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FRANCE: Banlieues social forum

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  • Andy
    ... 9 October 2008, 2:00pm For the second year running, French grassroots anti-racist associations joined forces to organise the Social Forum of the Banlieues
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 10, 2008
      >> Unity of purpose in the French banlieues

      > By Liz Fekete

      9 October 2008, 2:00pm

      For the second year running, French grassroots anti-racist associations
      joined forces to organise the Social Forum of the Banlieues (FSQP, Le Forum
      Social des Quartiers Populaires).

      Picture credit: Robin Virgin

      This unique and exciting gathering, attended by over 500 people from across
      the country, was held over three days (3-5 October) in the northern Parisian
      suburb (banlieue) of Nanterre.

      The Forum's roots

      The roots of the Forum go back to 2005 and the biggest 'riots' France has
      witnessed since the May 1968 student protests. The revolt of the youth,
      which began in the poor eastern Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, soon
      spread to every major city in France. Triggered by the deaths of two youths
      of African origin, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré (attempting to evade police
      pursuit following an identity check they climbed into a power station and
      were electrocuted), it led the government of President Chirac to declare a
      national state of emergency.[1] Soon afterwards, grassroots organisations
      made the 'Call for the National Social Forum of the Banlieues'.[2] Fed up
      with the media demonisation of the banlieues as 'the lost territories of the
      Republic',[3] and 'no-go areas' populated by 'scum' and savages', these
      associations sought to establish through a collective mode of organisation a
      unity of purpose which would counter local fragmentation of the struggle for
      social and political rights. Thus, from the outset, the Forum was designed
      to 'be a place of reflection and a meeting place of different local
      struggles', while 'offering them political visibility at a national level'.

      The history of Nanterre

      When North African and other immigrant workers first came to France,
      principally from Algeria. Morocco and Tunisia in the 1950s and 1960s, social
      housing was not provided. The new immigrant workers were forced to occupy
      the most marginal of housing conditions in the squalid shanty towns
      (bidonvilles) surrounding the major cities of France. It was fitting, then,
      that this year's Forum was held in Nanterre for, in the 1960s, Nanterre
      (then an industrial area) had been the site of one of France's largest
      bidonville (thirteen shanty towns with a population of 8,000 - half of whom
      were women and children). Today, the children and grandchildren of these
      first immigrant workers live alongside the undocumented and marginalised in
      the huge sprawling estates which towered over the conference venue (a series
      of marquees in the Parc André Malraux). Close by was the gleaming glass of
      city-skyscrapers and the gentrified housing estates and gated communities
      which are now home to better-off Parisians.

      Unity in action

      Just about every French minority community was represented at the Forum -
      Black, White, French-Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians and (sub-Saharan)
      Africans, etc as well as, of course, the sans papiers represented by the
      Committee from the 9th Arrondisement. An enormous range of issues was
      discussed in raw, and often heated (but always democratic) debate: racism,
      discrimination, educational exclusion, social housing, police violence and
      media stigmatisation; Islamophobia, feminism, colonialism and its legacy
      (particularly in the French Overseas Departments); the war on terror and
      Palestine, an issue that is part of the very heart-beat of the banlieue.
      What emerged from the debates was the strong unity of purpose of communities
      fighting as a people, and as a class.

      One of the most important themes discussed at the Forum was the destruction
      of social housing - all part of Sarkozy's urban renovation plans (read
      gentrification of the banlieue and demolition of estates and dispersal of
      inhabitants). The session on police violence was addressed by civil rights
      activists campaigning around recent deaths in custody, such as that of
      Lamine Dieng in Paris in June 2007, Reda Semmoudi in Seine Saint Denis in
      January 2008 and Abdelhakim Hadijmi in Grasse in May 2008. The justice and
      policing session was accompanied by a moving exhibition, with photographs
      and campaign literature recalling the many young men (mostly North Africans)
      who have died over the years in police custody or suspicious circumstances
      involving the police. The exhibition also recalled the tragic events of 17
      October 1961 when the Paris police vented its fury at Algerian immigrant
      workers rallying in support of Algerian independence and in opposition to
      the nightly curfew. As many as 200 Algerians died when police drove the
      demonstrators into the Seine where they drowned; others were clubbed to

      Cultures of resistance

      The Forum was not just about political discussion. There was a Cinéma des
      Quartiers, theatre and other cultural events. The first theatrical
      performance on the opening night of the Forum was by Al Houda, a Muslim
      feminist organisation from Rennes. Its production 'Le son du tissus', (The
      sound of cloth), a one-woman performance explored the personal impact of the
      stigmatisation and exclusion from society of Muslim women who wear the
      headscarf. It was based on Al Houda's experiences with French feminists who,
      amongst other things, banned it from taking part in their annual event on
      International Women's Day (on the grounds that wearing the veil is
      incompatible with feminism). Islamophobia and the veil was also discussed
      the following day in a seminar where school teacher and writer Pierre
      Tévanian and social activist Ismahane Chouder discussed their new book, Les
      Filles voilées parlent (Veiled Girls speak out). The book explores the
      experiences of stigmatisation and exclusion of fourty-four French Muslim
      girls following the introduction of the 2004 law against the wearing of
      conspicuous religious symbols in schools.

      What next?

      In the Forum's final session, participants discussed their ideas for the
      future. Just as in the UK, activists were anxious about increasing
      alienation of young people and much of the focus was on strategic
      interventions capable of reaching out to them. The many documentaries and
      cultural films broadcast at the Forum are to be shown in community venues.
      And there was talk of extending the forum into regional forums, addressing
      national themes.


      [1] As many observers noted at the time, the last occasion the State of
      Emergency was applied by the French government was in Algeria in 1961. [2]
      See . [3] In 2002, a book entitled 'The Lost Territories of the Republic:
      anti-Semitism, racism and sexism in the educational sphere', edited by the
      Holocaust historian Georges Bensoussan (under the pseudonym Emmanuel
      Brenner) blamed problems of violence in schools on 'Arabic-Muslim culture'.
      Following that, it became fashionable for the media to talk of the banlieues
      as the lost territories of the Republic. Liz Fekete is head of European
      research at the Institute of Race Relations. She is currently conducting a
      two-year research project on 'Alternative Voices on Integration' funded by
      the Network of European Foundations (European Programme on Integration and

      The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate
      view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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      Read an IRR News Story: Organising in the banlieues - Interview with Pierre
      Didier (http://www.irr.org.uk/2008/october/ha000020.html)

      Le Forum Social des Quartiers Populaires - Social Forum of the Banlieues

      IRR is not responsible for the content of external websites.
      Inclusion of a link does not constitute an endorsement. Please contact us if
      you come across a broken link.


      © Institute of Race Relations 2008

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