“It was hot, so hot,” Mady tells me, staring into the distance. “Everywhere, stuff was burning – cars, vans, buildings. That’s what I think of when I think of the riots. I think of the heat”.
Mady Traoré is 24. Born in France, of Malian parents, he lives in Clichy-sous-Bois. About 15 miles north of Paris, Clichy is probably the most notorious of the French banlieues – the often rundown estates on the outskirts of the country’s big cities, inhabited largely by second- and third-generation immigrants from North and West African former colonies.
Clichy gained its unenviable reputation in 2005, when the neighborhood saw weeks of rioting and firebombing – les flambées in street patois. Two youngsters had died from electrocution while hiding in a power sub-station. After a case of mistaken identity, they were being chased by the police.
The deaths triggered a wave of violence. Across France, les banlieues have long been a powder keg of marginalization, poverty and resentment, not least among young men of African origin. Street battles with the police in Clichy unleashed turmoil in quartiers difficile from Paris to Lille, from Toulouse to Marseille. The 2005 riots were the worst in modern French history, resulting in 3,000 arrests, the burning of 10,000 vehicles and serious damage to hundreds of public buildings. A state of emergency was called, which lasted three months.
Since then, the French government has spent tens of billions of euros trying to raise living standards and create employment, particularly for youngsters, in neighborhoods such as Clichy. Now such spending is under threat. The French economy has barely grown since Francois Hollande became President in 2012, seriously weakening the budget.
For months, Berlin has been urging Paris to rein-in its still vast fiscal deficit, amid fears policy excesses could spark a disastrous systemic collapse of the eurozone. Tensions are now coming to a head. On Friday, Germany’s European Commissioner questioned Hollande’s “willingness to act”, openly deriding French efforts at fiscal retrenchment after a succession of missed deficit targets.
“Money is getting tighter, of course, but we’re doing what we can,” says Laurence Ribeaucourt, a social worker who grew up near Clichy but a world away, in the prosperous Le Raincy district. She’s spent 25 years working with Clichy’s disaffected youth. “There’s a growing sense of reunion – people are trying – but unemployment remains a big problem,” Ribeaucourt says. “With Clichy on their CV, many kids don’t have a hope,” she explains. “Paris is another planet – we’re miles from the Metro, and tens of thousands of people here are served by just one slow bus route”.
There are signs of regeneration in Clichy – in the form of some new playgrounds and street furniture. But the housing stock remains ghastly, mostly rundown post-war tower blocks, often overcrowded and with permanently broken lifts. Tuberculosis and lead poisoning aren’t uncommon and tenants without the right paperwork pay double-rent, Ribeaucourt tells me, or landlords report them to the police.
Since 2005, surveillance cameras have been installed right across Clichy and are now almost as ubiquitous as “F–k the Police” graffiti. Ominously, the district’s new police station, built after the riots, is surrounded by a 12-foot high solid steel wall, topped with metal grids to repel Molotov cocktails and other types of firebombs.
While French unemployment stands at just above 10pc, in Clichy it’s more like 25pc. Among the under-25s in the district, over 40pc are out of work. “The economic crisis is causing a social crisis, particularly in les banlieues” says Amirouche Ait Djoudi, the Algerian-born Director of Impulsion 75, a Paris-based youth support group funded by both public and private money.
“It wasn’t so hard for young Algerian boys like me 30 or 40 years ago,” says Djoudi. “There was work for unskilled labour and our families could thrive. But today’s immigrants are often unemployed, so they feel lost – and every year over 150,000 more French youngsters leave school with nothing”.
Social – and racial – tensions are rising in France, with mainstream politicians increasingly dismissed as out of touch. In May, Marine Le Pen’s far-right Front Nationale won the European elections, attracting 25pc of all votes – on an anti-immigration, anti-Europe ticket. Le Pen’s popularity has deeply unnerved the French political establishment, with polls suggesting she could now win the 2017 Presidential election.
“One reason Le Pen is strong is that many poorer French people don’t vote,” says Fabrice Amaudruz, a Research Director at the University de Citoyen in Marseille, where studies into social depravation are funded by George Soros’s Open Society Foundation. Amaudruz reports that in areas like Clichy, or the tough 13th arrondissement of North Marseille, abstention rates can top 70 per cent.
“It’s crazy, but when people in les banlieues do vote, it’s often for Le Pen despite her racist message,” he explains. “It’s partly out of fear but also because many immigrants hate the European Union. They see it as the cause of their problems, saying Brussels wants to lower social spending and decrease workers’ rights”.
Amaudruz describes as “shocking” the fact that in his native-Marseille, the Front Nationale now holds mayoral office in several areas with majority-immigrant communities. “France has a good tradition of people living together, which Le Pen is trying to wreck,” he says. “But some immigrants vote for her and many others abstain – and that helps her win elections”.
Back in Clichy, Pauline Mubiala and Anissa Rhenzour, both aged 14, are playing football. They train every week, in an all-girls team on a high quality all-weather pitch that was laid after the 2005 riots.
“I like coming here,” says Pauline. “I enjoy the team work, the exercise and I learn lots of lessons for life”. Smiling at her friend, Anissa feels the same way. “We have to turn up on time, with the right kit, or we don’t get to play,” she says. “Some of the guys on the estate call us tomboys, but I don’t mind that – I’ve been at this club for four years now and football is my passion”.
Their coach, Manu Da Rocha, himself of immigrant stock, looks on with pride. “These girls are good players,” he says. “Their football gives them hope”. Lowering his voice, he looks he straight in the eye. “Doing this is great for them – it means they’re standing up to macho guys around here who disregard women,” he says. “By playing football, these girls are showing they won’t be pushed around, and that’s what they need to learn”.
Watching Da Rocha expertly coach several dozen girls, almost all of North or West African origin, doing well-drilled training exercises on a pristine surface, it’s hard not to feel inspired. Yet, it’s clear that, beyond such social programs, the French policy mix isn’t helping to generate the jobs and growth that could help limit social and racial problems.
Attempts to lower the minimum wage for youngsters, a move many think would reduce youth unemployment, have fallen foul of the all-power French unions. The country’s famously excessive bureaucracy also discourages the growth of employment-intensive small and medium-sized firms.
“We implemented a tax-free zone in Clichy, encouraging investors to set up businesses but it didn’t work as people couldn’t see beyond the area’s bad image,” says Ribeaucourt. “That didn’t stop people using a Clichy address as a tax dodge, while employing people elsewhere,” she adds with shrug.
Mady Traoré has made a lot of progress since the 2005 riots. He has a job, working as an information clerk for SNCF, the French state-owned railway. Unlike some of his neighbours, he has good relations with local police. “There are still chances here in France,” he tells me defiantly. “If you really want to get on, then you can get on – and I’m proud of the work I do”.
With intense negotiations taking place this weekend between Paris and Berlin, the European Commission’s ruling on whether France must take extra steps to control its budget deficit could emerge as early as Tuesday. Cuts in social programs, and government-sponsored jobs like Madi’s, will do little to help Clichy-sous-Bois.
“My family is French, since long before Napoleon,” says Ribeaucourt. “And I’m not scarred of Le Pen. She may win the first round of the election, but I still believe in France. And there’s no way we’re mad enough to give her the Presidency”.