In the wake of the Paris attacks that struck France in November 2015, the French government adopted a temporary state of emergency, announcing that the country was ‘at war’ with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The emergency Law – extended until May 2016 – has included a series of measures strengthening law-enforcement scope of actions, including preventive stop-and-frisk, housing arrest without prior judicial approval, warrantless searches, police raids, and citizenship withdrawal for individuals suspected of being involved in terrorist activities. Over a period of six months, more than 3200 raids have been conducted by law-enforcement officials and 400 people have been placed under house arrests. While the state of emergency seems to bear fruits, a recent report published by Human Rights Watch in February 2016 denounces abusive police practices and serious human right violations targeting mostly disadvantaged urban neighborhood residents.
Discriminatory practices against disadvantaged neighborhood residents is however nothing new; on the contrary, it reflects a multi-layered process of marginalization a la francaise deeply embedded in State institutions and in the French society. On the spatial level, this process of marginalization has translated since the 1970’s through the relegation of the lower class of society in decaying neighborhoods of the urban periphery (also called banlieue in French) today characterized by mass-unemployment, rampant poverty and socio-spatial deterioration. On the socio-economic level, the neoliberalization of the French society in the past decades, along with the withdrawal of the welfare state, have accelerated the deterioration of living conditions in banlieues, resulting in a growing polarization of the French society and of the urban fabric, divided between ‘wealthy areas’ (city-centers) and ‘poor areas’ (banlieues). My research in the infamous banlieues of the Parisian periphery during the summer of 2015 emphasized the struggle of youth growing up in these neighborhoods to integrate in society and to construct their French identity. Spatially separated from mainstream society from an early age, criminalized in the media and in political debates, disadvantaged in their access to education and to the labor market, youth from the banlieues have become synonymous of a wasted generation, justifying state control and repressive measures.
Disadvantaged neighborhoods as spaces of socio-economic exclusion
With school drop-out and unemployment rating twice higher in banlieues than in the rest of the urban territory, prospects of a brilliant future are often reduced for youth to the blocks and towers of their hood; this is mainly due to inequalities disadvantaged youth face in their access to education and to employment. At the level of educational institutions, the implementation of priority education zones (ZEP) in banlieues – a campaign aiming to reduce inequalities through the development of socio-cultural programs in schools located in disadvantaged neighborhoods – has often been contested for prejudicing youth’s academic achievements instead of reducing any socio-cultural inequality: the heterogeneity of the educative programs implemented in ZEP, along with the lack of motivation of many beginner teachers assigned in ZEP to ‘get their hand in’, and the forced reorientation of weak students towards vocational schools discourage a large percentage of students to pursue their education. In Epinay-sur-Seine, a disadvantaged neighborhood located in the north of Paris, only forty-four percent of the youth population ranging from fifteen to twenty-nine years old were still in the educational system between the years 2011 and 2013, among which only nineteen percent had a secondary or high school diploma. This, of course, has serious repercussions on youth’s socio-economic opportunities as a significant percentage of youth do not meet the requirements to compete on the labor-market. Those who nonetheless managed to make their path through the educational system often face discrimination linked to their place of residence, to their ethnic background or to the consonance of their name when applying for a job. Thus, instead of providing individuals with the necessary luggage to improve their socio-economic mobility, educational and labor market institutions eventually reproduce existing inequalities and maintain the lower cast of the population in a situation of continual deprivation. As a result, many disadvantaged youth are pushed to look for alternative means to meet their needs, providing breeding ground for the underground economy to emerge.
Disadvantaged neighborhoods as spaces of repression
Ironically enough, disadvantaged youth’s unequal access to education and to the labor market has often served to justify the penal turn adopted by the French state in the management of urban poverty over the past decades. While the state’s welfare interventions in disadvantaged neighborhoods have gradually been abandoned, the successive reforms of the penal code adopted since the 1990’s have strengthened the penal machinery. On one hand, the criminalization of misdemeanors, discourtesies, gathering, loitering and other youth’s misconducts perceived as ‘deviant’ have resulted in a dramatic growth of youth delinquency in statistical records and in the general perception that criminality in banlieue continue to increase, fueling fears and creating support for more and more repression. On the other hand, the empowerment of the police institution in disadvantaged neighborhoods has legitimized abusive practices such as arbitrary identity checks, stop-and-frisks regardless the commission of an infraction, racial profiling, and verbal and physical violence leading in some case to the death of a youth. The acquittal of the police officers involved in the death of Zyed and Bouna – two youngsters who died of electrocution in Clichy-sous-Bois in 2005 while trying to escape the police, which ensued in a month of urban violence – indicates that banlieues have become territories of exception where representatives of the state engage in actions which are no longer restricted by the law, and in which youth, considered as inherently suspect, are placed outside of the law. Thus, while educational and labor market exclusion restricts disadvantaged youth’s opportunities to improve their socio-economic status, police institution simultaneously enforces and maintains socio-spatial domination through preventive containment policies. This suggests that disadvantaged neighborhoods have become symbolic prisons, that is, spaces of socio-spatial immobility and repression that youth, symbolically and physically ‘locked up’ on the margin of society, can hardly escape. Considering the punitive turn adopted in France against disadvantaged youth, it comes as no surprise that the measures accompanying the State of emergency hit the marginalized hardest.