'France Is an Apartheid': An Intellectual Explains What Will Happen to Paris' Suburban Kids

A conversation with French political analyst Thomas Guénolé about the prejudice faced by young people living French suburban ghettos

by Antoine Hasday
20 November 2015, 12:10pm

Dj Mehdi and Kéry James, French suburban teenagers in the early 90s. Photo via the Facebook page of Mafia K'1 Fry.

This article originally appeared on VICE France

When he's not campaigning for the de-christianisation of French public holidays or lobbying against the Security Intelligence Act, political analyst Thomas Guénolé writes. In his 2015 book Les Jeunes de Banlieue Mangent-ils Les Enfants? – or Do Banlieue Youth Eat Children? – he tackles the prejudice faced by young people living French suburban ghettos – also known as the banlieue.

Nowhere can this prejudice be summed up more succinctly than by French rap group La Rumeur's song 'I Am An Ethnic Gang Myself Alone'. "Hooligan, fundamentalist, barbarian, rioter, terrorist, bastard, savage," they spit, reeling off the labels thrown at them. And now, in the wake of last week's terrorist attacks, the subsequent raids in the Saint-Denis suburbs and the state of emergency declared by François Hollande, kids in Paris' banlieue will be even more under the spotlight.

It has been 10 years since the notorious "banlieue riots" of 2005 – three weeks of violent street protest in the suburbs, sparked by the deaths of two teenagers after a police chase. But according to Thomas Guénolé, "banlieue-phobic" attitudes are still entrenched in French culture – from newspaper editorials calling for a clampdown on security, to the dramatic scenes shown on TV news to cinema – where suburban Parisian kids are always, no matter how lovable their characters – connected in some way to crime and fundamentalism.

Back in 2005, there was a near-universal agreement that the root of the problems in the banlieue was poverty and discrimination. Now, it's Islam. But fears around radicalisation are wrong, says Thomas. He thinks what is actually happening is a "de-Islamification" of the French suburbs. Only 15 percent of young Muslims wear the hijab and according to France's Intelligence Services themselves, radicalisation concerns only 4 percent of the French mosques.

But poverty in these areas is still rife. Kids from the banlieue are two times more likely to have to repeat a year at school than the French average and half as likely to enter 1re S – the sought-after science stream of high school.

So what will happen to these kids in the wake of the September 13 attacks? I caught up with Thomas to find out.

Thomas Guénolé. Photo: Samuel Kirszenbaum for Libération, via Thomas Guénolé's Facebook.

VICE: Hi Thomas. Your book aims to debunk French prejudices against young people from the banlieue – mainly Muslims and those from immigrant families. Do you think these prejudices will deepen after the November 13 attacks?
Thomas Guénolé: It is unfortunately likely. And it will be the same process of generalisation: A portion of the young fundamentalist assassins come from the suburbs, so if you come from the suburbs you are supposedly automatically predisposed to becoming a fundamentalist assassin.

That said, I am very surprised by the collective maturity of the French population compared to the days following the Charlie Hebdo attacks. After Charlie, the population split in two trying to answer the question, "Am I Charlie?". This time, the national unity and solidarity amongst the French population is very powerful. There's far less fearmongering. French people seem to have been able to see the difference between fundamentalists and Muslims.

Former N
orwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said after the 2011 Utoya attacks: "We will answer to terror by more democracy, more open-mindedness, more tolerance." Do you agree with that?
Yes. I sincerely believe that our security strategy – more mass surveillance, fewer civil liberties – is a mistake. Not only do the results of the NSA and the Patriot Act show that in terms of efficiency, those methods don't work but by following that path, France is moving further away from an open society and towards a police state.

It's a surrender of our fundamental values of freedom in the face of an enemy. It would be better to focus on dismantling the enemy's death machine by immediately setting up a coalition between the air force and ballistic capacities of NATO on one side, and the ground troops of the Arab League on the other side. That to me seems sensible and pragmatic.

If Islamic State are deliberately creating a hostile environment against Muslims to create martyrs, is it fair to say that Islamophobes and "banlieue-phobics" are not only idiots but useful to Islamist terrorism?
All those who make sweeping generalisations that fundamentalism is a problem amongst all French Muslims are faithful performers of Islamic State's strategy. They should be aware of that.

Kids in Sevran, a northeastern suburb of Paris. Photo via Flickr.

Have French policies towards the suburbs encouraged jihadism?
The condition of our suburbs is a problem in itself that needs a political answer. If the city centres have to fear jihadism in order to worry about the abject misery in which our suburban population has been sinking for decades – that is appalling. It says a great deal about the level of their empathy towards the poor populations in our country.

Your book on banlieue youth was published 10 years after the 2005 riots. How did it come about?
The starting point for my book was the demonstrations against the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during the summer of 2004, which gave rise to a flood of hate and fear speeches in the media against the "banlieue-youth" and the "banlieue-Islam".

Hearing so much hate rallied against these communities made me sick. So I wrote an opinion piece, published by left wing newspaper Libération, attacking this new rhetoric that the "jihadis from the banlieue" were our new enemy. A few months later, I published a second article, showing how racist and Islamophobic clichés had built this new enemy. A few days later, I got a book deal.

So are young Muslims now the enemy instead of the "suburban youths" of the 2000s?
I wouldn't say one has replaced the other, it's more about an accumulation. In addition to the hate and fear discourse about the "banlieue-youth", we now have an additional fear and hate discourse against Muslims.

Has religion been more prominent in the French banlieue since the September 11 attacks?
This focus on a radicalising minority is disproportionate. The majority of young French Muslims are moving away from Islam. Compared with their parents' generation, religious practice is decreasing. Parallel to that however, we are witnessing a revival of religious fundamentalism within a minority of French Muslims.

The co-existence of both phenomena is not a coincidence. We saw the same thing happen in France in the latter part of the 20th Century: Small groups of Christian fundamentalists emerged, while the majority of French people were going through a de-Christianisation process.

Although the media stigmatise the suburbs some well-known figures, like Omar Sy from The Untouchables and the rapper Joey Starr, are glorified. How do you explain this?
The problem with highlighting some isolated examples of great artistic or entrepreneurship success is that it reinforces the cliché. This notion that some of them are very nice is a complementary discourse to anti-banlieue-youth racism.

Instead of only showing drug dealers and dynamic entrepreneurs, maybe we could just show suburban youth as they are – roughly speaking, half of them in real pain, the other half living from small jobs at the bottom of the social ladder. Incidentally, half of the young people who live in the banlieue are actually girls. We never see them either.

Some girls from Evry, south of Paris. Photo via Flickr.

The idea of systematic racism is hard to stomach for some Republican intellectuals though.
One of the conclusions of my book is that there is an apartheid in France that is, in the strict sense, a coherent and structured system of economic, social and cultural segregation. The apartheid is quite obvious, especially in the education system. And to say it more bluntly, every black person and every Arab person knows exactly what this is because they experience it everyday. The apartheid practiced in France might be sneaky and assumed, but it is still quite real.

The intellectuals who put blame for our social problems on migrant communities from Arabic or Sub-Saharan origins are actually aiming at the wrong target. Yes, there is a problem with separatism in France, but it's not young Muslims. It's the elderly middle-classes who make sure only them and their offspring have a chance to blossom in our society.

Antoine is on Twitter.

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