Accused of committing violence in the past, residents of the country's vast suburbs are no longer silent over the government's economic policies as they begin to show up at yellow vest protests, causing more worries for the Macron administration.
PARIS — For several weeks, they held back. They chose to stay at a distance from the emerging protest movement to be “on the safe side,” said Taha Bouhafs, a left-wing activist from a northern suburb of Paris. At first it was because community leaders of based in the suburbs of Paris thought the so-called yellow vest movement was made up of extreme right-wing groups. Then, because they did not want the suburbanites to be liable for the outbursts of violence at the protests.
The yellow vest movement sprung up spontaneously throughout France after a car rally turned into a protest on November 17. The movement denounces the rising cost of living and a new fuel tax. Initially, the French media described it as predominantly white, rural, and potentially racist.
“Fortunately, black and Arab youth from the Parisian suburbs were not present from the beginning," Bouhafs said. "They would have been held responsible for any use of violence by the protesters.”
Some suburban working class unions and associations are now attempting to mobilise their forces to “massively” join the yellow vests. Their participation could escalate the tensions between protesters and the government.
What do the suburbs represent in the French social imagination?
In French political debate, the word banlieue, or suburb, is neither used to define the diversity of populations nor the multiplicity of urban landscapes surrounding the cities. Instead, the term is used to refer to a single population: the largely unemployed youth of African and Arab descent who live in the suburbs' large housing estates.
In 2005, riots erupted in the suburbs of Paris and other French cities. These riots involved youth of African and Northern African descent, who burned cars and vandalised public property. Ever since, a belief has gained ground — that the support of the suburban youth was necessary for any social movement to put the French government on the backfoot.
“The idea that suburbs could start to move worries everyone,” comments Stéphane Le Peu, the communist representative of Seine-Saint-Denis, a department in the north-east of Paris. Le Peu says staffers from several French ministries have contacted him over the past week to ask him to assess his constituents’ mindset regarding the yellow vests movement.
An initial reluctance
Up until last week, most inhabitants of Paris’ suburbs merely observed or supported the movement without getting involved.
“There has been no protest in my town, nor many people going to Paris to protest. But the people’s support to the movement is tremendous,” said Laurent Russier, the communist mayor of the the city of Saint-Denis. “The question of the high cost of living is ubiquitous here.”
However, not all suburban residents were keen to join in. Le Peu explained: “With Marine Le Pen’s extremist party trying so hard to reclaim the yellow vests movement, the people [of the suburban city of Saint-Denis] have been hesitant to join in.”
He also thinks that resignation and political apathy might be more tangible in the suburbs – which are often referred to as the ‘Republic’s Forgotten Territories’ – than in the rest of the country: the suburbanites “are not expecting much from the government anyway,” he said.
“We feel a strong responsibility regarding the risks of violence, and that’s partly why we were hesitating to go with the yellow vests,” said Almamy Kanouté, a political activist and member of the Comity for Adama, an association created in the suburb of Beaumont-sur-Oise following the death of Adama Traoré in police custody in July of 2016.
“But if we remain absent from this legitimate revolt any longer, it will nurture the sense of exclusion already felt by many in the outskirts,” Kanouté added.
High-school students have been among the first to publicly identify with the movement in the suburbs of Paris. On November 30, pupils wearing yellow vests blocked the entrance of their high-schools in Seine-Saint-Denis and Val-de-Marne towns in north and east of Paris.
A video shot last Thursday afternoon following a high-school protest in Mantes-la-Jolie, a small town north-west of Paris, caused indignation throughout the country. The cellphone footage shows dozens of high-school pupils forced to kneel by police officers wearing riot gear, with their hands either bound or behind their heads.
Joining the movement
The Comity for Adama, an organisation created in the city of Beaumont-sur-Oise, north of Paris, in order to denounce police brutality, launched a first call to join the yellow vests’ movement in Paris on Saturday, December 1. Djibril Pauquet, who is 31 and currently unemployed, responded to the Comity’s call to join the movement. What are his motivations?
“First of all, I came to join the movement because I’m French. I live in France, I pay taxes and the current reforms concern me directly : I drive, therefore I’m participating in an economy that cheats me,” said Pauquet. “Today I’m mainly here to bring attention to police violence, but my demands are consistent with those of the yellow vest movement anyways.”
Taha Bouhafs, a member of the Adama Comity, joined the yellow vest marches in Paris on both Saturdays (December 1 and December 8). For him, the residents of rural and suburban towns must be united.
“We must not essentialise this movement.” Bouhafs said. “These people are protesting because just like the people of the suburbs, they are getting poorer, and like us they cannot cope anymore.”
A group of people from the Paris metropolitan area, which is known collectively as Banlieues Respect, have also joined the yellow vest movement since December 1.
“In our neighborhoods, people are also victims of the government’s tax abuses,” said Hassan Ben M’Barek, the president of Banlieues Respect. “We are calling for a peaceful gathering and asking for a real dialogue with the public authorities.”
This week, the Adama Comity wants to step up a gear by employing its activist and social media networks. The Comity is calling for a “convergence of all social struggles”.
According to official figures, 136,000 people participated in the December 8 yellow vest protests throughout the country. In several cities, notably in Paris, the demonstrations were marred by violence. The Interior Ministry said 1,723 people had been arrested, and 1,220 of them have been placed into custody.
Gilbert Collard, an extreme-right wing representative, reacted to these incidents on French national radio. “There are on the one side of the yellow vests who did not want to cause damage nor to harm policemen, but rather deliver a strong message, and on the other side there are the ‘rioters,’ who for years and years are systematically destroying everything whenever there is a protest movement," Collard commented.
Rioters who, according to Collard, come from “the suburbs.” “No one has the courage to say it,” said the representative. "The police knows that they do not come from convents, that they do no not come from charitable organisations - they come from the suburbs, and we all know that," Collard contended.
Though for activists like Taha Bouhafs, these kind of insinuations were to be expected from the right-wing groups, and should not discourage the suburban youth from mobilising.
“Obviously, the extreme-right wing opposition is trying to reclaim this movement,” Bouhafs said. “But that’s precisely why we are here: to show that the yellow vests are fellow citizens who like us, are poor and sick of it.”