The decision Wednesday by a French appeals court to drop the case against two police officers implicated in the accidental deaths of youths that sparked nation-wide rioting in France in 2005 offers a reminder of how little things have changed for France’s blighted suburban housing projects since those dark days. Thankfully, inhabitants of Clichy-sous-Bois—the town north of Paris that erupted in rage following the deaths in what became a national contagion of nightly rioting—reacted in calm disappointment to the verdict, with the two boys’ families vowing to lodge their last possible appeal to bring the two cops involved to trial. For the sake of everyone involved—meaning, all of French society—let’s hope judges rule in favor of the much-needed hearing of all details in the case. Because if it’s denied—even by legitimately interpreting the letter of the law—it will represent a wider injustice to the harmony, cohesion, and understanding of French society.
Virtually all the deep socio-economic ills that contributed to the Oct. 2005 explosion of violence in Clichy-sous-Bois that spread to similarly disaffected projects throughout France still rage today—arguably even worse now than before. Indeed, those same causes continue triggering periodic eruptions of unrest in French projects—though few are spectacular or long enough to draw the kind of mass global media attention that the 2005 riots did. And that, indeed, is a big complaint of residents of the remote, unemployment-plagued banlieues: that they only get a hearing when pushed to violence, at which time international coverage shames French politicians (and frightens the mostly white, relatively affluent inhabitants of city centers) to renew promises to reincorporate the areas back into the welcoming, functional arms of wider French society. No one wants another bout of rioting to force that kind of notice again, which is exactly why an open court review of the events that led to Clichy-sous-Bois’ 2005 conflagration would offer a productive, possibly cathartic opportunity of social reckoning—even if the strict legal requirements for holding it may be debatable.
Residents of the vast clusters of high-rise projects that ring most major French cities rightly complain of living in dehumanizing segregation. Though once quite diverse, these banlieues now host disproportionally high minority populations who suffer unemployment rates of 20% to 50% (or more in some cases); whose public living and leisure structures are crumbling; and whose schools, transport (when there is any), police and fire forces are often staffed by the only people who can be forced into working in such increasingly unruly areas. Unruly, and hostile: the sentiment of rejection and mistreatment by wider French society has led many suburban youths to view any public official as a symbol of same state shunning them to the margins. That has turned bus drivers, ambulance medics, teachers—and of course cops—into what are considered legitimate targets for anti-social suburban aggression. Not surprisingly, that has left public employees working in such suburbs wary, defensive, and at times angry towards people they’re seeking to serve. And no group looms larger in those urban cross-hairs than police, who’ve generally come to treat local youths as trouble waiting to happen, and regularly try to disrupt even potential violence or criminal activity with repeated ID checks and searches that locals (also not surprisingly) denounce as gratuitous, even racist harassment.
That mutually antagonistic relationship explains why the two Clichy-sous-Bois youths were fleeing what they thought would be more police bullying, and why they were electrocuted to death while hiding in a clearly marked power substation. It also helps explain why their enraged peers blamed cops for killing the boys—and then staged nearly a month of urban warfare to protest their demise and the context in which it occurred. Accidents don’t happen when opposing camps view one another as guilty as a matter of course.
In these calmer times, nobody today credibly claims the two police officers involved wanted the death of the two boys. Even the terms of the charges being sought by the families—“failure to help people in danger”—is the mildest form of complicity in accidental death possible under French law. Instead, families and friends of the victims simply want the role of police in the events leading up to the deaths fully reviewed in court. If nothing else, they say, that may explain to the rest of France why it is two innocent adolescent boys were so convinced they were about to fall victim to the habitual police harassment of the projects that they chose to hide in a live power station to avoid it. As part of that, police officials—both the two cops involved in the incident, and superiors who backed them up—could also explain why they wound up having to revise their original story to investigators, ultimately admitting they had been pursuing the two boys after all, and were aware the pair had hidden inside the power station to escape. Although their role in those deaths seems clearly unintentional, getting the two police officers tell their entire story on the stand would be just as important for the families and their supporters as an eventual verdict. Getting justice sometimes means more—or, indeed, less—than getting revenge.
Meanwhile, placing the cops on trial—even for pro forma acquittal of accidental manslaughter—would also allow provide the harrowing details of what their lives are like amid actively and openly hostile suburban populations. After all, their work—seeking to maintain order for a majority of project residents while under attack from a minority—is only one side in a dynamic of escalating tension that the rival camp needs to understand and, if possible, appreciate. Obviously, opening up and airing out both sides of that divide won’t remedy the situation for good, but examining how it contributed to the two deaths in Clichy-sous-Bois could lead to a bit of reflection and re-thinking about where it will all lead if left unchecked. The same could be said for opposite sides in the widening gap between mainstream France, and its angry, scorned, and unloved project populations.