More Than Riots : A Question of Spheres
Published on: Dec 02, 2005

Stéphane Dufoix is associate professor of sociology at the University of Paris-X Nanterre. He has recently directed two books in French: with Patrick Weil, dir., L’esclavage, la colonisation, et après… (Slavery, Colonization, and Afterwards…), Paris, PUF, 2005; and, with Marie-Claude Blanc-Chaléard and Patrick Weil, L’étranger en questions du Moyen Age à l’an 2000 (Questioning Foreigners, From the Middle Ages to the Millenium), Paris, Editions Le Manuscrit, 2005.

Following the debates about the French riots on such a forum as the H-Ethnic list and also urged by both my students in sociology at the University of Paris-X Nanterre and students in my Debating French Identities course in the Educational Program Abroad of the University of California, I’ve been struck by the multiplication of dimensions displayed in those academic or student analyses. It seems as though the first difficulty was to decide into which kind of frame those “events” could—or should—find their place: do they belong to the history of urban policy, of violence, of republicanism, of immigration policy, of post-colonialism, of discrimination, of the labor market, of politics, of media, of racism, of the police, of the French image in the world, and so on… Seldom has a set of events that took place in France in such a short span of time fostered so many keys of interpretation. Is there a truth to be found among these? I don’t think so, for I see this configuration of events as a complex episode, and even as a global symptom of the challenges lying before French authorities and French citizens as a whole. All the dimensions aforementioned do constitute relevant lenses and should ideally be addressed all together in a single study. This study being out of scope of the forum here, instead of trying to reveal what should be considered as being the truth of those “events,” this essay will take a partial point of view mostly based on a discussion of topics related to the issue of recognition.

In one of the first essays posted on this forum, Michel Wieviorka remarked that the novelty of the riots resided in the diffusion of the anger from a local place to many other places all around France and in the prolongation of the riots much beyond the usual 2-3 nights of violence. It could be added that the tragedy of Clichy-sous-Bois—three young French teenagers of foreign origin being electrocuted in an electric transformer while hiding from the police, two of them (Ziad and Banou) dying from the electric shock while the third one (Muhittin) being seriously wounded—and its immediate aftermath functioned as a kind of a catalyst for facing many injustices encountered by a significant number of French youth when they live in suburbs: violence from the police, racism, law and order policy, anti-Muslim feelings (a tear-gas grenade from the police was thrown by accident into the mosque of Clichy-sous-Bois), two-speed discourse from the Minister of Interior Nicolas Sarkozy who had the very first night named Ziad and Bouna as delinquents (they were unknown in the police files and committed no offence that night) while, three days later, refusing to blame the police for the throwing of the tear-gas grenade as long as the investigation had not been completed… What happened in Clichy-sous-Bois—the chase, the tragedy, the first riots and the political discourses about it—could appear as a symbol of the rejection by the French Republic by some part of its youth, all the more so as far as people of foreign origin are concerned. The anger spread metonymically, the local case considered as being a realistic symbol of the situation in all of France and the local conflict between rioters and policemen being treated as the symbol of a reaction against state authority.

Yet, this view may already represent too much of an extrapolation. For another feature of the riots is precisely the complete absence of claim-making by the rioters as well as the non-existence of any kind of organized movement advocating the right to speak for them. In fact, there was no discourse expressed by the rioters except violence itself. Therefore, it seems that any interpretation of the situation in terms of a social movement, or of a revolt, or even a revolution, is questionable, for it lacks the expression of any articulated voice. Violence can indeed be meaningful, but who has the power to understand its implicit meaning, if there is any? One might wonder whether what could be at stake here would be precisely the expression of violence as a non-discourse as compared to state discourse. One might interpret the riots with Michel Foucault’s lenses when he describes certain places in society as being both in relationship with all other locations and at the same time suspending or inverting all other locations: he names these places heterotopias.1 One could argue that what we nowadays, rather euphemistically, call “sensitive neighborhoods” are actual heterotopias. Originally designed as quite autonomous neighborhoods, with shops, schools and other services, so that people living there might find almost everything they needed just below their apartment, they progressively transformed into segregated territories.2 As “les Français de souche” (native-born French people) gradually left the banlieues, and the “trente glorieuses” (the three decades of prosperity after the Second World War) drew to a close,3 inhabitants of the banlieues increasingly felt cast out of towns, out of work and out of society. People living in other parts of town considered these neighborhoods as more and more dangerous, while the police and the authorities came to see them as unreachable places, the so-called “territoires perdus de la République” (the Republic’s lost territories) in which republican law had to be enforced again.4 All these processes and reciprocal representations ended up in making those locations heterotopias, spatial symbols of the verso of society. If one tries to take this hypothesis seriously, it helps explain why there was no claim-making discourse and also why riots only happened by night. The issue at stake here is the actual violent (re)appropriation of a territory by young people who, perhaps more than protesting against their being marginalized in society, just show their rejection of the order of society and demonstrate violently that their place is not society, but the neighborhood over which they claim some kind of power, and that their time is not daytime, but nighttime. This is no legitimization of these actions, only an attempt to understand their logic. To the forces of law and order, the rioters opposed the law and order of force. The two sides fought for the definition of the space where they actually opposed each other: is it part of the public sphere, and thus governed by the definition of public order, or is it another kind of space, both non-public and non-private, governed by groups claiming with violence their authority over that space by challenging the state monopolization of legitimate violence?

At the end of his essay on heterotopias, Michel Foucault developed the idea that colonies also showed heterotopic forms. If he especially insisted on early times of colonization (Puritan and Jesuit colonies in the New World), one might well extrapolate this assumption to include colonial territories as such. As a matter of fact, they often functioned as heterotopias as well since they belonged to the broad definition of the nation without being integral parts of the national territory, governed as they were through distinct political or military institutions. Why is it important to point out the homology between “sensitive neighborhoods” and colonies as heterotopias? Not because “sensitive neighborhoods” and colonies ARE the same thing! I don't think so. Yet, understanding the situation also means understanding the interpretations of it. It has become fashionable in some academic milieus and beyond to portray French management of immigration, of "integration" and of "sensitive neighborhoods" as though this structural resemblance were in fact more of a sameness: the indigenous people of the colonies became immigrants in France, and the French authorities have reproduced on the French territory the same kind of ethnic segregation that had prevailed in the colonies (This is particularly true of the works of the scholars gathered in ACHAC, the Association pour la connaissance de l’histoire de l’Afrique contemporaine—Association for the Historical Knowledge of Contemporary Africa5). That discourse easily found echoes in France from the 1990s onwards in times when the issue of public recognition made its way into the political agenda.

Public recognition can be divided into two dimensions: the recognition by the state of historical crimes or wrongs committed against certain populations; the recognition of the existence, within the population, of identity groups entitled to specific collective rights. In the French republican framework, both dimensions have proved to be problematic and the decision, or non-decisions, made in this respect have influenced the interpretations of the recent riots.

A short overview of recent developments in this domain could be useful. The issue of the state recognizing historical traumas and discriminations is not new. Yet, it has shown some very interesting developments in the last year and a half. Four episodes illustrate the place that the discourse on recognition has taken in the French intellectual and political arena. These four episodes are all linked to three different yet intermingled historical phenomena: slavery, colonization and immigration.6

  • 8 July 2004: Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin officially announces that a National Museum on the History of Immigration will open doors in 2007 on the site of the Palais de la Porte Dorée, which formerly hosted the Museum of the Colonies. This decision is based on the long-standing work of associations, academics and civil servants for the last four years and on a report written under the direction of Jacques Toubon, former right-wing Minister of Culture.

  • 19 January 2005: an appeal entitled “We are the Indigenous People of the Republic!” is released on the Internet website That appeal calls for “postcolonial anticolonialism” and a protest against the persistence, on French territory, of a colonial logic that pushes “postcolonial immigrants” into the margins of society. That text triggers much debate in the newspapers and on the Internet about the question of communitarianism, and about how relevant is the use of the word “indigenes.”

  • 25 March 2005: the French newspaper Le Monde publishes a text signed by six historians protesting against the presence, in the law promulgated on 23 February 2005 and officially entitled “Law about recognition from the Nation and national contribution in favor of repatriated French people,” of Article 4. Article 4 states: “Academic research programs award the history of French overseas presence, notably in North Africa, all the importance it deserves. School programs recognize in particular the positive role of French overseas presence and award the history and the sacrifices of soldiers from the French army coming from these territories the eminent position they are entitled to.” The objection published in Le Monde soon became a petition signed by thousands of scholars.

  • 12 April 2005: the Committee for the Memory of Slavery delivers its report about memories of slave trade, slavery and abolitions. It suggests instituting a day of commemoration on the 10th of May, which is the anniversary of the law unanimously voted by the National Assembly in 2001 that recognized slave trade and slavery as crimes against humanity.

Recalling this chronology is important to understand the broad intellectual context that has been the French one for the last two years or so. Demands of recognition and agreements to recognize are usually accompanied with statements that discriminations based on race, ethnicity or religion linger on and that they should be fought. They could be dealt with either on the basis of the republican model, proclaiming the indivisibility of the French people and not recognizing these differences, thus relying only on the strict application of anti-discrimination laws; or on the basis of a transformation of that model so as to take the existence of collective groups suffering discrimination into account and to ensure their privileged access to work, education, politics, media, lodging. On one hand is a claim for not being treated differently, since the French Republic is based on equality of all citizens under the law. On the other hand is a claim for the recognition of specificities that may justify some kind of affirmative action (what is called in French “la discrimination positive”). The progressive recognition of past traumas inflicted on some groups whose descendants now live in France and of the persistence of discrimination linked to ethnicity, race, culture or religion is the call to recognition of those groups as such in the public sphere, for instance so as to ensure non-discrimination in the future. In this tension between the necessity to acknowledge the past and to compensate for current discriminations by taking differences into account certainly lies the greatest challenge faced by the French Republic.7 Right or wrong, the vision assimilating past crimes with current discriminations is present and weighs on how people interpret the current situation. Decisions and discourses, whatever their actual intention, may be seen through this specific lens. Here are three instances of this: declarations by Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy about the “racaille” (a word often translated as “scum” in English, but that also has an etymological equivalent with “rascal”) that should be wiped out of the suburbs with a “Kärcher machine,” may remind some of colonial cleansings8; the recourse to a 1955 law promulgated in the context of the war in Algeria so as to enable local authorities to impose a curfew was identified with the colonial setting from which it originated (see for instance what Mimouna Hadjam, from the association Africa 93, said on Canal Plus, a television channel, about the curfew and what she called “the colonial management of this crisis”); and last, the never-ending use by politicians of the word “integration” is seldom understood in the Durkheimian vision of it, in which integration is the process by which any individual is functionally linked to society, but rather as a synonym for “assimilation,” i.e., the insistence that those who are different become like the dominant ones. In general, the fact that the main governmental discourse was a discourse of law and order, that the President of the Republic only officially intervened two weeks after the beginning of the riots, and that his speech addressed both the issue of integration and that of discriminations did not make it easy for other patterns of interpretation to emerge.

If indeed there is an “identity crisis,” a “lack of landmarks,” as Jacques Chirac declared in his speech to the nation on November 18, it does not only concern the rioters: it is also a statement about our political model. In the current republican legal framework, fighting discrimination is hardly possible. For instance, it is forbidden to constitute any statistical series based on religion, ethnicity or race, thus preventing any correct evaluation of discrimination. The implementation of some measures that could limit discrimination as far as the access to the labor market is concerned, for instance imposing the sending of anonymous résumés when applying to a position, has been refused twice within the last year. (In his November 18 speech, the President evoked the possibility to implement this measure.)

In conclusion, the riots are a symptom of the confusion about how many spheres should exist to allow for a society to guarantee equality, liberty and justice at the same time to all of its citizens. The classical republican model only recognizes two of them, the public and the private sphere, the former being “indifferent” to differences and only recognizing citizens, the latter being the sphere of differences and individuals. Two alternative options have emerged over the last two decades: one is claiming more space for collective identities that would be granted some recognition within a sort of “collective” or, as the French philosopher Jacky Dahomay put it, “common sphere” that would not be encompassed in the public “civic” sphere9; the other is the kind of space we have seen emerging during the riots: the violent appropriation, not of the public sphere, but of public areas by groups claiming nothing but their authority over a precise territory, thus creating some “privatized public places” over which the state does not have the control. This situation has not persisted, but the danger is here. It’s not only in the eruption of violence: it also resides in the temptation to forget all about it as soon as it is over. It is certainly time to acknowledge that solving certain societal problems does not imply accusing certain populations, but rather redistributing the cards of political theory and inventing new compromises between spheres.


1 Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” Diacritics, 16, Spring 1986, a text written in 1967 but only published in French in 1984.

2 Eric Maurin, Le ghetto français (The French Ghetto), Paris, Seuil, 2004. Yet the use of the term “ghetto” has been rightly criticized by Loïc Wacquant as well as by Hervé Vieillard-Baron. See Loïc Wacquant,“Pour en finir avec le mythe des cites-ghettos” (Breaking With the Myth of Cités-Ghettos), Annales de la recherché urbaine, (54), 1992, p. 20-30. See also Hervé Vieillard-Baron, Les banlieues françaises ou le ghetto impossible (French Suburbs: The Impossible Ghetto), La Tour d’Aigues, Editions de l’Aube, 1994.

3 See Jocelyne Cesari’s essay in this forum:

4 On this discourse, see Laurent Mucchielli, Violences et insécurité. Fantasmes et réalités dans le débat français (Violence and Insecurity. Fantasy and Reality in the French Debates), Paris, La Découverte, 2001.

5 For examples of work done by members of ACHAC, see Nicolas Bancel and Pascal Blanchard, De l’indigène à l’immigré (From the Indigenous People to the Immigré), Paris, Gallimard, 1998, and most especially the latest book they have directed with Sandrine Lemaire, La fracture coloniale: la société française au prisme de l’héritage colonial (The Colonial Fracture: French Society Seen Through the Lens of Colonial Legacy), Paris, La Découverte, 2005. For a different analysis of the “traces” left by both slavery and colonization in current societies, see Patrick Weil and Stéphane Dufoix, eds., L’esclavage, la colonization, et après… (Slavery, Colonization, and Afterwards…), Paris, PUF, 2005.

6 See Stéphane Dufoix, “La reconnaissance au présent. Dimensions temporelles de l’histoire et de la mémoire” (Present recognition: Temporal Dimensions of History and Memory), forthcoming in La Revue du Mauss, (26), 2nd semester 2005.

7 On these questions, see Sylvie Mesure and Alain Renaut, Alter Ego. Les paradoxes de l’identité démocratique (Alter Ego. Paradoxes of Democratic Identity), Paris, Aubier, 1999.

8 See Philippe Bernard, “Banlieues: la provocation coloniale” (Suburbs: the Colonial Provocation), Le Monde, November 18.

9 Jacky Dahomay, “Pour une nouvelle identité républicaine” (For a New Republican Identity), Le Monde, 15 April 2005.