It all began with just a friendly game of football soccer to us Anglophones. On 27 October 2005, about a dozen teenagers in the Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois were kicking around a checkered black-and-white ball across a dirt field when the police approached. All-too-familiar with the tedious ID checks conducted by officers in les cités (housing projects) as a matter of routine often resulting in hours wasted at police stations, parents notified to claim their kids the teens jetted in different directions.
Three climbed the wall surrounding an EDF-GDF electric plant, cops hot in pursuit. One could say this soccer game wrapped up with the most cataclysmic finish of any soccer game ever: nearly 9,000 torched cars, close to 3,000 arrests, one civilian casualty, and more than 125 injured police. Over 20 nights of civil unrest eventually spilled outside of France to seven other European countries and the Caribbean. By the time it finally came to an end, politician François Grosdidier (of President Chirac’s conservative Union for a Popular Movement party) blamed hiphop for the grossest uprising on French soil since the insurrection of 1968, drafting a petition signed by 200 French lawmakers to bring legal action against seven rap acts for inflammatory lyrics. But of course.
Electrocuted by a live transformer, Ziad Benna (a 17-year-old French student of Tunisian descent) and his 15-year-old friend Bouna Traoré (of Malian origin) were attempting to hide from the police. Their schoolmate Muhttin Altun, 17, was captured and hospitalized for injuries; his parents’ nationality is Turkish Kurd. The deaths of Benna and Traoré famously sparked three weeks of car burnings and battles with police in the suburbs of Paris.
Prior to all this, to the world at large, France had been completely void of race problems. By way of example: promises of a colorblind society drew many black American soldiers to settle in Paris at the close of World War II, documented in texts like Harlem in Montmartre (University of California Press, September 2001), soon to be a PBS documentary. But last month, what the French strove to ignore for decades as pas grave (unimportant) burst center stage onto a world platform. But what you resist persists, as the spiritualists say. Racial and economic discrimination had reached a tipping point for the largely Muslim population of Arab- and African-descended French in les banlieues (the suburbs).
Twelve days after police interrupted that soccer game to inquire into a local burglary, youths with Muslim and African backgrounds had rioted nightly in 274 suburban neighborhoods, and President Chirac declared a three-month state of emergency. Some of the damage: a school was burned to the ground in Belfort; retiree Jean-Jacques le Chenadec, 61, was killed in Stains while dousing a blazing trashcan; a teenager decked the defenseless Chenadec and he fatally fractured his skull when he fell on the concrete. By mid-November, a mosque in Saint-Chamond was hit with Molotov cocktails. A Roman Catholic church burned in Romans-sur-Isère. A daycare center in Cambrai was razed. Rioting contrarians shot it out with police on the French-Caribbean island of Guadeloupe thousands of miles from France. On the night of 14 November, 13 autos in the French capital were in flames. Whites at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder were also rioting in substantial numbers. Paris was burning.
One of the most accurate truisms I’ve heard since moving here is the easiest way to identify Americans is that they start discussing race within the first five minutes of conversation. At a recent MediaBistro.com mixer of international journalists held in the eighteenth arrondissement, I found myself, after five minutes with some Yugoslavian writers, preaching the African-American perspective on the state of blacks in Paris. (Which, basically, is that the black French have never had a civil right movement tantamount to that of the US, and so therefore suffer conditions comparable to those of pre-1960s black Americans.) How ironic. The humanist city that once provided haven for so many black Americans to be free of the defining characteristic of color has become as much of a lightening rod for the topic as anywhere else in 2005.
High rates of unemployment and racist policy in public housing led to rioters causing over 200 million euros worth of property damage as the disenfranchised voiced their dissent; 20 million in insurance claims for the torched economy cars alone. Those marginalized from French society made certain they were heard loud and clear around the world. Still, as French rapper Rim’K told BBC News last month, “Instead of sleeping in the national assembly, government ministers should have listened to our albums. It’s the youth of France talking.”
Indeed, if a hiphop CD like Monsieur R’s Politiquement Incorrect were as popular worldwide as Kanye West’s Late Registration, we’d already be up on a lot of these issues. (See BBC News, “French rappers’ prophecies come true” by Hugh Schofield, 16 November 2005.) French society has always been skittish on matters of race. For example, census forms don’t ask for nationality, and the government has officially legislated that only the “positive side” of French colonialism as in Catholicism and bringing Africans “civilization” be taught on Antilles islands like Martinique. So, true to form, the French state has attempted to silence hiphop music addressing the lifestyle of Arabs, Muslims, and black Africans, even before the recent uprisings. French hiphop takes the perspective that France is not the melting pot that the state promotes; a viewpoint France has been traditionally loath to admit.
In 1990, a Florida judge declared a 2 Live Crew album illegal to sell, obscene for its lewd lyrics; his decision was later overturned. Fifteen years on, French MCs fight the same battle. The petition drummed up by the UPM’s François Grosdidier, cosigned by 153 parliamentarians and 49 senators, indicts seven French rap artists for hateful, racist lyrics: Monsieur R, Smala, 113, Ministère Amer, Lunatic, Fabe, and Salif. Same old story. The rub is, of the hiphoppers cited, Ministère Amer disbanded 10 years ago; Lunatic broke up in 2002; and Fabe retired in 2000, the year that Les Victoires de la Musique (equivalent to the Grammys) offered two awards for 113’s Les Princes de la Ville, the album the government now vilifies.
Prior to the riots, Monsieur R’s “Fransse” already drew fire as an outrage to social decency for comparing France to a whore; his court date is set for 6 February. (The MC’s offenses in full: “France is a bitch, don’t forget to fuck her to exhaustion / You have to treat her like a whore, man / France is one of the bitches who gave birth to you / I am not at home and I don’t give a damn / And besides the state can go fuck itself / I pee on Napoleon and General de Gaulle / My niggas and my Arabs, our playground is the street with the most guns / Fuckin’ cops, sons of whores / France is a lousy mother who abandoned her sons on the sidewalk / My Muslim brothers are hated like my Jewish brothers were during the Reich.”) The R’s video shows footage of Adolf Hitler and concentration camps in order to connect the persecution of Jews in Germany to blacks in les banlieues.
Thus far, justice has sided with hiphop. A case in northern Rouen against Sniper for hateful language was thrown out in June. (The culprit was their 2002 “La France”: “We’re all hot for a mission to exterminate the government and the fascists / France is a bitch and we’ve been betrayed / We fuck France, we don’t care about the Republic and freedom of speech / We should change the laws so we can see Arabs and blacks in power in Palais de l’Elysée / Things have to explode.”) La Rumeur successfully beat charges of inciting violence against the police last December. The MCs of 113 and Kery James are currently spearheading Pour Rien, a compilation benefit album. All proceeds will be directed to the families of the teens whose deaths sparked the riots.
Since late October, the worldwide media has freely flown comparisons between the dissatisfactions of French workers over 40 years ago and those of the unemployed youth, blacks, and immigrants today. In May 1968 when two-thirds of the Parisian workforce began to strike amid citywide student protests a host of slogans were written in fat markers on the aged buildings: adages like THE LIBERATION OF HUMANITY WILL BE TOTAL OR IT WILL NOT BE and NO REPLASTERING . . . THE STRUCTURE IS ROTTEN. In December 2005, the graffiti, though long painted over, still speaks through.