Letter from a burning banlieue

As the dust settles over Aulnay-sous-Bois, an Oxford student asks the rioters what all that was about.

Patrick Belton

Topics Politics

AULNAY-SOUS-BOIS, PARIS – Before I came to fisticuffs with the young rioters I was interviewing, before they relieved me of my camera, we spoke. It was nightfall; we were solidly on their turf, their project in the Aulnay neighbourhood of Rose des Vents. The Franco-Algerian adolescent who gave me his name as Kabir The Gun, one of my two subsequent boxing partners from their group of seven, was quick to point out to me his neighbourhood was ‘ghetto’, ‘Bronx’, with an exaggerated bravado and pride in the toughness of his tract which lingered for me after.

The mural nearby us read ‘liberté, unité, respect’, depicting Cassius Clay, the pugilist who would take the name of the Prophet, rasul Allah. But these youths are not religious; their fighting possesses no truck with the faith of peace that passeth understanding. Indeed, fighting is their religion; its prophets, televised gangsters who for them symbolise power and anger.

But they are followers nonetheless, these young rioters, showcasing a repertory of imitation, performing an identity of violence they have seen acted out on flickering screens. They might occasionally add Israel, Jews and Sharon to France, Sarkozy, the ‘racist police’ and those others whose names follow, in their drunken, possibly drugged, excited invocations, the gallic equivalent of ‘Fuck’. Britain and New Labour get off lightly; America does not wholly escape – but France is the true target for their disdain. These are neighbourhoods whose inhabitants in an anti-Casablancan moment booed the Marseillaise during a Franco-Algerian football fixture in October 2001, and did so again during the recent demonstration mobilised by Aulnay’s mayor, shopkeepers and councillors against their banlieue’s rioting.

Aulnay-sous-Bois has seen the worst violence of any of the banlieues to date. But on an official map, reading Aulnay like a cartographer of state, its grittiest neighbourhood of la Rose des Vents seems wholly legible and Gallic – its streets bear the labels Rue Auguste Renoir, Rue Rembrandt, Rue Edgar Degas, Rue Paul Cézanne. Its map records a church, St-Jean, with a cross, a Parc Départmental du Sausset with pleasant-looking lake and unstinting use of green and blue inks, and no legends that denote either housing estates or anything grim which might lie out of place in the bucolic countryside.

Go, and you note two things at the RER-B stop that immediately precedes Aulnay-sous-Bois. The graffiti starts, and all the white people get off. But upon exiting the station one could be forgiven an unsettling suspicion you’d accidentally got off at the wrong dodgy banlieue. In the Vieux Pays neighbourhood and the area about the station – the southern bit – the only indication that you’re not in another of the world’s well-heeled metropolitan suburbs comes from awfully well-reinforced steel walls setting the houses, replete with gardens and long driveways, apart from the street. It’s when you go north from there, up toward the Citroën plant and the main road bisecting the banlieue, that you encounter the fields of high-rise housing projects, the famous cités.

Go to the estates that border the Parc Robert Ballanger or those of the Trois Mille further to its north, underneath the ascending curve of aeroplanes departing from Charles de Gaulle airport. The edgier of them, like the one we are in now, have large fences dropped from the sky separating every quantum of space, like organelles in a cell. Dropped second and scraping the air are the residential buildings, white in their tall landing-pod surreality and intermittently dominating the otherwise vacant skyline: this article was to have had pictures. On the street the glass of each bus stop has been broken, the pieces linger on the ground; the burnt-out cars have for the most part been towed away, but some remain.

But its people smile and greet you, and answer your queries for directions pleasantly and unhurriedly. As in all ghettoes, there are here both criminals and people trying to make a life, handfuls of the first and the latter in their thousands. Here they get on with their lives: children study in fenced-in schools, play basketball on a sturdily fenced court, then enter fence-enclosed residential buildings with their parents. Cité dwellers are quite friendly to curious outsiders, but grow silent and uncomfortable when you bring up the unspoken current event. In the grocers’, or on the street outside where people congregate, locals do not want to say anything about their own children, students or customers. One elderly man insists the vandals are from other banlieues; another complains they cannot use corporal punishment here as their own parents could in North Africa; a third, in his thirties and who works with youth, admits they are the same students with whom he works.

There is similar reticence in other shops and the mosque. The mosque is unmarked in either French or Arabic, in an industrial quarter of town, the only clues lying in the nearby halal butcher and sauna, shoehorned between entering lorries and a food preparation vocational school. A kindly Algerian immigrant in his late thirties had been explaining to me that it was a difficult situation for residents, but what were they to do, when Suleiman, middle-aged and the presumptive imam with short grey beard and skullcap, showed me the door with some force, his one hand on my shoulder and the other on the hand he had been shaking, explaining he did not appreciate prying outsiders. Jean-Claude, a courteous restaurant owner on the banlieue’s northern border and not an Aulnaisien, was similarly reluctant to discuss the riots, though he shared that his customers were down from 90 to 30 per night, clients were staying in past nightfall, and that it was a difficult situation, but what could one do? He hoped the worst was over.

My rioters, though, are more talkative. They offer to take me to basement caches of Molotov cocktails, drugs and Kalashnikovs. When riot police from the Compagnies Republicaines de Securité aren’t around, they speak with exaggerated bravado, pointing out wreckage they claim responsibility for. (When riot police are around, they use ‘monsieur’, and are quiet.) These youths model racial harmony, children of Arab and black Africans together patrolling their streets as comrades in violence. They’re kids, generally aged 15 to 18, and they have simply been having a rather violent holiday, bashing up cars and bus stops because it’s fun to do so.

Sandy Mayson, 25 and a recent Yale graduate living in Paris as a freelance journalist, was blocks to the north of me in the Trois Mille, two immense buildings which between them contain the indicated number of housing units. Her rioters, shortly after they said the riots had nothing to do with religion and informing her there were Christians and Buddhists rioting as well, claimed to have two friends in Guantanamo Bay, directing her to tell them hello. She suspected they were talking rubbish; they seemed for instance familiar with no biographical details about their world-travelling friends.

The banlieues are bannum leucae or, in late Latin, banleuca – territory without the city’s walls but, theoretically, within the limits of its laws. Paris is attempting to regain the sway of its banns here. Policing is a remarkable drama to observe now, and fits an exegesis of the banlieue riots as the handiwork of young criminal gangs rather than a spontaneous Francophone uprising of the oppressed to gladden the hearts of Trotskyists. Go to the tourist core, the Champs and the Arc de Triomphe, and you will see visible policing in spades. This is policing intended not only to deter, but to be visible, to comfort tourists and native Parisians that their city is intact. I counted 10 police cars by the Elysée metro station Monday night, then by Place de la Concorde two large buses painted blue, on the sides with white letters labelled ‘Gendarmerie’.

But go to Aulnay and a quite different pattern emerges. At first, it appears minimally policed if at all; only the periodic patrol car from the badly financed police annexe, and the riot units at moments of conflagration. But look closer, and there are signs that here there is indeed a war being fought by the French state – not by a massive billeting of troops to reassert the abeyed sovereignty of state against rising masses, and the monopoly of leviathan on force, but a more secret war being fought by the security services against youthfully determined criminal gangs, clandestinely and quietly selecting its targets, and in the shadows so as not to alienate a broader and possibly tendentious populace.

There is a bus of gendarmes here as well, but this one does not bear the title ‘gendarmerie’ on the side to comfort those it protects and serves; it has its lights out, and is parked at an out-of-the-way stop a few roads removed from a project, to effectively simulate an off-duty bus. Peer closer into its darkened windows and it is a hive of activity. Look carefully at cars passing by after nightfall, and one sees not only those occupied by cité residents and shopkeepers, but those that bear in each seat beefy short-coiffured men clearly only recently out of the forces, if at that, with more than a bit of technological wizardry inside to boot. The French state is here, too; it has not given up on these of its neighbourhoods; it merely joins the battle on its terms, and against its selected enemies.

But to win more than selected battles, it is the economy that must improve. The banlieues will not advance towards peace until the market draws all of their youth into employment. Talk of a Sixth Republic increases along with disaffectedness from a once deferential nation toward its ruling Enarquecracy, and a president who this week seemed curiously silent and whose shoulders looked small when he sought to use the once august republican language of De Gaulle.

My rioters, in the end, told me I would need to pay them to continue talking to me; first 100 euros, then 50, to include a tour of the cache with the Molotov cocktails. I told them I would come back later, but would accept their tour. Then Kabir said if I did return, I would then need to take the tour for 100 euros, or he would perform an operation on me which one might refer to as a particularly thorough circumcision. We scrapped; as we did so, a second-generation West African youth stole my camera; we stared at each other for several moments. Then Kabir and his comrade declined further engagement, and ran off with my camera. I realised I was angry, so I took out my pen, and wrote.

Over the grey Aulnay projects the sunset rose red, stamped with the white partial moon of the huntress….

Patrick Belton is a writer and president of the Foreign Policy Society. He lives between Oxfordshire and a Swiss writing garret, ordinarily stays out of street brawling, and is finishing a doctorate at Oxford University. He writes daily on, and his writing on French Muslims has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement.

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Topics Politics


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