France: All they want is respect and gainful employment

After three feverish weeks, France and its suburbs are back to a period of relative calm. It is still too early to assess the whole extent of the shock or to spell out the complexity of what it signifies and all that it entails. It started on 27th October with the death of two teenagers, Zyed Benna (aged 17) and Bouna Traoré (aged 15), who were hiding in a power sub-station in the belief that the police was chasing them., Official explanations of the incident in the hours that followed were neither clear nor convincing. Street protests erupted that same night at Clichy-sous-Bois, the place of the incident. In a span of five days, the unrest had fanned out to other towns in the Paris area, spreading subsequently to the rest of France. In all, more than three weeks of civil disorder resulted. Such happenings are serious. It is not the first time that the death of one or more young people in matters related to the police force has provoked grave incidents. People were quick to compare them with the events of May 1968 even though they are of an altogether different nature. There was no shortage of interpretations of the events this time: this unrest is willed by mafia gangs seeking to create instability; it is caused by the extreme left activists; it will all eventually profit Islamic movements. The first to react were the people themselves, those who live in the suburbs. In several neighbourhoods, such as Cergy, where there is a Jesuit community, adults organised themselves to make contact with the adolescents. The memory of previous tensions with the police is at times quite vivid. In June, a violent confrontation ?triggered by the search of several homes by the police?destroyed the painstaking efforts at community building between the youths and the inhabitants of the area. In many places, NGO activists, teachers and others strove to maintain the link. From the adults? viewpoint, the fact that young people are disoriented and angry is understandable but their violence can be neither excused nor justified. Compared with the daily commitment of such persons, the government?s reaction seems quite disproportionate. Many agree that order had to be re-established. But not at any cost. The enforcement of the so-called ?state of emergency? law dating back to 1955 brings back painful memories of the Algerian war. Recourse to such a law authorising measures such as night searches sends out signals of highhanded disdain towards the actual situation. Its use leads to shrill and excessively animated public debate, rash interpretations, and a confused jumble of wholly unacceptable stands, like the one claiming that the violent acts were due to polygamy. Together with its show of force, the government has made a number of social proposals that are far from being in place as yet. It wants to re-introduce a system of aid measures to hard pressed local associations (whose sources of financing have been swept away in the last three years by liberal measures) and push ahead with urban renovation. However well intentioned, promises of renewal limiting themselves to existing programmes will nevertheless not suffice. The debate is now open. Perhaps it is still left in the hands of specialists, with not enough space allowed for creativity and the demands of the suburban population itself. Many good analyses, some of which are now flooding the media, seek to explain the malaise or the social divide in France. After overcoming the hurdles, we may begin to talk about the issue. An effort that goes down to the deepest level is now required: one that starts by listing the discrimination and difficulties that such young people encounter; that asks why the State has not been able to carry out its social responsibilities and mission; that examines the consequences of ever stiffer competition among the cities, and among the different provinces, a competition that increasingly takes young people hostage. Those who protested were not asking for anything revolutionary; all they want is respect and gainful employment. Pierre Martinot Lagarde SJ, Chief Editor of Projet magazine and Director of CERAS (Centre d?Etudes et Recherches pour l?Action Sociale), Paris