Paris is Burning
State Violence in Clichy Sous Bois : An Eyewitness Account
Clichy-sous-Bois : lawlessness or injustice?
by Antoine Germa
I have been in and out of Clichy since Saturday morning, working with a France-Inter reporter on a series of reports about the situation in Clichy-sous-Bois. The city was “in arms” from the night of Thursday October 27th to the night of Monday October 30th.
I am writing what I have seen, heard, understood, and been told.
1. Two dead teenagers (Zyad and Bounna, 17 and 15 years old, from college #3) do seem to have been chased by the police, contrary to the official version which denied that there was any pursuit (the Sarkozy/Parquet version). Why else would they go in that alleyway and climb a wall to hide in a power substation when they lived so close by?
2. The ten young people who were playing soccer ran away from the police who were checking people’s i.d. because some of them did not have proper papers (amongst these, the third electrocuted youth, Metin, was in the process of having his case regularized). They were never involved in any theft from the site as the official version claimed, but that did not stop these claims from being repeated by [Prime Minister Dominique] de Villepin on Thursday. Nobody stands by these claims today, as the prosecutor from Bobigny acknowledged Saturday that it was a simple i.d. check. The youths who were arrested were released within an hour, more proof that the police had nothing on them. Metin, suffering from severe burns, “does not remember anything” according to the official version… is this silence connected to his legal status?
3. All sorts of rumours began to circulate in the city : Why are the police lying? What are they hiding? People spontaneously began to riot on Thursday, on Friday they were reinforced by the “older ones”. The first targets were: the post office (many cars burnt), the fire station (a fire truck demolished), bus shelters, a school (set on fire). The rioting became particularly violent on Friday (people throwing rocks and firebombs and shooting at police cars) This took place in the big thoroughfares that run through the Chene pointu neighbourhood (close to Pama). Many cars were set on fire, their burnt out shells were still littering the streets Saturday morning.
Saturday morning there was a silent march organized by religious associations and the mosques. There were appeals for calm. All eyes were on the justice system and [Minister of Public Security Nicolas] Sarkozy was singled out for criticism. Moslem community institutions, city officials and activists were visibly united, and seemed to have the situation under control. There were slightly more than a thousand participants. Visibly tired and emotional, the Socialist Mayor of Clichy, Claude Dilain, who seems to enjoy real support amongst the population of Clichy (including the youth), made an official request to Sarkozy to open an investigation into the deaths of the two teenagers. Coming out of a meeting at the city hall after the march, the lawyer for the victims’ families announced that he would be filing a complaint in order to expose the circumstances in which they died. The police were nowhere to be seen and all seemed calm that day.
Saturday night, as the fast was broken (around 6:30pm), 400 riot police – including some who came from Chalon s/saone – appeared all over the Chene pointu neighbourhood. As usual, they were encircling – “closing off” – the neighbourhood. The police are ridiculous : joggng in step, like Roman legionnaires, shields raised and flash-guns in hand, they went street by street as if fighting invisible enemies.
At that time of day everybody is eating and nobody stays outside. So why such a show of force at a time when the streets are unusually quiet? “Provocation” is the answer given by everyone from the area I asked. This is the recurring theme since Friday night.
After an hour, some young people go outside and stand in front of the police: everyone expects a confrontation. How does the police strategy make ay sense, except in terms of “marking their territory”, “restoring order” in the most primitive and macho way possible.
Several different eyewitness accounts and recordings clearly show that the police wanted to have it out with the youths: calling out racist insults, challenging them to fight, posturing. I went to the Bousquets mosque at 9pm: it was overflowing (roughly 1200-1300 people), as this was the Night of Destiny that is traditionally spent in the mosque. Several cars and garbage cans had already been set alight, and young people were here seeking refuge in this sanctuary in the middle of the neighbourhood. Nevertheless, there was a mood of solemn contemplation, and from the beginning the imams had played an important role in restoring the peace.
Despite the police provocations, Saturday night seemed less violent. Was this because of the appeals to calm repeated all day long? Was this due to the importance of the Night of Destiny at this point in Ramadan?
4. Sunday night, I receive an outraged and dismayed telephone call from Ibrahim, the son of an imam, at 10:55pm. He tells me that while people were praying the police gassed the de Bousquets mosque. He tells me that some women – who were in the section reserved for them – almost passed out. As they left they were met with insults from the forces of law and order: “whore, bitch…” Attempts to speak to the police proved futile, those who dared to try were ordered to “Move on!” and risked being wounded with a flash-ball. Ibrahim asks me to come to be a witness but I am not in Clichy at the time.
This news seems beyond belief. How can they attack a religious gathering? Why gas the mosque when (apart from the mayor) the religious authorities have been the only ones capable of calming things down? Things are now ready to explode; new confrontations break out and more cars are set on fire: positions are becoming more and more radical, especially as the police deny that they used tear gas in the mosque. They say the type of grenade that was used is not the kind issued to police. From this point on there are two issues: the deaths of the teenagers and the attack on the mosque.
It is at this point that Sarkozy appears on television defending and justifying the police actions in Clichy, once again calling for « zero tolerance » : one hand the iron fist, the other hand… nothing, except perhaps the invisible hand of the market.
5. Monday morning : the mood is tense. At 11am, Sarkozy meets with the security forces at the de Bobigny police station, offering them his congratulations and support. The official version of the gas attack on the mosque has been somewhat modified over night. It turns out the kind of grenade used was indeed the sort issued to police, but there are still some doubts: just who could have thrown the grenades into the mosque? Yet again, the official version is completely disconnected from reality.
At 1pm I arrive at Chene Pontu to watch the news on TV with the Imam and his family: the way the media is covering events is another one of the things people have complained about since the “riots” began. People here feel that the media are the representatives of the establishment, that they are spreading lies, and more than anything else that they are helping to stigmatize people who live in these working class neighbourhoods.
And yet, one can hear a change: the newspapers and the television channels are voicing some criticisms. They are beginning to question the official version of how the two kids died and the mosque was gassed.
At 2pm here is a press conference at the Bousquets mosque. A video of the attack was caught by on a cell phone camera. It is shown to many reporters: it shows the panic as the worshippers were gassed. Then the officials spoke, firmly, with emotion, demanding a judicial inquiry and an official apology. At the heart of these demands is the fact that people of different beliefs should be treated equally. The mosque president, Mr. Brouhout, who is close to the UMP, was strikingly able to calm people down. Bouna’s older brother told journalists that he would not meet with Sarkozy, who he feels is “incompetent”; instead, along with Zyad’s family he demands a meeting with the Prime Minister. There is a consensus that the police must leave the neighbourhood in order for things to calm down.
Around this press conference, community activists are highlighting the socio-economic causes behind these events. Clichy is one of the poorest municipalities in France and community groups have less and less money to work with. Things are tense as the press conference draws to a close: young people are sharing their stories, women are explaining what they experienced and saw first hand. A common theme in all these accounts is anger at the police, who are carrying out more and more foolish – and often illegal – “muscular” interventions, and at the authorities in the ministry who are not condemning the gas attack against the mosque. The religious authorities, visibly shaken by what happened the night before, slowly manage to take control of the situation.
Everyone is nervously waiting for nightfall. At 7pm representatives of the mosque and the police reach an agreement: some youths are designated mediators in order to “calm” the more hot-headed ones and prevent further confrontations with police. This is not a new idea: indeed, some young people had suggested this Saturday, but the police were not interested then. Is it that they feel they are unable to find a solution? Is this the end of the “hard” approach, which has proven itself so ineffective?
11 :30pm : the police are playing cat-and-mouse with some young people, but the situation seems under control. I am told that the mediators are playing a key part on the ground: they go and meet with the younger kids, they talk to them to convince them to not do anything. Later that night I learn that the police station at Montfermeil has been set on fire and that the police had made some arrests. There had been no major confrontations.
Antoine Germa , Tuesday November 1st. The author is a history-geography teacher who works in Clichy-sous-Bois.
According to legal sources, one minor and two young adults were arrested in Aix-en-Provence and the Paris region Monday, accused of using the internet to incite people to riot and attack police.
The three blogs in question were hosted on the site owned by radio Skyrock, which deactivated them over the weekend.
“The sites were inciting people to participate in the urban violence and to attack police and police stations,” a parquet judge told Reuters in Paris.
The parquet is supposed to decide today whether or not to open a judicial file, having decided that an investigation in necessary to ascertain the political connections of the accused as well as whether or not their activities were part of a broader organization.
The accused could face up to five years in prison if the charges of “inciting assault against individuals” is upheld.
Clichy-sous-bios Riots : Youth Accuse the Police
Police provocations and repression
Sunday October 30th 2005, by David Cadasse
Following the insurrectional reaction to the two teenagers who died of electrical burns in a substation as they tried to “run from the police,” young people in Clichy-sous-bois (a suburb of Paris) are accusing the forces of law and order of throwing fuel on the fire, knowingly provoking them and even shooting them with rubber bullets for no reason. Afrik has obtained a video in which one can see this police violence, and has also collected several accounts during a meeting, Sunday, between the mayor and neighbourhood youth.
Sunday, 3pm, Clichy-sous-bois. The mayor has organized an informal meeting with young people from the neighbourhood, all of whom are very disappointed and upset by the attitude of the police the night before. Yesterday the city had organized a silent demonstration in honour of the two teenagers, Ziad and Banou, who were burnt to death last Thursday in an electrical substation after being chased, or at least thinking they were being chased, by police. But if, after two days of rioting, the tension seemed to have subsided, the youth accuse the police of fanning the flames and keeping people’s hatred alive by committing more and more provocations, abuses and needless repression.
“Everyone has made tremendous efforts to calm things down. The demonstration was peaceful, but that night the CRS [riot police] made a point of harassing the youth, provoking them,” admitted a municipal official who requested anonymity. In the parking lot at city hall, over 150 youths, almost all of African origin (Black and Arab), came to listen to the mayor. The mayor made a point of reminding them that all of the damage that has been done will be paid for by the city, which means by the taxpayers. He suggested that the solution should be between people in the city and seemed to leave aside the question of the police. Everyone expressed themselves quite freely.
In the crowd everyone was talking. Little groups formed here and there to discuss the events of the night before. Everyone condemned the provocations and abuse of the police. Many people witnessed or were themselves victims of abuse.
Jeremy, fed up, explains: “They [the police – Afrik] are more hot-headed than usual, they are provoking us more. The brother of one of the dead kids was with us, as usual, in front of his building when the police came by with their flash balls [a gun that fires rubber bullets – Afrik] and started checking us out, finally telling him ‘you, go home to your mother.’ He took a few steps towards the cops to talk to them when one of the cops told him ‘Stop or I’ll shoot you.’ We ran in and up to the tenth floor, and they started shooting gas into the lobby.”
Mothers Insulted As They Leave The Mosque
“They all say shit, especially the journalists,” says Youcef, looking over at the Capa camera crew (Le vrai journal) surrounded by young people, taking pictures and getting quotes. “First of all, they started by attacking the reputation of the victims, when today even the prosecutor from Bobigny admits that the police had not ever suspected them of anything bad. The media wants us all to look like trash, whereas it is the police who provoke the youth, trying to get any excuse to hit or shoot.”
With barely contained anger, Morad tells us this: “We were leaving the mosque when the police surrounded us with their flash-balls drawn. They took us aside, but what really shocked us was when they started insulting the mothers who were leaving the prayers: ‘Get out of here you gang of whores and keep a better eye on your kids!’”
Morad does not seem like the type who would look for a confrontation with the police, but not everyone is so cool-headed.
Forces of law and order… or disorder?
You can feel the tension in the air. All the more because three police cars are stationed just 50 meters from the town hall. One of the officers has his flash ball in his hand with his finger on the trigger. The crowd takes this as yet another provocation. Tempers are rising. Two people start shouting that the crowd should attack the police: “Come on, we out-number them, we’ll all go together and smash them up,” says one of them. Luckily, calmer heads prevail, and manage to disperse the line of youths that had formed in front of the police.
“They are provoking us too much, I have friends who had been shot at, just like that, for no reason, with plastic bullets. This can only lead to more violence. Everyone is angry. Now if it’s going to explode, it’s going to explode. I am not afraid of them and their weapons. We will get to a point where we will get weapons . It’s going to get like in America here,” predicts Jonathan.
“The police stopped me at 4am. I was alone in my car. They searched the car and found a baseball bat in my trunk. When they asked me why I had the bat, I told them that there is no law against having a bat in your trunk. They answered me, saying ‘Well is there against a law against me ramming it in your face?’ Then they started going on saying ‘This isn’t Beirut here’ and calling me a ‘little faggot.’ One of them really wanted me to cry. He came right up to me and shouted ‘Cry!’ Luckily, just as this was happening some reporters drove by. I called out and they stopped. Before they got there the cop said he didn’t like reporters, but there was nothing he could do and he had to leave me alone.”
Nicolas Sarkozy Supports The Police
There are two different versions of the dramatic events at Clichy-sous-bois, regarding whether or not the police were chasing the teenagers after their soccer match. The police say one thing, and the young people from the area say something else. The problem is, there are witnesses. One of the young people who were chased explains that he hid while his three friends ran straight to the power substation. Even without this testimony, some people just don’t understand how the police version makes any sense. “Why were some young people arrested if they were not being chased, seeing as they all ran away?” “Why else would the teenagers have decided to climb a 3 meter high wall with barbed wire on top?” Just more questions that the police sweep aside.
Sunday at 8pm, the Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy stated on channel one that, according to the information he received, “The police were not chasing the youths.” If he does intend to “tell the truth to everyone,” he also made a point of paying “homage to the remarkable work the police have been doing” and to “congratulate them” for the arrests they have made. A law-and-order discourse that many people feel leads to a dangerous conclusion – that those who have been arrested [during he riots] are all thugs – and which gives the police carte blanche to do what they please with impunity.
A damning video for the forces of law and order
Once again, Nicolas Sarkozy repeated that he will maintain a policy of “zero tolerance” towards urban violence. Discounting community policing, he insists on the need for more and more arrests. “Real young people” will have nothing to fear from the police. In the meantime, on Sunday a security force of over 400 CRS [riot police], guardsmen and police took up positions throughout the city.
Can the police, supported by the Minister of the Interior, do as they please? A video, recorded with a cell phone, is circulating throughout the neighbourhoods. A file called “Sarko’s new keufs” [keuf is slang for police] was given to Afrik, and part of it can be viewed online. We see a police car parked with its door open. We think we can make out that someone has thrown something at the police. The response is immediate. We can clearly see plainclothes police firing again and again with heir flash-balls. We see them chasing the young people, calling out “Come back you bastards!”
“Some of the rubber bullets are even signed,” says Kader. “There is a guy who was hit by one that had ‘Boum boum on your ass, see you soon, Luc’ written on it.”
There seems to be a great divide between the police and the youth. Between the politicians who approve of the police’s behaviour and the media, which is accused of distorting and falsifying reality, the hostility and exasperation are feeding feelings of hatred that may unfortunately lead to worst.
"Anything could have started it. When you're an immigrant here, you're just stuck in your shit. Does it really surprise you it's going up in flames?"
- Momo, Age 26, Aulnay-sous-Bois
“The thugs will disappear, I will deploy the force necessary to clean this up… We will use the Karcher treatment [referring to a cleaning product]. We will send in special teams and then, if necessary, the riot squads.”
- Nicolas Sarkozy, Minister of Public Security, June 20th, La Courneuve
A bit of background
Nicolas Sarkozy is the Minister of the Interior and Town and County Planning, and is widely seen as a leading presidential candidate in 2007. He has staked out the right of the political field, excelling at outrageous macho statements, all in an attempt to curry favour with the white racist vote. And it seems to be working, as he is considered the most popular politician in France. (Sarkozy pledges police crackdown after riots in Paris, The Guardian, Tuesday November 1, 2005)
France has a powerful far right – this is the country of Jean-Marie Le Pen – and has long been a strategy of all kinds of bourgeois politicians to try and win votes from these fascists by trying to outdo them at their own game (what has been called the “lepenization of the mind”). Perhaps in this vein, in June Sarkozy provoked public outcry when he promised to give the suburb of La Courneuve (in Seine-Saint-Denis) the "Karcher treatment". Just a week befor ethe events discussed here he referred to local youths as "thugs" and "trash" when he visited Argenteuil (Val-d'Oise), another Parisian suburb. (Clichy-sous-Bois: Nicolas Sarkozy seul en première ligne, le Nouvel Observateur, November 1st 2005)
And then came the night of October 27th, in the last week of Ramadan, in the suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois. Home of 28,000 people, “many of whom are immigrants from North or Central Africa. Most live in rundown, low-rise public housing estates. Unemployment rates are among the highest in France and many locals see the police as 'the enemy'.” (Fires of 'civil war' erupt in Paris, The Guardian, Sunday October 30, 2005)
A Certainly Incomplete Timeline
Thursday October 27th
Clichy-sous-Bois, 6:12pm: A group of a dozen or so teenagers have been playing soccer. They are on their way home for their evening meal (Moslems fast during the daylight hours of Ramadan.) The police routinely harass young people in the heavily immigrant suburbs that form a working class ring around Paris (the “petite couronne”). So when the teenagers spot police checking people’s IDs they run. Ziad Benna (17 years old), Bouna Traoré (15 years old) and a third friend are chased into a power substation where they hope to hide; they are all electrocuted and Benna and Traoré die.
Initially, Minister of the Interior Sarkozy accused the dead teenagers of being thieves, while also claiming that the police never in fact chased anyone, but that this was all some kind of misunderstanding or hallucination on the part of the teenagers. (Heure par heure, le Nouvel Observateur, November 3rd 2005)
Later on, everyone will acknowledge that the teenagers were not thieves and had no history of run-ins with the police.
The police will continue to deny that they ever chased the teenagers, but several eyewitnesses contradict this story. According to Sofiane, a 16 year old friend of the victims, the police chased the youths right up to the substation. (Incidents épars en Ile-de-France, France2.fr)
That evening neighbourhood youths clash with police, throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails, setting cars on fire, and vandalizing buildings. A shot was reportedly fired at police. (France hs strict gun control, so the use of liv ammunition by rioters has caught everyone's attention.) Police responded by firing tear gas at the rioters. About 27 people were detained. 23 cops and 1 journalist were wounded. The number of rioters injured is not known. (Wikipedia: 2005 Clichy-sous-Bois riots)
Friday October 28th
Clichy-sous-Bois: over 200 riot police battle neighbourhood youth. At least one shot was fired at the police, 19 people were detained and 15 cops and one journalist were injured.
'There's a civil war under way in Clichy-sous-Bois at the moment,' Michel Thooris from Action Police CFTC police trade union, said. 'My colleagues neither have the equipment nor the practical nor theoretical training for street fighting.'
Saturday October 29th
Clichy-sous-Bois: roughly 1,000 people hold a silent march, many wearing T-shirts bearing the message: 'Dead for Nothing'.
Sunday October 30th
Clichy-sous-Bois: During evening services a tear gas grenade is fired into the Bourgets mosque; as they flee the building Moslem women are insulted by police who call them “whores” and “bitches.” The police deny that he tear gas grenade was the kind that they use.
Monday, October 31st
Rioting spreads to Seine-Saint-Denis. In nearby Montfermeil, the municipal police garage is set on fire. (Wikipedia: 2005 Clichy-sous-Bois riots)
The cops are forced to admit that the tear gas grenade used in the attack against the Bourgets mosque was indeed the kind that they use.
As night falls the Clichy-sous-Bois police station is attacked with a molotov cocktail. (Heure par heure, le Nouvel Observateur, November 3rd 2005)
Tuesday November 1st
Over the previous night rioting has spread to nine other suburbs. A total of 150 arson attacks on garbage cans, vehicles and buildings were reported. The unrest was particularly intense in Sevran, Aulnay-sous-Bois and Bondy, all in the Seine-Saint-Denis region, which is considered to be a “sensitive area of immigration and modest incomes.” Three cops were slightly injured. In Aulnay-sous-Bois, rioters threw Molotov cocktails at the town hall and rocks at the firehouse; police fired rubber bullets at advancing rioters. (Wikipedia: 2005 Clichy-sous-Bois riots)
Prime Minister Dominic de Villepin meets with the parents of the three teenagers, promising a full investigation of the deaths and insisting on "the need to restore calm." (Clashes continue in Paris suburbs, The Guardian, Wednesday November 2, 2005)
Wednesday November 2nd
Reports suggest rioters briefly stormed a police station while 177 vehicles were torched during the previous night. One government official claims that live rounds were fired at riot police. Two primary schools, a post office and a shopping centre were damaged and a large car showroom set ablaze. Police vehicles were stoned as gangs turned on police. Rioting spreads west-ward to the area of Hauts-de-Seine where a police station was bombarded with home-made Molotov cocktails. Jacques Chirac, the President of France made appeals for calm, and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin held an emergency cabinet meeting. (Wikipedia: 2005 Clichy-sous-Bois riots)
Aulnay-sous-Bois: “youths lobbed molotov cocktails at an annex to the town hall and threw stones at the fire station” (Clashes continue in Paris suburbs, The Guardian, Wednesday November 2, 2005)
Sarkozy cancels his upcoming trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan and Prime Minister de Villepin cancels his trip to Canada. (Heure par heure, le Nouvel Observateur, November 3rd 2005)
Thursday November 3rd
Over the previous night protestors set fire to 315 cars in the Paris area overnight, half of them in Seine-Saint-Denis, where nine people were injured, officials said. (French youths open fire on police, The Guardian, Thursday November 3, 2005) Throughout the Paris suburbs rioting is reported in Bondy, Aubervilliers, la Courneuve, Saint-Denis, Gennevilliers and Asnières-sur-Seine. In Aulnay-sous-Bois, “gangs of youths set fire to a Renault car dealership and incinerated at least a dozen cars, a supermarket and a local gymnasium.” (French youths open fire on police, The Guardian, November 3rd 2005)
Rioting is also reported outside of the Paris area, notably in Dijon, where several; cars were set on fire. (Incidents épars en Ile-de-France, France2.fr)
The families of Ziad Benna and Bouna Traoré file a formal complaint against persons unknown for non-assistance of a person in danger. (Heure par heure, le Nouvel Observateur, November 3rd 2005)
1,000 police, including 12 new mobile and anti-riot units, patrol Seine-Saint-Denis at night (Heure par heure, le Nouvel Observateur, November 3rd 2005)
Sarkozy goes on television, claiming that “What we have seen in Seine-Sainte-Denis is in no way spontaneous, it is prefectly organized. We are working to find out by who and how.” (Heure par heure, le Nouvel Observateur, November 3rd 2005)
Prime Minister de Villepin addresses the Senate, saying that “The Republican state will not give in” and that “law and order will have the last word.” (Heure par heure, le Nouvel Observateur, November 3rd 2005)
to be continued...