French Secularism or Anything But? Part 2

Last week we explored France’s constitutional culture which allowed us to, at the very least understand, though not necessarily support, how the 2011 ban on covering the face in public was not a direct attack on French Muslims, but simply a logical step in line with a steady phasing out of religious iconography in the public sphere. This week we will look at whether the riots in Trappes were actually caused by said ban, or whether this overly simplistic explanation in fact distracts us from the real causes behind it.

The 2005 riots that led to days of looting, thousands of cases of arson against public buildings and cars, and hundreds of injured rioters and police represented a high-water mark in the disenfranchised feelings between youths of the estates and the state. The outburst has been widely blamed on the fact that those that lived there felt that they had been ignored and sidelined by society; perched on the far edges of cities, and branded as ruffians by the political classes, Sarkozy who at the time was the minister of the interior, had referred to them days before the violence erupted. The riots themselves were sparked by a random event like we saw in Trappes. In the case of the 2005 riots, this was the accidental death of two youths hiding from police in a sub-station.

It was felt that for too long the state had ignored these communities, normally made up of working class descendants of North African and Middle-Eastern immigrants, allowing them to waste away in ghettoised districts on the outskirts of France’s largest cities. The state was well aware of their plight. In the 1990s such places, known as quartiers difficilties, had been mapped out and identified by the authorities in the wake of the first of these kind of riots in the 1980s.

The key factor in the riots however was the degree of mistrust towards the police. As in Trappes, the riots began due to the perception the police had attacked one of their community. As in 2005, many in the neighbourhood felt that the two young boys had been killed as a result of police action (including their families). Indeed, much of the violence, rather than being contained by the police, was according to police chiefs, being targeted directly at them. On one Sunday night in a Paris suburb, two policemen were ambushed by youths, and were rushed to hospital with gun shot wounds to the leg and throat. Many of the youths rioting had plenty of examples of where they felt the police had over stepped the mark, citing random stop and searches as a daily occurrence, indeed a routine, as well as racist remarks and violent conduct. Certainly this wasn’t a measured response to what they feel is police oppression and a sapping of dignity. The actions of the rioters are indefensible, but it was certainly not an act of mindless thuggery. For many who took part (certainly not for all however) it was a violent spasm of frustration against the authorities.

2005 was certainly no Muslim uprising either. Indeed, the riots were completely unmotivated by religion. Leaders of some of Franceiess largest Muslim community, such as the UOIF and the JMF made religious orders for the youths to return home; all of which were ignored. Similarly, no churches or synagogues were targeted despite the widespread nature of arson in the stricken areas, and shouts of “allahu akbar!” came from mediators, and not the rioters themselves. Muslims from outside the estates did not join in either, the only cultural loyalties that seemed to have any motivating effect for the rioters was the local, neighbourhood bandes. These groups are certainly not of the same nature as gangs in LA or Mexico, but were instead made up of a core leadership of full-time drug dealers and petty criminals complimented by a peripheral membership of between 50 and 200 local youth who could be mobilized if faced by some external threat. These groups formed the basic units of the riots and were where most of the individual rioter’s loyalties could be found.

The riot in Trappes has exactly the same motivations. The riot was again a spasm of frustration against a police force seen as racist and oppressive. As 18 year old Abdoulaye, a youth from Trappes who witnessed the riot told France 24, “The police treat us like dirt and they are violent and they are racist.” This was a sentiment held by many of the other youths that France 24 spoke to in Trappes, most of whom blamed the riots on what they see as institutional racism in the police. At the same time however, many did not seem sympathetic to those being ticketed for wearing a niqab. Abdoulaye again was clear on this, “The law says it’s banned, and if you go out wearing a veil you will be stopped. Everyone knows this. You have to respect the rules.” Another local also said that in regards to the burqa ban, “The law is the law.” and this was shared by many others in the area according to France 24.

In similarity to 2005, the rioters were not mobilised by religious organisations either. Again, the targets of the riots were not churches, synagogues or other religious institutions, but instead, the police. The riots, as we have already mentioned, began with a siege of a local police station where a man was being detained. It is also believed that the man in question, as we have already mentioned, was a prominent figure in the community. The violence may well be the mobilisation of the neighbourhood bandes, motivated by local community loyalties in opposition to an outside threat; in this case the police. This bears similarity to 2005, where gang loyalties mobilised youths against the police after it was felt they were responsible for the death or two members of their community. In 2013, Trappes youths felt the police wrongly imprisoned a member of their community, having already, perceivably, racially attacked a veiled woman and her mother.

Many of the economic problems that led to earlier riots have still not been addressed. With France embroiled in a recession as well as being negatively effected by the Euro crisis, topped off by a government failing to deliver on the growth and jobs it promised, France’s outer city estates still remain in the same state they were ten years ago. Though there has been some effort to improve housing, these have mainly resulted in expensive and cosmetic initiatives such as demolishing the Brutalist concrete high-rises and building more modern and less dense housing. What is needed more than modern architecture in these places is investment in education and initiatives to improve employment, especially among the young. This would provide an alternative to drug dealing, endemic in the area, as indeed Trappes is one of Europe’s largest centres of the cannabis trade.

Thus, we can see Trappes was a localised and isolated continuation of the riots of 2005 and the riots that happened before then. It was not religious in its nature, and though the youths and residents expressed fears that the police were institutionally racist and Islamophobic, there were no calls for a repeal of the 2011 ‘burqa ban’ due to it discriminatory nature. This is not to say that France does not suffer, indeed more so now than years before, from racial hatred towards Muslims, nor is it to deny that in some ways the state has behaved in a way that could be deemed hostile to the largest Muslim community in Europe. This case of violence was simply another explosion of frustration by angry youths from the French underclass, against the police whom they see as the enemy. This has a long tradition in France, and try as they might, these riots will only continue until the state can no longer ignore them. Trappes was certainly ugly, but worse is surely to come.