10 years after French riots, police go on trial over 2 teens' deaths that ignited the violence
CLICHY-SOUS-BOIS, France – Some things have changed since riots swept across France's troubled neighborhoods a decade ago. Public money has funded glistening new housing projects with Mondrian-style color schemes, roads have been re-paved, tramways installed and new sports and cultural facilities have been built.
But to many French youths of black and Arab descent, the face-lift is just a Band-Aid. The new buildings simply mask a severe lack of job prospects for those from immigrant backgrounds, a two-track French justice system and entrenched discrimination across French society that offers little-to-no exit from dead-end futures.
Roiling suspicions that French justice may not be colorblind come as two police officers went on trial Monday for allegedly failing in their legal responsibility to help "people in danger" — notably two minority teenagers whose electrocution deaths in 2005 set off a three-week wave of rioting across France.
A decade later, the country is still struggling to mend such social problems — a task that has taken on critical importance since three French radicals from poor, minority backgrounds killed 17 people in Paris in January — France's worst terrorist attacks in decades.
Mainstream French political parties, meanwhile, are seeing the far-right capitalize on broad feelings of insecurity and frustration about joblessness.
On Oct. 27, 2005, Clichy-sous-Bois, a hardscrabble suburb worlds away from rich central Paris, became the epicenter of three weeks of car burnings and clashes between French youths and police. The trigger was the electrocution deaths of Zyed Benna, 17, and Bouna Troare, 15, while they hid from police in a power substation after entering an off-limits construction site.
By the end of the riots, more than 10,000 cars had been torched, 300 buildings damaged or destroyed and 1,300 people had been convicted of violent offenses.
Many see the trial of officers Sebastien Gaillemin, 41, and Stephanie Klein, 38, as a chance to get answers about how the riots started and see if anyone in authority can be held to account. For years, prosecutors have sought to block any trial and it's only happening because France's highest court stepped in. The five-day trial began in the distant jurisdiction of Rennes in western France. If convicted, Gaillemin and Klein could face up to five years in prison and 75,000 euros ($79,000) each in fines.
When it comes to feelings of discrimination, Clichy-sous-Bois and towns like it are France's closest answer to Ferguson, Missouri. While America has tough inner cities, France's downtrodden have been consigned to giant housing projects in suburbs on the outskirts of major cities. While many injustices in the United States are rooted in racism and slavery, France's legacy with its ethnic minorities is post-colonial — many housing project inhabitants have family roots in North or sub-Saharan Africa.
Ultimately, some say, money can't buy the real remedy: A change in attitude among France's white majority and power elite that opens up opportunities to underprivileged minorities.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls recently denounced "apartheid" in France — admittedly a powerful term, clearly aimed at shaking up public opinion in favor of more inclusion.
"The elites in France are white, over 60 years old, an oligarchical class — and those with North African or black origins have trouble getting in," said Nadir Kahia, president of Banlieue Plus, a group that tries to reshape poor suburban neighborhoods and give residents back their dignity. "This dominant minority won't give us the keys. These elites have trouble handing things over."
Yet hopes for more inclusiveness in France may be fading. The far-right, anti-immigration National Front party has surged in the polls in recent months, riding frustration about entrenched unemployment, sluggish growth and political fat cats. The party has tapped into fears about radical Islam and both anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic attacks have been on the rise.
Meanwhile, the French-born children of immigrants feel that recent efforts they have made — like surging to the polls to help President Francois Hollande and his fellow Socialists win election in 2012 — have gone unreciprocated.
"Over the past 10 years, these 8 or 9 million people who live in these working class districts have had the impression of not being recognized as full French citizens but as French on the margins, that the republic has forgotten some of its children," said Mohamed Mechmache, president of the civic association ACLeFeu.
He said the political and social "awakening" in France's poor suburbs was the most positive result of the 2005 riots. His group has polled cities and villages across France to sound out public opinion, and is preparing a new list of grievances for the 10-year anniversary of the boys' deaths this fall.
In Clichy-sous-Bois, some residents hail refurbishments: A new tramway is in the works to help end its near-isolation from Paris public transport, and the elevators are finally operating again in the towering, 1,500-unit Chene Pointu housing project.
But several young men complained of continued police harassment, calling the infrastructure improvements superficial.
"There are still no jobs, the police break our balls," said Ibrahim Sidibe, 23, outside Clichy's main shopping center. He lamented at how long it has taken for the two policemen to go on trial over the teens' deaths.
"Imagine that two people get killed, and you have to wait 10 years for this - aw! If I were to kill a police officer, believe me, I think I would be naked at the station, and I can't even imagine what would happen next," he said. "What happened to Zyed and Bouna could have happened to anybody here."
Sotto reported from Paris.