Another Generation of Riots in France, as Seen From Clichy-Sous-Bois

In the fall of 2005, Faisal Daaloul was a young adult protesting in the streets of Clichy-sous-Bois, an impoverished Paris suburb seething over the death of two teenagers as they were pursued by police officers. After the spasms of public anger, he hoped that France would finally turn its attention to its long-neglected suburbs and their minority communities.

Fast forward nearly 20 years. Mr. Daaloul is now a father. He struggled to keep his 18-year-old son from joining recent violent protests set off by the police killing of a teenager that many blamed on racist attitudes. Mr. Daaloul is of Tunisian descent and his wife is Black, and he fears that his son would be a perfect target for the police.

“Little has changed in two decades,” Mr. Daaloul said. “The schools and the police are no better. 2005 has been useless.”

In reality, much has changed. After the 2005 riots, the French government invested billions of euros to revamp its immigrant suburbs, or banlieues, to try to rid them of run-down social-housing blocks. But the similarity of the recent riots, and what spurred them, almost a generation later has raised questions about whether the efforts to improve conditions in the banlieues have failed.

Residents of the neighborhoods and experts say the redevelopment programs have, indeed, fallen well short of their goals, even as they acknowledge the many changes the efforts have brought. The reasons for the failure, they say: Change has come too slow, and, perhaps more important, the government programs have done little to address deeper, debilitating issues of poverty and discrimination.

“We took action on the buildings, but not on the people who lived in them,” said François Dubet, a sociologist at the University of Bordeaux, in southwestern France. “Unemployment remains very high, racism is still a commonplace experience, discrimination is a daily reality, and the youth and the police continue to clash.”

Clichy-sous-Bois embodies the challenges facing France. The city was the center of the 2005 riots and has since become something of a laboratory for the changes promised by various governments. New social housing has sprung up in many neighborhoods. A government-funded cultural center opened in 2018 for musicians and artists who needed space to practice and work. A metro line is scheduled to open in three years.

But when riots broke out across the country after the recent police shooting, Clichy-sous-Bois was hit hard again: Dozens of cars burned and public buildings were targeted, including the city hall and a library.

“These cities have been profoundly transformed by urban renewal,” Olivier Klein, France’s minister for cities and housing and the former mayor of Clichy-sous-Bois, said in an interview. “But government action takes time and some people, especially the youth, have yet to see the transformation of their neighborhoods, so they rightly feel they are being mistreated.”

Young people in the area agree, and say their anger transcends resentment against the police, who are often accused of brutal treatment of people of color. In interviews during a recent visit to the neighborhood, they spoke of being “treated like dogs” when applying for jobs, of their frustration at not having a soccer pitch to play on, of their fury at not being hired as extras when films are shot in their neighborhood.

Several of the young people interviewed acknowledged in hushed tones that they had participated in the recent unrest, shooting fireworks at public buildings and the police.

(On Saturday, in several cities around France, hundreds of people marched in protests against police violence. The marches were largely peaceful, but in Paris, some protesters were fined and two were arrested.)

The 2005 riots began after two teenagers died in Clichy-sous-Bois. Zyed Benna, 17, was of Tunisian descent, and Bouna Traoré, 15, of Mauritanian descent.

The two teenagers and a friend crossed a construction site on their way home from a soccer game. A resident called the police, suspecting a break-in. When the officers arrived, the teenagers fled in fear and hid in an electrical substation. Two were electrocuted. (The officers were accused of failing to prevent their deaths, but were later acquitted.)

The protests in Clichy-sous-Bois in the immediate aftermath of the deaths quickly spread to other suburbs and developed into several weeks of unrest, eventually resulting in the government’s declaring a state of emergency. The rioting came as a shock to many in France, revealing issues of discrimination, poverty and policing that had long been overlooked.

In response, the government accelerated plans to revamp the banlieues. Clichy-sous-Bois benefited from one of the biggest packages: Nearly $670 million was invested in new low-rise public housing, hundreds of buildings with balconies and gardens.

But the redevelopment is uneven. Today, Clichy-sous-Bois remains a vast construction site with many buildings covered in scaffolding. Newly erected bright-white buildings stand opposite shabby apartment blocks, their facades darkened by grime and neglect. A modern, multistory music school was inaugurated just last month.

“It’s gotten better, that’s clear,” said Ali Diara, 19, who was hanging out with two friends in Chêne Pointu, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Clichy-sous-Bois. The area was depicted in the 2019 hit film “Les Misérables,” about France’s destitute suburbs.

Several years ago, Mr. Diara moved into a new high-rise with blue balconies. “It’s bigger,” he said, “and the elevators do work there.”

But the high-rise is one of the only modern buildings in the neighborhood. It stands amid dilapidated housing projects, some with broken entrance doors, that have awaited renovation for more than 15 years.

“The timetable has not lived up to expectations,” acknowledged Mr. Klein, the minister and former mayor. He said Chêne Pointu, where he grew up, had not been prioritized in the initial urban development plans because of a lack of funding, stoking a sense of injustice that helped feed the recent protests.

Mohamed Mechmache, a leader of Aclefeu — a group founded after the 2005 riots to express the demands of the banlieues — said the real problem with the urban renewal efforts was that they had been “a beautiful storefront” that masked deeper problems.

Poverty rates in Clichy-sous-Bois have stagnated around 40 percent in the past decade, about three times the national average, according to official statistics. A tramway line promised after the 2005 riots was not inaugurated until 2019, and even with the tram, commuting to central Paris, only a dozen miles away, takes an hour and a half.

Relations between citizens and the police, a force accused of racial discrimination, also remain tense, as evidenced by the bunkerlike police station built in Clichy-sous-Bois after the earlier riots. Its perimeter walls are 20 feet high.

“Trust in the police is below zero here,” said Sofiane, 19, who was smoking a hookah with several friends in an alleyway.

Sofiane, who is of North African descent and declined to give his last name for fear of reprisals, recounted regular episodes of police harassment and intimidation. He said he was recently arrested on his way to a friend’s home. “The officer said, ‘Prove to me you’re going to see your friend.’ I had to show him my text messages.”

A 2018 parliamentary report noted that the successive governments’ efforts to improve life in the suburbs had mostly failed, in part because they did not focus enough on helping residents escape poverty.

In the Seine-Saint-Denis, France’s poorest department and home to Clichy-sous-Bois, two-thirds of teachers in the most troubled high schools are new recruits, the report said. Residents who succeed often move out and are replaced by newly arrived immigrants, who are often very poor, creating a kind of vicious circle.

“We’re not solving the underlying issues,” said Mr. Mechmache, the activist, adding that, under these conditions, protests were bound to break out time and again.

This sense of déjà vu is evident in the Chêne Pointu neighborhood, where the 2005 riots were born. Black marks left by cars burned in the recent protests dot a parking lot. The glass front doors of the nearby city hall are pocked where they were hit by stones.

“We had to make ourselves heard! How can someone be killed for refusing a traffic stop?” Mr. Diara asked, referring to Nahel Merzouk, the teenage driver whose killing prompted the recent unrest. “Are we in America or what?”

The police officer who fired the fatal shot has been placed under formal investigation on charges of voluntary homicide and detained. His lawyer said this week that his client had not wanted to kill Mr. Merzouk during a traffic stop and had been aiming for his legs but was bumped when the car moved.

Mr. Klein, the minister for cities and housing, cautioned against hasty comparisons between 2005 and the recent violence over Mr. Merzouk’s death, calling for scientific research to examine the roots of the current anger.

But Mr. Dubet, the sociologist, said the recurrence of protests should raise concerns.

“It’s a country where anger rarely translates into concrete political change,” Mr. Dubet said. “If you don’t have any political outcome, you can be sure that it will flare up again.”

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