Loch, D.: Youth of Immigrant Descent in French Suburbs, 2009

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France is a country with a long history of immigration, which saw the integration of its migrants throughout the industrial period of the 19th and 20th century. For approximately three decades, social problems have been arising, predominantly in the suburbs, which have changed this integration process. The urban riots in these Banlieues, especially those in 2005, represent three socially relevant topics: the problem of social exclusion and cohesion in modern society, the integration of migrants, and the city as a social and political space. At the centre of these issues are the socially disadvantaged youths of immigrant descent who live in these suburbs.

French Youth of Maghrebin Descent

The Banlieue is a multi-ethnic place, where young people of French, Southern-European, North and Sub-Saharan African, Asian and other backgrounds reside. There are different reasons why the youths of Maghrebin descent especially draw attention: they constitute the majority in many of the so-called „urban problem areas“ (Zones urbaines sensibles = ZUS), their parent’s immigration has a colonial background and they are often a target of racial discrimination.

These adolescents and young adults of North African descent have experienced an „integration into the crisis“. Those among them who possess qualifications have been able to improve their social status by joining the middle class. Their integration into the labor market can be considered more or less successful. The other part, which has little or no schooling or vocational training, belongs to the ethnically heterogeneous urban underclass. They live in public housing, in low-income families and are confronted with problems like failing in school, unemployment, delinquency, and various forms of discrimination.  

This social polarization goes hand in hand with residential segregation. Those who live in the poor neighborhoods of the French suburbs are often at a disadvantage when it comes to their future career opportunities. Thus a territorial vicious circle of discrimination has arisen, which ranges from the residential and school segregation to a symbolic stigmatization of these neighborhoods. Those youths who possess better qualifications are able to leave the Zones urbaines sensibles, the others remain for years or for the rest of their lives.  

Culturally, adolescents of North African descent can be considered largely assimilated, even „over-integrated“. This is a result of the pressure to assimilate exerted by the state institutions, especially by the school system. This process can additionally be seen as a legacy of colonialism. This legacy is also made clear in the area of ethnic discrimination, where racism is directed at young people with Maghrebin and especially Algerian origin. Alongside the various forms of discrimination, such as in access to education, work, and housing, the young people are especially provoked by the identity controls they experience from the police. This causes violent confrontations and is the source of most of the riots. This dynamic is then intensified by the discriminatory security discourse of the media and the political class.

Politically, young people of Maghrebin origin tend to identify with the proclaimed values of the French nation (equality, justice, etc.). The republican integration model is based upon the idea of a community of citizens, which makes political identification for immigrants possible, but also expects from them assimilation into the French system of values. In this way, most young people, the majority of whom possess full citizenship, are allowed unlimited political participation due to jus soli (citizenship based on place of birth). But this legal equality is often thwarted by the social realities that exist in the suburbs. On the one hand, there is a certain degree of political integration among rising elite of North African origin; on the other hand, the political exclusion of young people belonging to the urban underclass is made evident by their distance from institutions and the low voter turnout. Under certain conditions, this distance from representative democracy can turn into violent protest.

Young people of North African descent have, generally speaking, high expectations of the French state, but on the other side, they are the victims of exclusion and discrimination. It is the contradiction between these expectations, which are linked to the values of the integration model, and social reality that leads to moral indignation, rage and frustration among these youths, and to a feeling of relative deprivation and the resulting unrest.

Thirty Years of Urban Policy: With What Success?

In response to the problems in the suburbs, the French urban policy (politique de la ville) emerged at the end of the 1970s. With its programs for social and spatial integration, political participation, and measures against discrimination, it is targeted at citizens living in the selected Zones urbaines sensibles. In accordance with the republican integration model, it is a social policy designed to counter the social and political exclusion of the individuals living in these areas, without taking into consideration the ethnic background of the target groups, at least not explicitly. In this way, the Politique de la ville can be understood as a policy of socio-spatial positive discrimination. There is neither a policy of affirmative action on behalf of immigrant groups defined according to ethnic criteria, nor any deliberate anti-discrimination policy in favour of ethnic minorities, even though this has been a subject of debate and a national anti-discrimination body has been established. What has this urban policy achieved in its individual policy fields? 

When one takes into consideration the riots and unrest that keep on occurring, the overall balance is negative: the housing policy has not been able to reduce residential segregation; the labor market policy of establishing „urban free zones” (zones franches urbaines/ZFU) in poor neighborhoods, in which employers are exempt from taxes and social fees, is surrounded by controversy; the gap between the quality of school certificates and the demands of the labor market remains large, despite numerous employment programs; and the Zones d’éducation prioritaire (ZEP) –  „Preferential education zones“, which increase school funding and offer special support measures – have also shown no progress.

Successful projects nevertheless exist, for example in the cooperation between street-level bureaucracy and young people who are claiming responsibility for their own neighbourhoods. It’s important to remember that not everything is negative in these neighborhoods, that they are not always fundamentally different from the rest of France, and that their residents are not devoid of options and development opportunities. The daily life in the Banlieue is not only determined by exclusion, but there is also a young, dynamic, culturally diverse population, which is proactive, and has its own social networks and organizations.

However, the republican tradition of the French state contracting a direct relationship with its citizens has raised numerous difficulties for the formation of collective groups and communities. This can be clearly seen in the foundation of associations. It is true that young people are encouraged to take their own initiatives so that social bonds may be created and the state has access to mediators. In this way, many multi-ethnic associations of the largely Maghrebin Banlieue youth exist, which offer, among other activities, remedial teaching, are active in the areas of vocational training and employment, establish social networks, and cooperate with local institutions. But the state does not like to see independent initiatives or even small businesses arising among young people with the help of territorial or ethnic resources. For this reason, the associations are mostly controlled by the municipal authorities. This constellation increases tension when the subsidies for these associations are abolished and a policy of repression comes to the fore at the expense of social and preventive policies.

There is also a range of measures to promote political participation in the poor neighborhoods, including for example citizen forums. However, young people are rarely found in such forums. When they decide to speak politically, it is mostly through their associations. However, as soon as political demands are issued from the social sphere of these associations, conflicts arise in the local political arena. The playing out of these conflicts can, in the best case scenario, lead to a feeling of recognition among the young people, when, for example, local governments respond to their requests and grant them a political say in municipal decisions.

Regarding ethnic discrimination, there are no explicit anti-discrimination policies on the local level. While persons of immigrant descent draw media attention when integrated into the political elite on national level, as was the case with the National Secretary for Urban Development Fadela Amara, ethnic criteria are only considered invisibly and pragmatically in local administrations. In this way, it is primarily the young people of immigrant descent who profit the most from the “color blind” undertakings of the state’s urban policy and from the experience of its actors, because this policy of socio-spatial positive discrimination is aligned with the needs of the majority of young people who live in the poor neighborhoods. 

Political Mobilization and Interest Mediation

The young French citizens of Maghrebin descent are the main actors in the different phases of political mobilization of the Banlieue youth. In the early 1980s, racist violence against these citizens gave rise to what was known as the beur movement, a nationwide movement against racism and in favour of civil rights. The leaders of this movement gradually became integrated in the local and national political elites. This created a division between the rising elites and the youth left behind in the poor neighborhoods. The resulting frustrations led to the first riots in the outer suburbs of Lyon and Paris in the early 1990s. After this, during the 1990s, the mobilization of young people was taken over by Muslim associations. In the process, a neo-communitarian, political Islam was formed which, up to the present day, has called upon democratic institutions at the municipal level. Nonetheless, the involvement of Muslim elites in local political systems has led once again to a certain rejection of this secularised, political Islam à la française by many young people. This repeated disappointment created a radicalisation of a very small minority of them to the benefit of neo-fundamentalist groups such as Tabligh-i Jamaat, and in particular the Salafists. It also favoured, among the non-religious majority, a fresh outbreak of the riots of autumn 2005. For some time now, it has once again been the more secular groups which have been attempting to mobilize young people against the revival of postcolonial politics in France.

All these developments show the limits of political mobilization in the Banlieues. These limits also exist in the domain of interest mediation between the youth and the local institutions. On the one hand, the opinion leaders of the different movements, who represent the youth in mediating processes, leave the Banlieue when they have achieved a higher social status. The remaining youth is not represented any more and contributes to the emergence of unorganized violent protest. On the other hand, there exists in France a (post-)colonial tradition, which uses (Muslim) elites in a clientelistic manner as representative persons. This form of clientele-building connects influential opinion leaders of migrant groups to the (local) government, so that communities can be socially controlled. These different styles of representation and mediation hinder the development of more associative and more democratic forms of participation.

Perspectives for the Future

The French urban policy can be declared a failure, when one takes into consideration the continuous rioting, which furthers the gap between the goals of the government and the living standards of the young adults. The diverse forms of segregation in French cities have increased in the last two decades, and have allowed a system of socio-spatial separatism, which permeates the whole of urban society, and in which place of residence plays a central role. Accordingly, there is no “social fracture” between urban minorities and the rest of society, as political discourse and urban policy would suggest, but a hierarchy of segregation. In this hierarchy every social group separates itself from the groups inferior to it. The members of these groups retreat into their homogeneous social class and partition themselves in their own neighborhoods. The unemployed migrants and their children form only the lowest group.

Given this „ghettoisation from above” it is claimed that the Politique de la ville does not concentrate on the poor neighborhoods, but rather considers the whole of urban society. In addition to this, it is also claimed that urban policy should intervene more heavily in the beginnings of the segregation processes that effect individuals (education, professional formation), improve the poor neighborhoods in an urban context (i.e. by opening specialized prestigious schools in these districts), and increase support for individual initiative among young people (i.e. founding small businesses).

Despite the political withdrawal amongst residents of the Banlieue, these citizens can nevertheless find their political voice again. This was shown in the presidential election of 2007, with the unexpectedly high voter turn out, especially among young people of immigrant descent, who overwhelmingly voted against the repressive security policy of the Minister of the Interior, now president, Nicolas Sarkozy. This was preceded by an intense mobilization of young people by the associations to encourage voter registration. The associations took over the function of mediating organizations, which was formerly held - in the context of class conflict - by trade unions and workers’ parties in the communist-influenced “red suburbs”.

Mediation authority of this kind is missing today in the Banlieue. The urban riots can be interpreted as the tipping point from the frustrated withdrawal of the youth to spontaneous, violent protest. When this violence shows the absence of organized, regulated and mediated conflicts as they existed in industrial society, the question remains whether or not such “positive” conflicts will be able to develop in the future? In their struggle for recognition, the young people try to play out these conflicts through the associations with the local institutions. This playing out of public conflict could lead to a feeling of belonging in the society, because the social integration of the urban underclass not only takes place in the areas of housing, education, and the labor market, but also through the constructive conflictualisation of problems in the urban society, before this society collapses into “social separatism”.


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Dietmar Loch, Grenoble, Department of Sociology, 2009