Were he alive today, Bouna Traoré would be 22. Instead, he’s frozen in French minds at 15.
That was Traoré’s age on Oct. 27, 2005, when he and friend Zyed Benna died of electrocution while fleeing cops. Harassment by the police was common in their rough Clichy-sous-Bois housing project north of Paris, where marginalization, anger and poverty have long festered. Their deaths occurred as they hid in a high-voltage transformer, fleeing police who—as it turns out—were chasing the boys on the logic that if they were running away, they must have been making trouble. The fatalities that resulted after the officers’ ill-fated intervention infuriated locals and set off a powder keg of resentment among Clichy-sous-Bois youths. Their nightly battles with phalanxes of cops set off fires in disaffected suburbs across France—unleashing nearly three-weeks of rioting that left some 10,000 cars burned, hundreds of public buildings damaged, around 3,000 people arrested, and a state of emergency imposed in many areas surrounding major French cities.
It also traumatized France: as the smoke cleared, the country was forced to ask itself how it had become so violently polarized into camps of complacent haves and alienated have-nots.
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Now, seven years after that suburban uprising, Traoré, Benna, and Clichy-sous-Bois residents have finally seen a glimmer of positive change stemming from the violence of 2005. On Oct. 31, a Paris high court reversed years of previous rulings blocking police officers from standing trial for their potential responsibility in the boys’ deaths. For many in Clichy-sous-Bois and other blighted French project towns, it’s the first sign that there can indeed be justice for all—no matter how removed from the order and comforts of mainstream French society their lives may be.
“Two boys who died are finally getting their day in court, and so is everyone who has insisted these seven years that there can’t be one kind of justice for most of France, and a lesser kind for us,” says Siyakha Traoré, Bouna’s 30-year old brother, of the ruling. “It’s an important decision for my family, it’s important for Clichy, and it’s important for the nation we’re supposed to be equal members of.”
But as Traoré notes, it’s only a small step in obtaining justice for his brother, and an even more timid advance in addressing the vast ills still plaguing France’s projects. The maladies have proven difficult to treat even when curative efforts are made. Those were rare under former conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was forging his reputation as France’s tough law-and-order Interior Minister when the 2005 riots broke out. Once in the Elysée, Sarkozy upped his anti-crime drive by frequently targeting unruly suburban youths he once infamously besmirched as “scum,” while hailing French police forces as heroes. Meanwhile, Sarkozy’s repeated embrace of anti-immigrant and Islamophobic themes not only left the minorities of the projects feeling stigmatized, but also undermined their regard of the French state and the leadership at its head.
Consequentially, Sarkozy’s election defeat caused Clichy-sous-Bois and similar neighborhoods to again explode—this time, in joy. But despite the celebrations François Hollande’s victory unleashed in the projects, it’s unlikely the Socialist president will be able to offer them much more than Sarkozy beyond more inclusive rhetoric. Hollande’s main focus now is on slashing spending and battling a debt crisis inherited from Sarkozy—though he’s still trying to offer the help he can. Hollande has announced the creation of 33,000 state-subsidized jobs in 2013 for youths with little or no qualification, tailored largely to disadvantaged areas. Another 100,000 posts will be financed for young people with vocational diplomas.
But while such efforts have earned Hollande some good will in the suburbs, it amounts to very little in light of the enormous problems the projects face. Indeed, despite $57 billion in spending over the past decade to raise living conditions and employment in such disenfranchised areas—known in France euphemistically as quartiers difficiles or simply banlieues (suburbs)—the situation in places like Clichy-sous-Bois looks even dimmer today than it did when rioting began in 2005.
“Some newer, more comfortable housing blocs have been built, and a new tram line is under construction, but things are generally the same or worse as the were seven years ago—before the rest of France started looking at Clichy only as ‘the rioting place’,” says Faiçale Bourchida, an educator and ecologist city council member, as he gazed upon the grim walls and cramped windows of apartment tower blocs crowding in from all sides. “We have cases of tuberculosis, lead poisoning, several families living in the same apartment, and people who’ve been looking for a job for years getting by on 500, 600, 700 euros per month. Is that a life?”
That’s a question nearly 8.1 million people living in project-heavy suburbs and other disadvantaged areas in France ask themselves daily. There are currently over 3,340 municipalities officially defined as ZUS (Sensible Urban Zones), or which otherwise qualify for state and regional assistance to stave off their decline. Even after efforts were redoubled after 2005 to halt the growing socio-economic chasm between mainstream French society and its blighted banlieues, the slide of troubled suburbs has continued.
Jobless rates in those areas are double France’s current 10% national average; nearly 25% of all Clichy-sous-Bois residents are unemployed. As in wider French society, the job outlook is even grimmer for the young. Over 40% of people aged 25 or under in Clichy-sous-Bois are without work—on par with most banlieues, but considerably higher than national youth rates of around 25%.
But in contrast to the rest of France, burdened by the wider eurozone crisis, the pain of nearly two years of stalling growth was felt far earlier in the banlieues. Studies in 2009 already found 40% of French project residents aged 25 or under living below the poverty line—a condition that has spread since, according to a new report. Meanwhile, rising unemployment and growing business closures have drained tax revenues for already strapped municipalities—this when many more poor families are turning to local authorities for assistance.
“Before, families we work with would find ways to make it to the end of the month on their own, but many now turn to food charities and soup kitchens as a matter of course,” says Audrey Zaczynski, 27, social worker with AClefeu (word-play on “enough fire”)—a national activist network founded in Clichy-sous-Bois as rioting raged. “The realities of what the rest of France is now calling la crise économique have been abundant here for a long time.”
The appearance of illnesses from bygone eras like tuberculosis and lead poisoning are indicators of how bad living conditions can be. Other examples of that are equally surreal. Elevator banks in a number of tenement tower blocks have been out-of-order longer than some residents can recall. Such breakdowns aren’t rare amid French projects, many of which were built in the 1960s and 1970s to house the millions of provincial laborers and immigrants who flocked to jobs around the nation’s cities during France’s post-war industrial boom.
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Yet with neither the building owners, tenants, nor the city possessing funds to repair or replace these elevators, Clichy-sous-Bois officials had to find a cheaper, lower-tech solution. In Le Chêne Pointu estate, they hired four youths part-time to haul residents’ groceries, suitcases, and furniture up stair cases originally used only for emergencies. The officious job title of agent de portage (porter) scarcely masks the laborious nature of those posts—nor the rather rustic problem they fail to fully solve.
“Look at this—people are still having to hoist their groceries up on their own,” says Samir Mihi, a native of Clichy-sous-Bois and founder of the “Beyond Words” social activist association. He watches bags being lifted by ropes along the brownish façade of a teeming apartment bloc tower. “Bring anyone from polite French society and show them this and they’ll fret and fuss about it being a scandal, about it being inadmissible in 21st century France. We agree. Why is it still happening?”
The answer, according to a local youth who only gave his name only as Djib, is that despite all the press coverage, political debate, stabs at urban improvement and renewed rioting since 2005, the conditions that make things that exploded seven years ago are the same or worse today.
“The reality is, lots of people are happy the banlieues exist to cage up people they don’t want to see or worry about,” Djib says. “If we’re out of sight and out of mind, c’est bien. I’m not even sure they’d care if rioting broke out again—so long as it stayed in the banlieues, and didn’t threaten to spill into where the rest of France lives.”
Which is doubtless the crux of the French projects’ enduring decay: as long as these remote, relatively isolated enclaves of economic gloom stew in their isolation, the political and social forces in France with the means to improve the banlieues aren’t likely to pay the price to do so. Unless, of course, they fear they have too much to lose otherwise.