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Paris Suburb Commemorates Ten Years Since Two Teens' Deaths Sparked the 2005 French Riots

Clichy-sous-Bois, a suburb of Paris, recalled the day 10 years ago when two young men died after being chased by police into an electrical transformer site. The deaths of Bouna Traoré and Zyed Benna sparked the 2005 riots that spread through France.

by Lucie Aubourg
Oct 28 2015, 10:30pm

via Lucie Aubourg/VICE News

"I was at home that night. My son was two," remembers youth worker Laëtitia Nonone. "I found out about it from the media. I left the house, and I saw that the neighborhood across from mine was starting to go up in flames."

Ten years ago today, in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, Nonone witnessed the start of the riots that quickly spread to other blighted suburbs — known in French as banlieues — eventually engulfing France. "I think we can all remember, it's part of our history," said Nonone, 33, the founder of local youth organization Zonzon 93.

Behind her, young people are pouring into a local venue called Espace 93 for a tribute concert in memory of Bouna Traoré and Zyed Benna, the young men whose tragic deaths sparked the 2005 riots. Police had chased 15-year-old Traoré and 17-year-old Benna, along with 17-year-old Muhittin Altun, straight into a 20,000-volt electrical transformer site operated by French electricity company EDF in Clichy-sous-Bois.

Reportedly unsure whether the teens had actually fled inside the transformer site or not, the police left the scene. About a half hour later, the boys were electrocuted. Traoré and Benna died, but Altun survived with severe burns.

Initially suspected of having stolen materials from a nearby building site, it was later proved the teens had done nothing to warrant the police chase.

The news of Traoré and Benna's deaths spread fast, and that same night, the suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois went up in flames, with the unrest soon catching on in other areas of France.

At the height of the riots, angry youths torched some 10,000 vehicles and vandalized 230 public buildings in 300 towns across France. International media reporting on the riots published maps of France covered in flames to chart the spread of the violence. Nearly 200 security forces were injured in clashes, and police arrested 5,000 people during the riots.

Ten years on, the riots remain the symbol of the social and economic exclusion faced by those who live in France's poor suburbs. Then interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy came under fierce criticism for his confrontational approach and hard-line response to the crisis.

Two days before the tragedy, Sarkozy had visited a housing project in Paris's northwestern suburb of Argenteuil, where he referred to the area's disenfranchised youth as "scum," and promised residents he would "get rid of them."

VICE News was in Clichy-sous-Bois for the 10-year anniversary of the tragedy, particularly interested to see whether anything had changed in the last decade for those growing up in the area.

Young people take part in a tribute soccer tournament in memory of Traoré and Benna (Photo Lucie Aubourg/VICE News)

In the Paul-Vaillant-Couturier sport's hall, eight teams had gathered to compete in a friendly soccer tournament in memory of the two teens. After a minute of silence, mayor Olivier Klein kicked off the game at 10:00am. "We have to continue living our lives, and at the same time show that we haven't forgotten them," he told VICE News.

Klein — who was deputy mayor at the time of the tragedy — was on holiday on October 27, 2005. After hearing the news, he cut short his vacation and returned to find the suburb ablaze. "There was tremendous pain, and especially anger," he said, adding that public authorities at the time had "failed to find the right words" to ease the situation.

Every year on October 27, the residents of Clichy-sous-Bois remember Traoré and Benna. But the mood is particularly somber this year.

Back in May, a court in the northwestern French city of Rennes cleared two police officers charged with failing in their responsibility to help the two teens, even as it became clear they were putting their lives at risk by running into the substation.

Many saw the verdict as yet another injustice, in a case that has come to symbolize the strained relationship between France's disenfranchised youth and the police.

Related: French Police Officers Cleared in Teens' Deaths That Sparked Mass Riots

Ten years on
Clichy-sous-Bois, which has a population of 30,000, lies just a few miles north of Paris. But despite its geographical closeness to the capital, life in Clichy-sous-Bois is a far cry from life in the nation's financial center.

As though to illustrate the socio-economic divide, even getting from Paris to Clichy-sous-Bois is nothing short of a trek. It can take up to an hour and 30 minutes to make the trip from city to suburb and involves taking three types of transportation: the RER commuter train service, a tramway, and a bus.

A 2012 census revealed that half the population in Clichy-sous-Bois was under 30 and that 24.3 percent of working-age residents were unemployed. According to official statistics, 43 percent of residents are living below the poverty line — significantly more than the national average.

A building in Clichy-sous-Bois, steps away from the town hall (Lucie Aubourg/VICE News)

Following the riots, Clichy-sous-Bois was slated to undergo one of the country's most ambitious renewal plans. The government earmarked a 600 million euro budget for infrastructure improvements, including the building of a new police station, two new schools, and 1,000 new dwellings. Completion of a new tramway linking the town to the RER was scheduled for 2017.

But despite some improvements, Clichy-sous-Bois continues to illustrate the deep-seated malaise that characterizes the French banlieues.

Speaking in the weeks following the Charlie Hebdo shooting in January, Prime Minister Manuel Valls alluded to the social issues plaguing France, and said that the country was still reeling from 2005. He also denounced a "geographic, social and ethnic apartheid… and social misery, added to which are daily discriminations if you don't have the 'right' family name, the 'right' skin color, or if you're a woman."

At the time, Valls unveiled a three-year plan to improve life in France's rundown suburbs. Speaking Monday in the suburb of Les Mureaux, Valls said he would empower district authorities to put pressure on mayors who were unwilling to fulfill public housing quotas.

Part of the town's history
Back in the gymnasium, crowds of young people cheered and hollered as their friends continued to compete in the friendly tournament. Their shouts got lost in the music blasting out from two huge speakers in the corner of the room.

On the night they died, Benna and Traoré had been playing soccer in the stadium of the neighboring town of Livry-Gargan. At about 5:00pm, the boys decided to leave the stadium in order to be home by 6:00pm, when their families would be sitting down to break their Ramadan fast. The group walked home through an off-limits construction site, prompting a neighbor to report a break-in to the police.

Jesse Restrepo, 25, was one of Traoré's classmates. He still gets emotional when talking about his friend's death. Restrepo has played in every tribute soccer tournament since his friend's passing. The tournament, he explained, is a way to keep Traoré's memory alive. 

"That episode made a mark on this town, it's part of its history," he said. "Even those who didn't know him are aware of what happened."

Jesse Restrepo, 25. (Lucie Aubourg/VICE News)

Many of the young people who have gathered at the sports center today are too young to remember what happened on October 27, 2005. Still, they want to pay tribute to Benna and Traoré. Marina Bertin — who is on one of the two all-girl teams — was five when the riots broke out.

Today, she is a high school student. She has lived in Clichy-sous-Bois since she was "in [her] mother's tummy," and like the other kids in the neighborhood, is all too familiar with the tragedy. 

"My brother's ex told me what happened. They were nice, they had tons of friends, they died in vain," she said, in between two games. "This tribute, today, is important to us."

The smell of burning tires
Outside the sports hall, Samir Mihi is on his phone, making sure the day's events are unfolding smoothly. Around him, groups of teens smoke in the sun. Mihi is the president of the Au-delà des Mots [Beyond Words] group — a collective set up to help the victims' families. He is also part of the committee that organizes the annual memorial.

"The Traoré family were my neighbors, I knew them well," he told VICE News. Mihi said that he remembered October 27, 2005, as though it were yesterday. "I mostly remember the evening. Around 1:00am, I got a call telling me that the elder brother, who I knew very well, had just lost his little brother. We went to offer our condolences to the family. Outside, there was already the smell of burning tires."

In a nearby park, three youths discuss the tribute concert. French rapper Mac Tyer is scheduled to play the concert. "Who's Mac Tyer?" one of the boy asks. "You know, he's a rapper," his friend answers. "He's really famous," says the third.

Free tribute concert
Young people had started to gather outside the concert venue, some of them still in their soccer uniforms. The mood was cheerful, and yet no one had forgotten why they were here.

A crowd waits in line for the tribute concert at Espace 93 (Lucie Aubourg/VICE News)

Inside the venue, all the seats were filled. French rapper Youssoupha walked onto the stage to applause and cheers. In a May interview with Paris-based radio station Skyrock, Youssoupha urged people to protest the decision to clear the two police officers accused of failing to help the teens in 2005.

At the end of his set, Mac Tyer addressed the crowd, which fell silent. "I'm not here to rap," he said. "I made time for the families of Clichy because we're all the same."

Running away from the police
The crowds later converged on the square and Patrick Kanner, the French minister for cities, youth and sport, arrived. 

"We don't care about the minister being here," said 17-year-old Acar Martinos, who went to school with Traoré's borther. "The important thing is that we're all together."

Martinos has lived in Clichy-sous-Bois his whole life. He remember where he was 10 years ago, and how he was "scared to leave the house" with his parents because of the fire and because "everyone was screaming." Martinos found out what happened to Traoré and Benna at school. "They tried to run away from the police, right?" he asked, recalling what his teacher told him, all those years ago.

A crowd of young people gathers outside Clichy-sous-Bois town hall for the memorial. (Lucie Aubourg/VICE News)

Around 6.30pm, the victims' families follow the mayor and the minister down some steps for the unveiling of a plaque. Earlier in the day, Mayor Klein explained that the town had decided to rename an alleyway after the boys. "Today, dozens of children walk to school that way," he said.

The procession of family members, friends, residents, and journalists makes its way to a nearby stone memorial. Some lay wreaths and light candles.

The brothers' tribute
Benna's brother Adel was the first to speak. For 10 years, he has been the family spokeman and facing the crowd, he tearfully recalled the verdict pronounced in May by the court in Rennes. 

"At the time, we said he had died for nothing. We fought for 10 years to make sure they hadn't died in vain. We wanted to prove to all the young people in the banlieues that you can't take justice into your own hands and that France, the country of human rights, was going to sentence the police officers who were responsible for their deaths."

"After all that time spent on just getting a trial, that's the verdict we were given. Sadly, there's no point in lying, I do think my brother died in vain," he said. Traoré's brother Siyakha thanked those present for their support over the years.

After addresses by the mayor and the minister, the crowd slowly started to disperse. Later, a young boy walked toward the stone shrine and stared intently at the picture of Benna and Traoré.

Follow Lucie Aubourg on Twitter : @LucieAbrg