

My project, is to help the young people find a new, non-violent form of expressing themselves. And ‘slam’ is an innovative way to let them vent their frustration. But our association lacks volunteer teachers to come and supervise the young people of the neighbourhood."

"What I saw on television was not what I experienced"

Cité des Carreaux, Villiers-le-Bel. Posted on Flicrk by Nicolas Oran.

Anissa lives in Viller-le-Bel. She was a classroom assistant in a secondary school of one of the teenagers who died in the motorbike accident in 2007.

During the riots [of November 2007], I watched the confrontation between the police and the young people from my window. I heard gun shots. What shocked me the most was the helicopter which hovered over the neighbourhood throughout the night and shone a huge spotlight onto my balcony. It was like being in a war zone. Nobody got much sleep. But I didn’t experience the things that I saw on television. I didn’t feel threatened.

To this day, I still don't understand exactly what happened. The police share a large portion of the blame, exacerbating the situation with their continuous spot checks. I have, however, tried to reason with my students, but it is impossible. I have not lived in the greater Paris region for very long and when I arrived it was great culture shock. I have since moved to Garges-les-Gonesses where I am secretary in a secondary school. It is easier on a professional level, but I was better off in Villiers-le-Bel as, apart from the riots, it was calmer.

I often go back there, so I know that in three years nothing has changed in the neighbourhood. Not better, no worse. We have not seen anything of the so-called “Marshall Plan for the housing estates.” I have seen absolutely nothing change - it is the same thing, the same conflicts between the youth and the police. Teenagers hang out in the same places. There is still a feeling of humiliation to say that you come from that neighbourhood."

"Since Sarkozy came to power, racists feel vindicated"

Saïdou, 31 years old, has lived all his life in Mureaux in the Yvelines Valley, west of Paris. He is currently unemployed.

In 2005, the uprising was a surprise. Everyone knew that the situation was a ticking time-bomb, but nobody dreamed that the violence would erupt so suddenly and be so widespread. I was not at all scared for my own safety because I was a spectator, but I did have the impression that we were under siege. The young people rioted all night but they were masked, so I didn't recognise any of them. I remember the noise of the 'flashballs' [a type of rubber bullet gun] and the smell of tear gas.

I think that, in part, the disturbance was legitimate, because the death of Zyed and Bouna was unfair. But the media involuntarily fanned the flames of the protest, overstating the phenomenon. The death of those young people was soon eclipsed by gangs trying to outdo each other in the use of violent tactics. I got the impression that neighbourhood became a battleground of who could burn the most cars.

Two years later and there was a fresh wave of violence in Villers-le-Bel. Again French people were afraid, so they put the Minister of the Interior in the Presidential Palace. Since Sarkozy has been in power, with his strong, security rhetoric, racists feel vindicated. People here feel stigmatized.

These days, Mureaux has been transformed. The tower blocks have been knocked down. We are impatiently waiting to be connected to the Paris suburban rail network which will extend to Mantes-la-Jolie, but that won't be before 2020 at the earliest. There is a tangible feeling that things are opening up. There is a real willingness to integrate the population, to get rid of the social and ethnic ghettos. But for the moment, I can't see any real changes as these things take years. And the unemployment rate is still enormous in my neighbourhood.


That said, I still get the impression that it could all flare up again at any moment. However if this happens, I have noticed that the police are now especially trained to ‘contain' the violence in the poorer neighbourhoods and to protect the nicer ones. Although, these incidents only take place in the poorer neighbourhoods."

"The school system entrenches segregation"

André Béranger, a retired teacher, has lived in the Arlequin neighbourhood for 35 years.

 These days, schools push aside kids from poorer families. A tiny minority are allowed to climb the social ladder, the rest are stuck where they are. The ‘réseaux ambition réussite’ [‘Ambition Fulfilling Network’ scheme, initiated in poorer areas of France to encourage equal access to good secondary schools] do not achieved what their name suggests. We tried to put into place an experimental system in Villeneuve in the 70s and 80s to give the other children a sense that their schooling was an investment, which now seems to us like a sick joke. This system has undermined the standard of national education. Of course, it is not school which is going to resolve all problems, but school entrenches segregation.

One cannot nourish an animal who refuses to eat, and these young people from the poor neighbourhoods expect nothing from their schooling. It is not right that they cannot air their worries in class, to externalise their cooped-up emotions. Most of the children of the neighbourhood believe that the police have humiliated their family. They grow up with a deep distrust of the police. Sometimes they harbour a blind hatred, which is difficult to reason with. They see a police van pass by and they throw stones. But we don’t want the police to never dare show up in the neighbourhood. We must allow the kids to meet the police to ask them why they have such a brutal and unintelligent attitude. Teaching them how to write a letter to the chief of police using a suitable register, for example, would be an effective exercise in communication in the education programme.

What has struck me most is the lack of understanding on the part of the politicians of the reality of what life is like for the poor. Politicians these days are only propped up by the middle classes. They are irritated by, and incapable of, helping families in more difficult circumstances. I am not reassured by the renewed wave of car burnings and other threatening behaviour. I am also weary when I talk to angry local residents, and when the law enforcement forces come, since sometimes they provoke the problems. The slightest abuse of police power, and the whole thing could break out all over again."

Place du marché. Posted sur Flickr by Vemeko.

Post written with Paul Larrouturou, journalist.