The French drama La Haine (Hate) sent shock-waves through France’s political establishment when it was first released in 1995. A tale of social unrest, it depicted, with breathtaking cinematic flair, the police brutality, institutional racism, and bleak poverty of France’s multi-ethnic housing projects.
A searing social commentary on the country’s ills, the film was so powerful and its topic so urgent that the French prime minister at the time, Alain Juppé, ordered a compulsory screening for his cabinet. Twenty-two years later, however, little has changed in France’s troubled banlieues (suburbs). Geographically isolated from city centers, these areas are overwhelmingly black and Arab, housing immigrants from France’s former colonies.
Addressing the social ills of the banlieues has long been a controversial subject in French politics, with no substantive policy changes being made to ameliorate the endemic problems facing their residents. In these areas, unemployment is high, there is deep mistrust of the police, and racial discrimination is reportedly routine.
In 2005, the death of two teenage residents of one banlieue, Bouna Traoré and Zyed Benna, sparked the largest urban riots in modern French history, with a state of emergency declared across the country. The boys were electrocuted after hiding from police, who were chasing them in the deprived Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois.
By the end of three weeks of social unrest, 10,000 cars had been burned, 3,000 people had been arrested, and hundreds of public buildings had suffered damage. The riots traumatized the nation, but, again, nothing was done to address the decades of state neglect, social marginalization, and racial inequality affecting banlieue residents.
Today, in some banlieues, unemployment rates are four times the national average, with three in five children living below the poverty line. For many of those residing in these areas, discrimination, of all sorts, is endemic. Only last year, a study found that Muslim men in France were four times less likely to get a job interview than their Catholic counterparts. Police brutality against racial minorities also continues unabated. Last year, a young black man, Adama Traoré, died in police custody. According to his family, he was beaten to death. With the case marred by allegations of a police cover up, demonstrators took to the streets across France to protest against Traoré’s treatment.
In early February 2017, a young black youth worker, named Théo, was beaten, and anally raped with a baton, by police officers at a housing project outside of Paris. His internal injuries were so severe he required surgery. The incident sparked weeks of protests against police violence in the deprived suburbs, with hundreds demanding ‘Justice for Théo’. The simmering tensions boiled over into violent clashes, with dozens arrested amid pitched street clashes between local youth and police.
The banlieues are socially invisible, forgotten spaces in mainstream France – until violence and unrest prompt an unnerving acknowledgement of their existence. Until the cultural, economic, and political alienation of these areas is addressed, it is inevitable that clashes will erupt again and again.