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2008/3 (No 130)

  • Pages : 262
  • ISBN : 9782707155931
  • DOI : 10.3917/her.130.0173
  • Publisher : La Découverte

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A year and a half after the worst urban riots on the question of national identity and the proposed creation of a Ministry of Immigration and National Identity, the promoter, Nicolas Sarkozy became President of the Republic of France. This paper argues (i) that Sarkozy’s electoral strategy reflects a geopolitical conflict regarding children of immigrants in France; (ii) that Nicolas Sarkozy exploited a relatively serious conflict that goes back much further than the 2007 elections; and (iii) that Nicolas Sarkozy’s strategy aggravated this geopolitical conflict by dividing French citizens even further.


It’s a question of, concretely, political conflict brought about in France by the presence of a number of French descendants of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa and the Maghreb, whose foreign origin remains physically apparent, that is to say, blacks and Arabs; their concentration in segregated areas. And since the last presidential campaign, questions around “national identity” for which their presence would be a threat. This paper analyzes the source and course of these conflicts, which places importance on territories, and more specifically, the depiction of these territories, and the power strategies to control them and/or the populations residing in these areas.


Before getting to the heart of the matter, it is necessary to specify that the issue applies only to French people who are of North African or Sub-Saharan Africa origin (the former for a longer period of time; and the latter to an increasing extent.) So whenever the media or politicians evoke topics like immigrant criminality, the dangers of ethnic sub-cultures, or the “failures of integration,” people think almost only of these two groups of immigrants. Therefore, in this context, the terms “immigrants” or “immigrants’ children” refer neither to French people who emigrated from other European countries nor people of Asian origin unless otherwise stated. Furthermore, it is widely accepted that the presence in France of black and North African French people is an aftereffect of colonization (in the broad sense of world domination by a few European nations) and the slave trade. For that reason, they are sometimes referred to as “children of postcolonial immigration.”

From National Identity to Ghettos or Vice Versa?

National Identity in the 2007 Presidential Campaign and the Geopolitical Notion of the Nation


One of Nicolas Sarkozy’s campaign promises was to create a new ministry: the Ministry of Immigration and National Identity. On several earlier occasions, he had stated his desire to revive the notion of nation and that he thought it was necessary to create a ministry that would bring together immigration experts, who were dispersed throughout several ministries (Foreign Affairs, Interior, Labor, Social Welfare, and others).


Speech by Nicolas Sarkozy

Montpellier, Thursday, May 3, 2007.

Last meeting. It’s been too long since people spoke of the French nation. Since May 1968, “the nation” has no longer been a popular term. Gradually, the nation no longer had a place in politics. We were taught to denigrate it, to detest it, to hate it. Sons were expected to atone for the mistakes of their fathers, even their ancestors. The history of France had to be expiated: the Crusades, the revolutions, the wars, colonization. We had to atone for everything. (. . .)

We should be proud of our country and what it has contributed to universal civilization and to the idea of humanity. We can be proud to be children of a free and democratic country. We are children from the land of the Rights of Man. And we legitimately share that pride with our own children. We can tell them the history of France without blushing. We can tell them that not all French people during World War II were pro-Pétain. (. . .)

We can tell our children that not all colonizers were exploiters, that many of them never exploited anyone, and that, although colonialism was a system that led to injustice and violence, many French people went to the colonies wholeheartedly convinced that they were imparting the benefits of civilization. (. . .)

Yes, if I become President of the Republic, I will end the denigration of French history and ask that France be respected for what it is, what it has experienced, what it has built, and what it stands for in the world.


Ségolène Royal appeared to follow suit. Although she stated she was against the idea of a new ministry, while admitting a need to value the nation and national affiliations, without drifting towards nationalism:


Royal renewed her call for a “mixed France” while condemning “Nicolas Sarkozy’s amalgamation of immigration and national identity” and stating her opposition to the arrests of illegal aliens with children in school. However, in response to those who criticized her for raising this question, she added that “all presidential candidates have a duty to express their view on national identity.” For her, the question is not about “asking French people where they’re from, but where they want to go. It is a pressing issue unfit for playing politics with,” she said. According to her, “you can be proud of your flag, your country, and your nation and still be open to others.” [1]  Le Figaro, March 26, 2007.[1]


After the election, Brice Hortefeux was appointed Minister of Immigration, Integration, National Identity, and Development Solidarity. The idea of this ministry remained controversial even after Sarkozy’s victory. Shortly after, Gérard Noiriel and eight academics who sat on the board of the Cité Nationale de l’Histoire de l’Immigration (National Museum on the History of Immigration) resigned in protest. Many other associations and public figures took similar stances (see the petition published by Libération at the end of this paper).


Critics of this ministry took issue with the title, which combined the terms “immigration” and “national identity.” They claimed that title suggested French national identity was under threat and that the national identity question was related to immigration. Creating this ministry thus reinforced an idea that was already shared by many French people. By definition, immigrants are born abroad and are thus foreigners (in terms of citizenship) with the exception of a small group of French people who have been naturalized or were born abroad to French parents. Therefore, they have little to do with national identity. An implicit amalgamation is often made between these immigrants and their descendants, who were born in France and have French citizenship by law. These descendants do have something to do with national identity. The very terms used to describe them and the controversy they raise proves this (“new French,” “French from. . .,” fully French or partly fully French). Despite not being immigrants, those are the people that tend to come to mind when immigration issues are raised. Therefore, creating this new ministry gave credence to the idea that immigration poses a problem to national identity by producing “false” French people. This resulted in assigning foreign identities to French people regardless of the law and an established tradition of extending citizenship and of welcoming into the nation all people born on French soil (principle of jus solis). Since 1993, most descendants of immigrants born in France have chosen to take French citizenship.


In any case, the two candidates who, without agreeing on the content, raised the idea that France faced an urgent need to address the subject, resulting in a historically high turnout for the first round, garnering 57.5% of votes. If we include those who voted for Jean-Marie Le Pen, a majority of which also felt uneasy about the future of the nation, and those for Philippe de Villiers, we obtain the figure of 69.72% of voters who voted for a candidate or a candidate claiming to be concerned about national identity. Clearly, the vast majority of voters believed that the French nation was in trouble and that national identity was a real problem. That should come as no surprise: in a referendum two years earlier, the French people voted against adopting a European Constitution; five years before that, Le Pen defeated a socialist candidate with strong internationalist leanings in the first round.


The nation is a fundamental concept in geopolitics, although it is difficult to handle because it has not been sufficiently studied, especially from a comparative approach, which would, according to Lacoste “account for specific characteristics of each nation.” [2]  All quotes by Yves Lacoste in this paragraph are from...[2] This is because the nation has not been a popular concept in some French circles for several decades now. The fact that individuals and groups subscribe to identities that are intimately tied to a territory is what links politics and territory, and what produces representations of territories. The concept of the nation illustrates this perfectly: a nation cannot exist apart from its territory. This idea of the nation—a group’s collective identity in relationship with its territory—raises de facto, the issue of power over that territory and over the group living within it and which claims it as its own. “The nation emerges from a geopolitical process and immediately seeks leaders from its own ranks.” Lacoste calls that phrase a fundamental maxim of geopolitics. To him, “it is not surprising that the idea of nation is so vested with values, especially if it is challenged or threatened or if its territory is claimed by others.” In the case of France, the idea that the nation faced a threat, real or not, was widespread among the population.


In the years leading up to the 2007 election, that is precisely what happened in France. French descendants of immigrants and the political conflicts raised by their claims (headscarf, memory, political representation, etc.) or, more generally speaking, their place in the nation are not the only factors that account for the perceived threat to the nation. Others include industrial offshoring, the weakness of the state facing the forces of economic globalization, the rise of radical Islam, or the project for a European Union and the dilution of its initial objective as it expanded to include other countries. The history of the idea of the French nation must also be taken into account to understand why and how the sense of threat became focused on immigrants and their French children, particularly Muslim North Africans and, more recently, Sub-Saharan Africans.


In any event, the presence of children of post-colonial immigrants in the French nation has become a serious geopolitical problem. However, this problem is neither new nor simple. In order to understand its complexity, we must trace the political evolution that led France to this state of affairs.

Context of the “Memory War”


Claiming he would attract National Front voters “one by one” if necessary, Nicolas Sarkozy ran a presidential campaign against the backdrop of a so-called “memory war,” the key battles of which were all waged in 2005. In January, the Indigènes de la République (Indigenous People of the French Republic) organized the Conference on Postcolonial Anti-Colonialism (Appel pour les assises de l’anticolonialisme postcolonial). Citing the concept of a “colonial continuum,” [3]  For a detailed analysis of this concept, see my article...[3] this movement pointed to similarities between colonial oppression and current racial discriminations and ghettos. A controversial law was passed on February 23, 2005, which required educational curriculum to acknowledge the positive role of the French presence overseas, particularly in North Africa, and to honor the sacrifices of French soldiers in these territories. Also in 2005, Blanchard, Bancel, and Lemaire published La Fracture Coloniale. They argued (i) that France would always be in “denial” of its past and colonial history, which would be entirely unknown to high school graduates ; (ii) that since 2000, local officials and advocacy groups had been trying to impose a positive memory of colonization via museums and monuments; and (iii) that French immigrants from the former French empire would make themselves the connection between their current situation and the colonial situation, which they refer to as “a past that refuses to pass.” During the riots that fall, a law passed during the Algerian War empowering the government to impose a curfew was reactivated (see below). The first public stance against the “repentance” of Nicolas Sarkozy’s occurred when Jacques Chirac tried in vain to obtain the signature of Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika for a friendship treaty. The Algerian leader was intransigent and repeatedly referred to the “cultural genocide” committed by France in Algeria.


This all takes place, to quickly recall, in a tense domestic climate beginning with the Ministry of the Interior referring to rioters as “scum” (racaille) and stating an expressed need to “high-pressure wash” problematic suburbs (nettoyer au Kärcher); the controversial expulsion of children enrolled in school and the victorious mobilization of RESF (Network for Education without Borders) against these expulsion; and, finally, the burning of hôtels meublés in Paris, buildings where recent black immigrants find shelter.


More generally, since the late 1990s, a broad movement composed of various activist groups emerged and began making “memory claims.” These groups demanded that certain historical facts related to the slave trade, slavery, and colonialism be recognized and that they be formally condemned and officially commemorated. The strategy of these groups was to disseminate a representation of individual and group identities that does not provide members a position of dignity and humanity in the nation. After that, the movement and its members demanded recognition of their dignity. That process implied pointing a finger at the majority group, holding them accountable for denying dignity, in the past and present. These advocacy groups argued that historical crimes were still being committed today due to the absence or inadequate recognition and commemoration of past crimes and that these were still being perpetuated, albeit in different forms: unequal international relations, racial discrimination, segregation, or Islamaphobia. These activists, therefore, transplant past phenomena that occurred in specific territories and in an entirely different context to another territory: modern-day France.


The depictions of ghetto territories (see below) and the identities of people who reside there are thus the instruments of geopolitical strategies and give rise to important conflicts. These identification strategies mobilized perceptions of the self and of others that require the telling of stories: those of various groups that one wishes to distinguish and the story of the relationship between them. Certain memories of events from the near or distant past or for shorter and longer periods of time were revived or even recreated. Some of these conflicted with one another and sometimes with academic historians’ research results. Numerous examples of this exist. For instance, the period of colonial domination in Algeria is interpreted in highly different ways. Activists wanted to assert the idea that Algerian society resisted the French during the entire colonial period. They cite such figures as El-Mokrani and Cheikh Ahedad, and as many uprisings as they can. Their aim is to represent Algerians as never submitting to French power in order to shape current perceptions of French descendants of Algerians. Another example concerns slavery and the slave trade. The Pétré-Genouilleau affair [4]  See Pétré-Grenouilleau (2004). Following the controversial...[4] not only sparked controversy about the numbers of slaves traded, but also about whether slaves had been captured by Europeans or sold by other Africans. At stake was whether Europeans were exclusively responsible for slavery and the slave trade or whether that responsibility was shared. The underlying idea was that the disadvantaged position of blacks in France and elsewhere in the world is a result of the history of slavery. Lastly, the Afrocentric movement revived an unsettled historical question as to whether the early Egyptians were black. This movement claimed a small number of frescos depicting Egyptians with Negroid features proving that blacks founded the first major civilization. Some radicals even claimed that Akhenaton, the pharaoh who tried to establish the first monotheist religion (and, of course, the only true one), made a pact with God, which was usurped by the Jews, the reason for the Curse of Ham. At least, that is what Kémi Séba, leader of the KA Tribe, [5]  Kémi Séba’s real name is Stellio Capo-Chichi. He is...[5] claims. The purpose of such claims is to overturn the perception that blacks have historically been subjugated and are primitive, and to replace it with the idea that they were once an advanced people brought down by the jealousy and guile of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, in that order.


Memory claims of activist movements have important consequences in terms of identities that activists assign to members of the group they claim to defend, as well as members of the group they oppose. In fact, all movements in defense of an oppressed minority must first define that minority: Muslims, Arabs, blacks, all children of immigrants, descendants of the colonized, etc. First of all, a territory must be associated with the identity of the “victim” group: the territory where the history in question took place, the history of Islam, or the territory migrants were forced or chose to leave. Therefore, this territory is not the place where the activists now live or the place where the memory of conflict plays out in the present. It is a reconstructed virtual territory that no longer exists and, in many cases, never existed as activists claim. Likewise, the identity of the “guilty” majority group is determined by reference to a former conflict that occurred elsewhere and was selected to identify “victims.” For example, when activists focus on colonial history, the guilty ones are European colonizers; when they focus on the slave trade, the guilty ones are yesterday’s European slave traders; and when activists decry Islamophobia, the culprits are Christians and Jews.


Activists have thus recently emerged that claim the slave trade or colonization is the first phase on a continuum of oppression that is still alive today. These activists disregard the vast difference of circumstances in terms of majority/minority or of legal equality or inequality, and cite precise events that occurred long ago in precise territories outside the present territory of the former colonial power. The events cited are often among those that have most marked the consciousness of French people, such as the Algerian War. Associating past events with current events in France is the fundamental strategy of such minority activist groups. Their purpose is to prove likeness (not simply duplication) between current circumstances in cities (segregation), on the national level (discriminations, lack of political representation), or global level (anti-migration policies, unequal commercial and diplomatic relationships, debt, wars) and past situations that characterized different territories for different lengths of time (colonization as a European scheme for world domination as well as its national and local repercussions, the slave trade and slavery, apartheid, etc.).


This article does not examine the origins of these movements, which have much in common with Ashkenazi Jews’ treatment of the memory of the Holocaust and their struggle against its denial. Suffice it to say the first motivating factor was the lack of celebration of the 150th anniversary of the French abolition of slavery in 1998. In a context marked by “World Cup fever [6]  France hosted the 1998 World Cup and their team (composed...[6]”, this led to moral pressure and lobbying, culminating in the passage of the Taubira Law in 2001 just before the sequence of events between September 11, 2001 and April 21, 2002 radically altered the political context. [7]  The first round of the French presidential election...[7] The context became much more hostile with Nicolas Sarkozy serving as Minister of the Interior, concern about Al-Qaeda “sleeper cells” in ghettos, mobilization against the war in Iraq, and the second crisis of the Islamic headscarf. [8]  French law 2004-228 of 15 March 2004 banned the wearing...[8] Those factors took political and media space away from memory claims and silenced them. Since this context was hostile to anti-racist claims in general and since the media were focusing on other topics, groups with memory claims grew more radical. Only the most radical voices were able to be heard in this context dominated by other factors. The Movement of Indigenous People of the Republic, CRAN (Representative Council of Black Associations), and the KA Tribe sounded the wakeup call in 2005, although in different ways.


The “memory offensive” that led to the indictment (partial or radical) of the nation started with Jacques Chirac’s speech at a ceremony commemorating the Vél’ d’Hiv Roundup in 1995. Between 1998 and 2001, it expanded to include slavery, the slave trade, and colonization of the Antilles. In 2005 in France, it spread to include what we might qualify as “ethno-cultural minorities” for lack of a better word. Atonement had already been criticized in 1995, but the intimidating power of the Holocaust greatly limited protests on this topic. Christiane Taubira reported that the slavery law was much harder to pass. However, many people felt the demand to atone for colonization, in particular with regard to Algeria, which remains a sensitive topic, was going too far. As concerns the 2005 publication of l’Appel des indigènes de la république pour la tenue d’assises de l’anticolonialisme (Call by the Indigenous People of the French Republic for a Conference on Anticolonialism), the particular nature of the Franco-Algerian case, combined with the radicalism of the text itself, which maintained that “France remained a colonial State,” and that “the decolonization of the Republic was still on the agenda,” might help to explain the angry outcry provoked by l’Appel, and later the success of Nicolas Sarkozy’s anti-repentance speech and his project to develop the “national identity” (see below).

The 2005 Riots


Those factors alone, however, do not account for the wide-reaching appeal of a discourse focused on threats to the French nation in the months leading up to the presidential election. Of course, the left’s unwillingness, and this was perhaps a strategic error, to refocus the debate on economic and social issues and to refute Nicolas Sarkozy’s discourse on buying power is an important factor in understanding the stakes and outcome of the presidential election. A few weeks later in the legislative elections, the Socialist Party did very well (27% of seats), but, more importantly, it abruptly shifted the debate to the topic of the “social VAT”. One might argue that the 2007 presidential election was a key moment in French political life insofar as it occurred at a time when a large portion of the population felt the need to express their refusal to see the French nation systematically abased. This may have been a kind of political catharsis and a way of stating that a limit had been reached. The challenge for Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal was to understand it. However, Royal was disadvantaged from the outset because the left has been uneasy with the concept of the nation since the Dreyfus Affair, something that was only exacerbated by Vichy France and the Algerian War.


That limit was reached not in the conflict over identities and the nation and its history, but over ghetto-neighborhoods [9]  See my article in Hérodote (113) for a definition of...[9] during the riots of November 2005. Numerous books were published on the heels of the riots. Today, however, little is said or written about that period except by activists and a few journalists, who provide occasional reminders that none of the “causes” of the riots has gone away. On the whole, the impact of that event has not been adequately accounted for. That is likely due to wanting to avoid further “stigmatizing” descendants of immigrants living in ghetto-neighborhoods and portraying them as still being a threat.


The purpose here is not to provide another list of the material damages these events caused, but to analyze their psychological impact. For three straight weeks, French news networks aired sensational images of what looked like a rebellion or civil war on the doorsteps of Paris and other large cities. More than 20 regions out of thirty two were affected. All of a sudden, the domestic threat had become clearly visible. Other than the deaths of the two teenagers that sparked the whole affair and two people who died from indirect causes, no one else perished during these events. However, there were several close calls: a bus was set on fire with a passenger still on board; in La Courneuve (Seine-Saint-Denis) and Grigny (La Grande Borne, Essonne), rioters fired real shots (instead of pellets) at the police.


The years leading up to the riots were marked by growing tension between some inhabitants of ghetto-neighborhoods and the rest of society. Had two key events not occurred at the same time, the uprising and the ensuing widespread violence would likely not have occurred: the deaths of two teenagers in circumstances involving the police (which happens maybe once per year) and the tear-gas grenade launched at a mosque (See map below, “Rise and Fall of 2005 Riots”).

Map - 1st round of the presidential election

These riots had decisive impact on the left. In their wake, the “Bondy Blog” [10]  “Bondy Blog” was started on November 11, 2005 by Serge...[10] became popular and the ACLEFEU [11]  ACLEFEU (Collective Association for Freedom, Equality,...[11] movement spent several months in 2006 in the media spotlight traveling around France and compiling a list of grievances. The summary of these grievances was submitted to members of the French Parliament and President Jacques Chirac. More importantly, they sparked a large voter registration movement and a record turnout in the presidential election. The vast majority of new voters, many of whom had been of voting age for many years, supported Ségolène Royal. This was the case in Montfermeil, a neighboring municipality of Clichy-sous-Bois where the riots began. That municipality presents a deep division in terms of residency types: run-down housing projects (known as Les Bosquets) and a residential area with family homes. Most new voters were from the Les Bosquets. The map below by Nawel Bellahcene (2008) [12]  Nawel Bellahcene was a student at the French Institute...[12] illustrates the strong support for Ségolène Royal among newly registered voters from housing projects. The second map does not show a similar situation in Clichy-sous-Bois whose housing projects are in part, adjacent to the rest of the community.


I will now briefly examine the origins of ghettos as well as certain global geopolitical events that occurred over the last twenty or thirty years in order to account for the outbreak of violence.

Ghettos… and the Rest of the World

Origins of Ghettos: The 1950s and 1960s


The period between 1970 and 1981 is when the presence of black and North African French people first posed a political problem in France. Initially, this problem was confined to the local level. The first discussions occurred during that period and on that level. To understand the problems will eventually require shifting into another spatial and temporal frame.


Many attribute the problems of racism, violence or criminality, or the splintering of social ties in ghetto-neighborhoods to economic causes such as deindustrialization and unemployment. That is inaccurate because the first serious problems appeared before the 1973 oil crisis. The majority of France and French people were unaffected. However, cohabitation issues were a daily occurrence in housing projects where many North African families congregated even before the family reunification policy was enacted in 1975. In Hérodote (43, 1986), Guglielmo and Moulin point out that the term “sarcellite [13]  The word sarcellite is a neologism formed by combining...[13] first appeared in the press in the early 1960s. The term was used to describe the range of problems in housing projects. Despite their construction being officially halted in 1973 before the oil crisis, they continued to be built on a smaller scale until 1980 (maximum of 1,000 units in areas with under 50,000 inhabitants or of 2,000 units in other areas, no more than 50% of which could be HLMs, or rent-controlled housing for low-income families). [14]  The government order known as “Barres et Tours” drawn...[14]


The year 1973 was a decisive one. On April 5, Olivier Guichard, Minister of Equipment, Housing, Tourism, issued an order to halt the construction of housing projects. The “Barres et Tours” order sought to prevent urban development projects that went by the name of “housing projects.” It also encouraged fighting segregation caused by the distribution of various categories of housing units throughout urban areas. In June 1973, Robert Lion, director of construction within the Ministry of Public Works, created the “Habitat et Vie Sociale” (housing and social life), a commission tasked with examining and improving social relations in housing projects. The group’s observations were discouraging: poverty and fragmentation of daily life; weakness of local social structures; internal segregation between the poorest people and those saving up to buy their own homes one day; and “ghettoization” of young people. By 1973, and perhaps by the late 1960s, the key problems of housing projects had been identified.


Criminality in areas with a high concentration of North African (and later Sub-Saharan) families also appeared around 1970. In that year, the government created a task force on violence, criminality, and delinquency led by Alain Peyrefitte, which published a report called “Responses to Violence.” The report stated that a widespread feeling of insecurity existed in housing projects and recommended assigning more policemen to newly developed urban areas where their absence was sorely felt. In order to improve the relationships between the police and citizens, the report advocated creating small neighborhood police stations. It exposed major problems occurring in housing projects.


The year 1973 was also the year that Albin Chalandon introduced the homeownership policy after saying this about housing projects: “Tensions and social segregations, individual frustrations, and dangerous ideologies are emerging in housing projects. This situation could one day erupt into a full-blown urban crisis, which would be a major problem for our society,” (cited by Guglielmo and Moulin [1986] in Hérodote, 43). The homeownership policy actually worsened the situation since it fostered ghettoization. In its wake, the only people who remained living in increasingly run-down housing projects were ones lacking the resources to get out. Living in housing projects became a trap. Gradually, the only people left living in housing projects were North Africans, the poorest French people of European ancestry, and often unemployed, to which were added families from Sub-Saharan Africa.


These housing projects quickly acquired a bad reputation, and living in them became perceived as shameful. All the same, they did help eliminate bidonvilles (suburban shanty towns) and substandard housing. At a time when France was facing a serious housing crisis (which we will not go into here) housing projects did help many immigrant and non-immigrant families, working class, or other. The construction plans for these housing projects are largely responsible for the poor image they had from 1970 on. Not only were they built in locations with poor access to public transportation, jobs, and amenities, they were also poorly built (housing type and quality, size of units, etc.). Housing assistance and the welfare system constitute another explanatory factor. In the context of high unemployment and unpaid rents, public housing authorities (OPHLM) decided to prioritize financially solvent families or large families receiving enough in welfare to ensure, at least partial, payment of their rent.

Ghettos Today


The facts above illustrate the extent to which the problem of immigrants’ children is a territorial one. Some today would prefer measures like affirmative action to France’s current urban development policy. Understanding the origin of the problem is of utmost import because, despite the confusion generated by various new grievances between “authentic” French people and immigrants (see below), it is obvious that the segregation problem in poor and often isolated neighborhoods is at the root of problems regarding immigrants’ children. Lyrics of rappers or speeches by community or political activists attest to this point.


The segregation problem in France is the result of years of growing social inequalities. These have made it nigh impossible to get out of ghetto-neighborhoods. Early on in the 1970s, the socio-economic status and level of education of “authentic” French people and immigrants from European countries were much higher than those of immigrants from Northern or Sub-Saharan Africa, who were much more affected by the economic crisis, deindustrialization, and unemployment. They also had less money, which made it very difficult to secure anything but HLM housing. This was and continues to be exacerbated by the size of these families. Racial discrimination also played a role. Many landlords refused to rent to blacks and Arabs and, in a few rare cases, local authorities preempted the sale of houses to them. These factors account for the extreme difficulty in getting out of ghetto-neighborhoods. Social homogenization in these areas and the fact that they were increasingly perceived as immigrant neighborhoods (of blacks and Arabs) reinforced their negative image, resulting in the arrival of families still worse off than those departing, as well as increased discrimination based on address, which made it nearly impossible to secure employment. Some grocery stores even refused to take checks from people residing in stigmatized neighborhoods.


In a second phase, people living close to housing projects began moving out and some of the wealthier immigrant families began moving into these areas abandoned by whites. In some areas like Seine-Saint-Denis, the entire municipality gradually became ghettoized. Clichy-sous-Bois is obviously the best example. These municipalities contained so many - housing projects that non-immigrant residents fled the area altogether. In some cases, they even fled from the surrounding areas.


However, the locations of housing projects were not chosen at random. Guglielmo and Moulin (1986) argue that the “geography of housing projects is tied to geopolitics since their locations were chosen based on a political strategy.” In this instance, they were Gaullist political strategies aimed at concentrating communist voters in a few specific areas, even if that meant guaranteeing them an electoral stronghold, in order to keep traditionally right-leaning cities, particularly around Paris, from shifting to the communist left. Moreover, right-leaning municipalities did not want immigrants, whereas, the communist party encouraged the construction of housing projects in the areas it controlled since these were seen as a way to improve housing conditions of blue-collar workers and to strengthen their electoral base. The map they drew up in support of their thesis is telling (see page 190). It included Seine-Saint-Denis and Val-de-Marne. The political strategies used by Gaullists and communists show that the argument on grouping black and Arab French people does not hold and if solidarity among people with common origins did emerge, it was primarily due to a sustained effort. In a doctoral dissertation on Clichy-sous-Bois defended in 1998, Assia Mélamed came to the same conclusions and stressed the fact that this was a process the State wanted and supported against a communist-controlled municipality that quickly voiced its opposition to it.


In addition, in an article I published in Hérodote, I demonstrated how the ghetto became a territory targeted by government strategies. The goal is usually to appear as the sole legitimate defender of ghettoized populations. Alidières (2004) demonstrated that criminality was occurring at an early age among immigrants’ children in the 1970s in Tourcoing and Roubaix. He pointed out that petty crime (common among those in precarious social situations) rose dramatically between 1979 and 1983. Some crimes rose ten-fold, such as breaking and entering. He also noted that areas with large numbers of FN (National Front) voters had two distinct characteristics: a high proportion of people of foreign origin and a high crime rate. High unemployment or the presence of immigrants do not account for the strong support of the FN. Rather, strong support for the FN exists in areas with high crime rates among immigrants’ children. The sudden popularity of the FN in some areas in the early 1980s was the result of years of local build-up and of the strategies used in these areas. This popularity can also be attributed to factors that are even older. Those are discussed below.

Map - Distribution of housing projects in the towns of Seine-Saint-Denis and Seine-et-Marne

The Impact of Outside Geopolitical Factors: Oil Crises


Starting with the first oil crisis, a series of outside factors progressively aggravated the initial territorial and urban problem in France, complicating it almost to the point of incomprehension. The oil crisis sparked an economic crisis that quickly led to widespread unemployment, which reinforced the idea that immigrants were stealing French peoples’ jobs, an idea exploited by the National Front. Paradoxically, more and more French people subscribed to the idea that immigrants were lazy and living off welfare and unemployment checks. Moreover, the highly conservative segment of French society, one already hostile toward immigration, blamed Arabs for the crisis, unemployment, and all the related problems. Then came the second oil crisis in the wake of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the Iran-Iraq war, and the hostage crisis involving French nationals in Lebanon in 1982. Those factors increased animosity toward Arabs (Persians were also considered Arabs). In fact, all were associated with North Africans, and more specifically Algerians, which was the French peoples’ reference point in their thinking about Arabs and Muslims. Since Algerian independence, some French people had come to despise everything associated with Algeria. Between December 1985 and September 1986, Islamists carried out 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, killing 13 people, further reinforcing the idea that Arabs were a threat.


Secondly, with “authentic” French people convinced Arabs were a threat, French youths whose parents were postcolonial immigrants began feeling unwelcome in France. During the French legislative elections in 1986, Jacques Chirac’s campaign discourse marginalized immigrants’ children. He argued that the principle of jus soli, which gave such youths French citizenship, endangered national identity. One comment he made was: “I don’t personally know this Le Pen character, but I doubt he’s as bad as some claim. He says what we only think, and he does so a little louder and a little better than we do. He speaks the people’s language” (interview with Franz-Olivier Giesbert, June 22, 1985). The previous year, Chirac claimed that “if we had fewer immigrants, there would be less unemployment, less tension in some cities and neighborhoods, and the State would have less of a financial burden to bear” (Libération, October 30, 1984). One of the slogans of the RPR-UDF’s (Rally for the Republic-Union for French Democracy) 1986 campaign was, “A national community more in touch with its identity.” Following the victory of the right, Chirac’s government, with backing from Charles Pasqua, initiated reforms to the French Citizenship Code. These reforms ground to a halt, however, when police killed a young Frenchman of Algerian origin during a student protest in Paris.


In the book he published in 2007 after the presidential election, Gérard Noiriel argued that reform of the Citizenship Code would not have affected Algerian children, who acquired French citizenship at birth (double jus soli). They were born in France to parents who became foreigners after Algerian Independence in 1962, but who were technically born in France (Algeria prior to 1962). All the same, political discourse singled them out. Attempts at citizenship reform did not stop after the failed attempt in 1986, and the right continued pushing for reform until it regained the legislative majority in 1993, and finally pushed reform through. In the issue of Valeurs Actuelles (an extreme right-wing intellectual newspaper) published on May 2, 1988, Charles Pasqua said: “The National Front certainly has some extremists, but on the whole, the National Front has the same concerns and values as the majority of French people. It merely expresses them a little more bluntly and a little more noisily. . . National Front voters are right to be concerned about the dangers uncontrolled immigration presents to public order and national identity. We share those concerns. They need to understand we’ve spent the last two years trying to find a solution.”

Events between 1988 and 1990


In France, the hostile sentiment towards postcolonial immigrants is obviously not shared by all immigrant children potentially involved. But the political pressure associated with some speeches and international events resulted in more and more young people being unable to put things in perspective.. This became even more apparent around 1988–1990 when the left was accused of “betrayal” in the area of international relations. The start of the First Intifada in December 1987 had two decisive effects: (i) France’s Arab youths rallied behind the Palestinians in a show of Arab and Islamic solidarity (the Intifada sought to reclaim the third holiest site in Islam, the Al-Aqsa Mosque) and (ii) a chasm formed between French Arabic and Jewish youths. Other events such as the War of 1967 initiated by Israel did not have similar effects, because French descendants of North African immigrants were very young or not yet born. The same goes for the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. It did not produce the same effect as the Intifada, likely because it was started by Arab countries.


In 1983, the March for Equality and against Racism across France demanded rights for the second-generation North African immigrants, who were born in France. Over the next two years, French youth rallied to the cause. In late 1984, the slogan “Leave my buddy alone” (Touche pas à mon pote) was highly popular among French youths. In 1985, SOS Racisme organized a joint protest to condemn the hate crime committed against a young French boy of Algerian descent in Miramas and against the attack on a Jewish cinema on Rue de Rivoli in Paris. However, when the Intifada started, nearly all French youth of North African descent split from organizations that refused to side with the Palestinians, whereas Jews demanded neutrality at the very least. Citing its commitment to peace, SOS Racisme did not take a stance against Israel, which permanently cost it a large number of supporters, particularly those living in ghetto-neighborhoods.


Shortly after, in September 1988, Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses, which triggered a violent outcry in the Muslim world. This was known as the Rushdie Affair. The book was banned in India, South Africa, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Somalia, Bangladesh, Sudan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Qatar. On January 14, 1989, a copy of the book was burned in Bradford, England. On February 12, five people were killed by police during a protest in Islamabad. On February 14, 1989, a fatwa requiring Rushdie’s execution was proclaimed on Radio Tehran by Ayatollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iranian Revolution, calling the book a “blasphemy” against Islam. Most of the Western world defended Rushdie and many human rights activists supported him. Many French Muslims did not understand the situation, interpreting it as proof that the West and France were hostile to Islam and Muslims. The first Gulf War in 1990, in which France fought, was taken as further proof that the West wanted to keep Arabs under its domination. So, the events between 1988 and 1990 marked the beginning of the “internationalization” of French citizens with immigrant backgrounds. Already feeling French society was against them and now suspecting France itself and the entire West of being anti-Arab and anti-Muslim, they began comparing the plight of Arab Muslims in France to the plight of Arab Muslims everywhere in the world. In both cases, Arabs and Muslims were perceived as victims. During this period, a belief spread among French citizens with immigrant backgrounds that France and the West were de facto against Arabs and Muslims, whether they be in France and French citizens, or in Europe or elsewhere.


During this period, the National Front enjoyed steady growth, which some perceived as further evidence that French people were hostile toward Arabs. A growing number of international disputes further complicated and aggravated the tension resulting from the presence of millions of French youth of North African descent. The repercussions of were soon felt in France. The first was the issue of the headscarf in schools, which paralleled the Salman Rushdie affair. Starting in mid-June 1989 (three months before the Creil affair erupted and four months after the fatwa was issued against Salmon Rushdie), some media outlets began reporting on young girls wearing “chadors to school.” The Creil affair, France’s first public debate on headscarves, started on September 18, 1989. Three girls aged 13 and 14 were expelled from Collège Gabriel-Havez in Creil in the Oise region (500 Muslim students out of 876 and 25 different nationalities) after their parents refused to comply with a request which the principal made in a letter to parents, stating that headscarves were religious symbols incompatible with the French system of public education. The principal said: “Our goal is to minimize ostentatious displays of religious or cultural identities. Please advise your children to respect the secular nature of our school.” The parents did not do so and the girls were expelled from school. Controversy erupted. The newly elected general secretary of MRAP (Movement against Racism and for Friendship between Peoples), Mouloud Aounit responded by saying: “First came the threat to employment, to healthcare, to cultural identity. Now the threat is from fundamentalists. Racism begins by looking for scapegoats for social problems which have economic and political roots. Is simply practicing Islam tantamount to fundamentalism, fanaticism, and intolerance?” In a press release, the MRAP argued that “Other communities in France are not being punished for wearing their religious symbols.”


In 1990, as France honed in on the Islamist threat, Algeria held its first free elections. The Islamic Salvation Front [15]  The FIS is an Islamist political party that was initially...[15] (or FIS in French) won the majority vote in 953 of 1,539 municipalities and in 32 provinces (wilayas). On December 26, 1991, in the first round of legislative elections, the FIS won 188 of 231 seats, or over 80% (versus 15 for the National Liberation Front [16]  The FLN is a socialist political party in Algeria that...[16] (or FLN in French), and 25 for the Socialist Forces Front [17]  The FFS is a social democratic and secularist political...[17] (or FFS in French) and 3 independents). On January 11, 1992, the military forced President Chadli Bendjedid to resign and suspended elections. Provincial and municipal assemblies led by ISF politicians were dissolved and supporters of the party that had just won the first round of the legislative elections were imprisoned or exiled to the southern desert regions. Thus began the Algerian civil war that raged until 2002 and claimed 100,000 lives.


Lastly, the context grew even tenser after a second wave of urban riots broke out in France from October 6 to 16, 1990 (the first wave occurred in The Minguettes in 1981). In the wake of the death of a young motorcyclist after colliding with a police car, nocturnal clashes between young people and police and looting erupted in Vaulx-en-Velin (suburb of Lyon) from October 6 to 10. On the 8th, Jean Poperen, Minister of Parliamentary Relations and mayor of Mézieux (Rhône region), attributed the riots in Vaulx-en-Velin to “inhumane priority urbanization zones, unemployment among young people, and the dangerous cohabitation of diverse communities.” On the 9th, the Prime Minister Michel Rocard appointed socialist parliamentarian Gilbert Bonnemaison and Senator André Diligent (Center of Social Democrats) to lead a National Council of Cities taskforce to analyze the situation and propose solutions without delay. The same day, Claude Evin, Minister of Social Affairs and Health, joined Bonnemaison and Diligent on a visit to the site of the riots. He expressed the government’s intent to perform an investigation into the accident and said he wanted to talk with “young people whose cries had been heard.” On the 10th, at the National Assembly, Rocard expressed his intent to pursue urban development plans that would try to address “concentration camp-like and criminality-fostering conditions”. These riots in Vaulx-en-Velin sparked a series of disputes over what some perceived as police misconduct.


These riots were a turning point in urban violence. Not only were they more intense and long-lasting than in the past, they were also the first all-out clashes with police and had a domino effect. No such phenomenon had occurred in the previous ten years, and suddenly, riots were occurring several times a year. Sartrouville and Mantes-la-Jolie in 1991 are examples. In most instances, they were sparked by the death of one or more teenagers in circumstances involving the police (most often a traffic accident or high-speed chase or, in rare cases, manslaughter inside a local jail or as a result of trying to force through a road block).


These factors illustrate how the geopolitical conflict concerning the French nation and children of immigrants from Northern or Sub-Saharan Africa is intimately related to urban ghettos, local developments, and representations of identities. They also illustrate the role played by geopolitical events occurring elsewhere in the world. However, to understand this situation, another group of factors needs to be taken into account: the concepts of the nation in France and of the Franco-Algerian “couple.”

Representations of Identities and of the Nation

History of the Nation


An analysis of the founding principles of the nation is not within the scope of this article. It suffices to point out a few key factors. The concept of the nation was first wielded by progressives struggling against the Ancien Régime and monarchists. A significant shift occurred in the late 19th century. The Dreyfus affair, the industrial revolution, and the rise of the labor movement changed the face of the left. Leftist political identity shifted away from the nation and embraced the proletarian class. Identification with the proletarian class became the defining factor and rallying cry of the left. Meanwhile, as the strengthening of the Republic thwarted prospects for a new monarchist restoration, a compromise was made between monarchists and non-socialist Republicans: the former agreed to support the republican cause whereas the latter agreed to be more tolerant of Catholicism. Together they formed the right. Henceforth, the nation would primarily be a concern of the right and one challenged by the now-internationalist left, which perceived it as a tactic the bourgeoisie used to divide proletariats. However, the left’s condemnation of the idea of the nation did not affect the proletariat the way some had hoped.


The period between the Franco-Prussian War (War of 1870) and World War I illustrates this point wonderfully. With labor and socialist movements steadily growing, the national idea reached a climax thanks to the work of the hussards noirs (public school teachers in favor of the Republic as a national identity, “laïcité,” (secularism) and rationalism, in competition with Catholic teachers, promoting a Christian identity of France). Before his assassination, Jaurès (Jean Jaurès, first leader of the French Socialist Party) was struggling to spread the idea of “patriotism;” he intended to use it to offset Barrès’ (Maurice Barrès, extreme-right wing novelist, journalist and politician) nationalism, who had accused him of not loving France. Following World War I, the left had become almost exclusively internationalist and focused on social issues whereas the right embodied the nation and focused on security (domestic and abroad). Throughout that period, France remained a great power and French people were proud of their nation. The colonial empire expanded steadily in the late 19th century before slowing around 1911–1912, with the establishment of the French Protectorate in Morocco.


All that changed with World War II. In the second half of the 20th century, the concept of the French nation was severely questioned. In spite of rapid post-war demographic and economic growth (thanks largely to American aid), France suddenly went from having the second largest colonial empire in the world to being a mid-sized power. Several factors account for why France, losing its status as a major power, sparked an identity crisis starting in 1945: sluggish demographic growth in the early 20th century (the effects of the baby boom were not felt until the 1960s); defeat in 1940 and Vichy France; economic weakness compared to the United Kingdom and defeated Germany; defeat in Indochina; and lastly, the disastrous Algerian War and the ensuing loss of almost all colonial territories. Until 1968, De Gaulle managed to conceal the fragility of the nation concept. At the same time, due to increasingly powerful labor and communist movements, class consciousness temporarily overrode identification associated with the nation. De Gaulle’s stance regarding the EEC revealed the tension surrounding the concept of the nation.


In no way do any of those factors relate to immigration. What they do show is that the concept of the nation was very fragile at the end of the Algerian War, which started while the SFIO (French Section of the Workers’ International) was in power. Some intellectuals even claimed that the concept of nation was obsolete. The concept of nation gradually weakened over a lengthy process, but French people perceived the final blow as coming from Arabs, who were held accountable for France’s expulsion from Algeria and the rest of Africa.

Nation(s) and Cohabitation


Following the Algerian War, the pieds-noirs (a term referring to the French who lived in French Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia before independence) [18]  Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition XI. Oxford,...[18] were repatriated to France between 1962 and 1965. At that time, coexistence in France between French people and Algerians became even more problematic. The Algerian War was unusually cruel and violent with tenacious hatreds and resentments not only between Algerians and the pieds-noirs, but also among the one million French soldiers who fought against the National Liberation Front. However, few expected Algerians already in France to stay or, paradoxically, that Algerians would continue immigrating to France. This was largely due to rivalries inside the Algerian independence movement, between the National Liberation Front, and the Algerian National Movement, and then within the National Liberation Front itself. In-fighting and persecution among different movements for Algerian independence led some nationalists and freedom fighters to seek refuge or to stay in France. These Algerians, many of whom were nationalists, had a hard time living in a colonial power against which they had just fought a war. Repatriates, in particular, had a hard time understanding or accepting the presence of these Algerians. According to Benjamin Stora (2005), France remained wounded after the war and a consensus was never reached on the topic of Algerian independence. However, as fate would have it, the housing crisis meant French repatriates and North African immigrants were often forced to live in the same housing projects.


After the Algerian War, French people thus had to live alongside Arabs, the very people who had practically no social status in Algeria, with whom a vicious war had just been fought, and whom many blamed for France’s loss of the empire and influence. In areas with a high concentration of repatriates and immigrants, as in southern France, clashes and racial violence increased. The situation worsened under the combined impact of the economic crisis and the destruction of bidonvilles, or shanty towns. Benjamin Stora (2005) explains that, after the war, France adopted amnesty laws while refusing the term “Algerian War” and that, in a context without a consensus on Algerian independence, those laws and the ones from 1974 and 1982 [19]  The first two laws, which passed on December 17, 1964,...[19] fostered amnesia. That factor accounts for the later emergence of conflicting memories.


Soon, all North Africans (Arabs) and eventually all postcolonial immigrants from Africa were placed under the same banner as Algerians. The hostility they encountered in France deepened their malaise. They had difficulty explaining their presence in France to their children. Their discourse was paradoxical. They loved their Algerian homeland into which they had invested everything they had (building large houses year after year). At the same time, they were critical of their situation in France while becoming more and more rooted in it due to the political and economic crises in Algeria.

Generational Gap in Perceptions of Migration


The reason some youths are uncomfortable being French is not that first-, second-, or third-generation immigrants have fewer social, economic, educational, or professional opportunities in France than in Africa. In fact, even average students in French ZEP schools (high-risk schools) have a higher level of academic achievement than their relatives whose parents remained in Africa. Even in so-called high-risk areas of France, housing is better, buying power and inclusion in consumer society are unequaled, and people enjoy most of the rights and freedoms of a democratic country. Indeed, even in the worst places of France, French youths have many more opportunities to build bright futures. However, telling that to immigrants’ children has no effect on them. On-site interviews have revealed that many of them, especially young men, resent their parents’ decision to immigrate to France. Objectively speaking, their conditions are good. All the same, they perceive migration as a mistake, a wound, or as something imposed on them and their families by force (which could be true or false). That perception fosters violent behavior.


On the other hand, children of immigrants from French Indochina have a more objective view of their migration. However, readers must keep in mind, in the case of blacks and North Africans, most migrants themselves did not have negative views of migration, only their children and grandchildren did. In this case, a high discrepancy exists between migrants’ and their descendants’ views on migration. Similarly, nearly all young people who immigrated in recent years have a positive view toward migration. However, the second generation of immigrants from French Indochina does not constitute (not yet anyway) a social group comparable to the second generations of North Africans and blacks.


Identifying the various factors that account for why North Africans and blacks (to an increasing extent) have a “very poor” perception of migration is a difficult task. Conversations with French descendants of immigrants reveal that their point of comparison for assessing their families’ migrations is not with those who stayed in Africa, but rather with “authentic” French people. Most interviewees, especially the youngest, grossly overestimate the standard of living of “authentic” French people. Many believe every French person drives a new car and has a big-screen television, several computers and gaming consoles, and brand name clothes. In my view, one of the causes of that belief may be the social isolation ghettos produce, as well as the unrealistic portrayal of French society in sitcoms and television movies.


In any case, the majority of French people living in ghetto-neighborhoods completely disregard the fact that their economic, social, and cultural situations would not be as good if their parents or grandparents had not come to France. What matters to them is the feeling of being dominated due to segregation and discrimination. Would they be better off in North Africa where they would be equal with everyone else, but also poorer and less educated? Of course, the majority of immigrants’ children would not return to Africa. However, ever year, a few thousand young French descendants of immigrants do return to the countries of their parents.

Portrait of Algerians Who Return to Algeria (CREAD Study)

While hundreds of young people sing in stadiums, and elsewhere, “it is better to have a visa and tear up Algerian papers,” many immigrants choose to take the opposite route and return to the country of their parents. Why do they? What is their profile? What becomes of them in Algeria? A study by the Algerian Center for Applied Economic Research for Development (CREAD) has drawn up a profile of Algerian expatriates (expats) who return to Algeria.

More and more Algerians have been returning in recent years. In 1998, roughly 2,600 Algerian expats returned (according to national census data). Today, that number has risen to between 5,000 and 6,000 a year (according to customs data). What are the reasons for that upward trend? Is it because Algeria is now safer and more economically prosperous? Is it because of the strict immigration policies pursued by French Minister of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy? Or is it due to Bouteflika’s call for the return of Algerian expats?


The CREAD study raises a few interesting points. First of all, nearly one-quarter (24.2%) of migrants with Algerian nationality were born abroad. One such migrant said his return was motivated by a feeling of “Algerianness.” Most such individuals were born to second generation immigrants and are young (26 on average), unmarried (55% versus 14% among those born in Algeria), and have always felt torn between two cultures. This study could overturn the myth that Algerian emigrants leave and never return. However, this trend is certainly not unrelated to improvements in the Algerian economy.

By Amel Blidi, El Watan, September 10, 2006 (excerpt)

The issue of conflicting identity resulting from migration is rooted in the perception of migration. This perception darkened even further when, in 2005, activist and academic discourses began drawing similarities between current feelings of being dominated and past colonial domination. The most radical voices even equated the two. Therefore, the gap in perceptions of immigration suggests that adopting measures to facilitate social integration might not be enough for children of immigrants to feel comfortable being French or to put an end to violence (whether villainous or gratuitous). In fact, it’s a matter of “identity violence,” that is to say, in response to a position, in terms of identity, experienced as violent.


Two critical questions arise. Can migration be a positive experience in old colonial powers and, if so, how? Can a nation with a colonial past accommodate and integrate the descendants of the people it once colonized? In an interview on March 15, 2006, Hakim El-Karoui answered yes to both questions. El-Karoui is the former speechwriter of French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and president of the 21st Century Club, an organization of successful children of immigrants that includes Rachida Dati. Hakim El-Karoui said he tried living in Tunisia, but quickly gave up on the idea. When asked if the economic conditions there led to his decision to return to France, he said, “No, it just wasn’t my culture. I’m French!” His level of education and degree of integration enabled him to blend his ties to his ethnic homeland, the nature and strength of which he himself chooses, with ties he chose to establish to France and even to a particular political party. However, could it have happened the other way around? Could not his personal and family situation have given him the means to transcend loyalty to Tunisia and thereby successfully integrate into France?


Obviously, the cases of Hakim El-Karoui, Yazid Sabeg, Malek Boutih, Rachida Dati, and Rama Yade [20]  Well-known political figures.[20] are not indicative of most children of immigrants. For most of these, the personal resolution to the dual identity issue is neither possible nor seen in a positive light. Lengthy and open discussions with some of them [21]  These discussions occurred during participative surveys...[21] about identity revealed that many suffer from having this dual identity. In fact, dual identity in this case could more accurately be described as a situation where one’s identity is “neither this nor that.” That situation has been evoked by numerous observers over the last several years. The feeling of being rejected, a foreigner, “here and there” illustrates that the same set of variables that leads some to consider themselves blessed with two identities leads others to feel deprived of any identity at all. However, it is difficult to make generalizations about feelings so deeply private and which may be unconscious.


In any event, the demise of Pan-Arabism and the replacement of Arab identity with Muslim identity are two factors that account for this situation and why it grew worse among immigrants’ children born in the 1980s. Their “stigma” is, in part, due to living in a country controlled by non-Muslims and where their cultural traditions are difficult to uphold. Rap often expresses a malaise, of being French, or anything else for that matter. According to Weil (2008), racism, discriminations, stigmatizing discourses and policies (such as the reform of the Citizenship Code), or the feeling of only being needed during elections foster this “disidentification phenomenon.”

Conclusion: Ghettos in the Nation


Highly different factors converged to create what suddenly seemed like a major geopolitical problem in France: the history of the French nation and its colonial history, local urban realities, and events occurring elsewhere in the world. This paper delved back into the past, explored different analytical angles, and referred to events that, at first glance, appear unrelated to the topic at hand in order to shed light on the idea, which suddenly seemed hegemonic or nearly so, that the French nation was under threat and that “national identity” was endangered by the presence of numerous French descendants of postcolonial immigrants.


Before looking at the 2005 riots, this paper analyzed the political context leading up to the presidential election, during which a memory war came to the fore. Understanding those riots required (i) a brief analysis (too much so) of the history of ghettos, which led to the issue of cohabitation in housing projects after the Algerian war, and (ii) examining the history of the nation concept and the issue of postcolonial identities in France. Only at the end of that analytical process did a coherent and understandable thesis emerge that explains the success in 2007 of Nicolas Sarkozy’s political strategy that focused on national identity.


This paper performed a geopolitical analysis of representations to shed light on the place within the French nation of children of postcolonial immigrants. This approach allows for connecting such different factors that are too often analyzed independently: territorial issues, foreign geopolitical events, and identity issues. Indeed, a coherent conceptual framework for combining the issues of ghettos and identities is difficult to design. On the one hand, populations under study, inhabitants of ghetto-neighborhoods, and immigrants’ children do not always perfectly correlate. On the other hand, labeling the identity of such individuals often requires taking into account both territory and psychological factors.


I believe this paper demonstrates that it would be absurd and pointless to design a policy that focuses solely on urban planning or, on the contrary, one that totally ignores the problem of ghettos and that focuses on demands for a “shared” history, or for ethnic statistics or affirmative action. Indeed, the territorial presence of ghettos creates psychological ghettos in the dominating representations of the nation itself. The right question to ask today is: how do we handle racial differences? Conservative Republicans and proponents of multiculturalism have been debating that question for several years now. The first camp’s solution would result in keeping such individuals indifferent to the law, segregating them de facto, and deepening identity malaise, whereas the other’s solution would single them out from the rest and design measures particularly for their social development. I wrote this paper from the perspective of a citizen because I believe neither approach would be effective. Understanding what is happening is the first step in the right direction. The second step necessary for achieving long-term social cohesion and stability seems to be to find a way of building unity out of difference.


“We protest against the title of this Ministry and powers attributed to it.” (Petition published in Libération – Friday, June 22, 2007)


The historians who resigned from the Cité Nationale de l’Histoire de l’Immigration (National Museum on the History of Immigration) pointed out that merging “immigration” and “national identity” into a single ministry had no historical precedent in the French Republic. Establishing that ministry was one of the first presidential measures taken by Sarkozy. Doing so portrayed immigration as a “problem” in France and a threat to the “Frenchness” of its people.


As French citizens, this amalgamation is cause for concern because it will further stigmatize immigrants. We believe that national identity today is a blend of pluralism and human diversity, and that it surpasses the scope of a single ministry.


This ministry’s title is not the only cause for concern. The executive order of May 31, 2007, that defined this ministry’s jurisdiction had numerous institutional ramifications. In addition to having the authority to police and to regulate immigration, this ministry was also tasked with “promoting national identity” and defining a “memory policy” about immigration. It was given exclusive authority over political asylum and powers over many other government bodies, such as the Ministry of Defense’s Directorate of Memory, Heritage, and Archives.


The attribution of such broad and vague powers to this ministry is cause for concern. We strongly protest against the title of this ministry and against the powers vested therein, and urge the French President to make decisions more in line with the democratic traditions of the French Republic. [22]  At the time of its publication, this text had 186 signatories,...[22]

Map - Rise and fall of 2005 riots prior to spreading after the tear gas grenade (10/27-11/1)
Map - Riots from 10/27 to 11/21, communes affected by département
Map - Proportion og youth by département (2006)


  • Alidières, Bernard. 2004. “Anciens et nouveaux territoires du vote Front national: le cas du Nord-Pas-de-Calais.” Hérodote 113.
  • Bellahcene, Nawel. 2008. “Le comportement électoral des primo-inscrits lors des élections de 2007 à Montfermeil: première inscription, première participation, première abstention.” Master’s dissertation, Institut Français de Géopolitique.
  • Blanchard, Pascal, Nicolas Bancel, Sandrine Lemaire, eds. 2005. La Fracture coloniale. La société française au prisme de l’héritage colonial. Paris: La Découverte.
  • Guglielmo, Raymond and Brigitte Moulin. 1986. “Les grands ensembles et la politique.” Hérodote 43.
  • Lacoste, Yves. 2006. Géopolitique: La longue histoire d’aujourd’hui. Paris: Larousse.
  • Mélamed, Assia. 1998. “Chronique géopolitique de la mutation d’une commune communiste de la banlieue parisienne.” PhD dissertation under Professor Béatrice Gibblin, Université de Paris VIII.
  • Noiriel, Gérard. 2007. À quoi sert l’identité nationale? Marseille: Agone, Passé-présent CUVH.
  • Pétré-Grenouilleau, Olivier. 2004. Les Traites négrières. Essai d’histoire globale. Paris: Gallimard (“Bibliothèque des Histoires”).
  • Robine, Jérémy. 2004. “SOS Racisme et les ‘ghettos des banlieues’: construction et utilisations d’une représentation.” Hérodote 113.
  • Robine, Jérémy. 2006. “Les Indigènes de la République: nation et question postcoloniale.” Hérodote 120.
  • Stora, Benjamin. 1991, 2005. La Gangrène et l’Oubli: La mémoire de la guerre d’Algérie. Paris: La Découverte.
  • Weil, Patrick. 2008. Liberté, Égalité, Discriminations: ‘L’identité nationale’ au regard de l’histoire. Paris: Grasset.


[*] French Institute of Geopolitics, University Paris-VIII.

[1] Le Figaro, March 26, 2007.http://www.lefigaro.fr/election-presidentielle-2007/20070326.FIG000000381_royal_defend_la_nation_contre_le_nationalisme.html

[2] All quotes by Yves Lacoste in this paragraph are from his book, Géopolitique: La longue histoire d’aujourd’hui (2006).

[3] For a detailed analysis of this concept, see my article in Hérodote (120), 2006.

[4] See Pétré-Grenouilleau (2004). Following the controversial suit filed by a Caribbean black-action group called Le Collectif des Antillais, Guyanais, Réunionnais on the grounds that he denied a crime against humanity, Olivier Pétré-Grenouilleau said in an interview with L’Expansion published on June 29, 2005, that “the transatlantic slave trade was quantitatively smaller. 11 million slaves left Africa for the Americas or the Caribbean islands between 1450 and 1869 and 9.6 million survived the journey. The slave trade I refer to as “Oriental” instead of Muslim—because the Qur’an expresses no preference for race or skin color—concerned 17 million black Africans between 650 and 1920. Regarding the inter-African slave trade, Patrick Manning, an American historian, estimates that it represented the equivalent of 50% of all those deported from black Africa, or half of 28 million. It is likely more. For instance, one of the top experts on the history of pre-colonial Africa, Martin Klein, claims that around 1900, French West Africa alone had over seven million slaves. So it is surely not an exaggeration to say there may have been over 14 million slaves taken from the entire continent in the space of thirteen centuries.”

[5] Kémi Séba’s real name is Stellio Capo-Chichi. He is called “Fara” within the KA Tribe, which has been dissolved and formally replaced by Génération Kémi Séba. “Fara” is a shortened version of “pharaoh.” KA means Kemite-Atenian. Kemite means black and is claimed to be the only real name of Black people because it is the one they gave themselves. Kemites means descendants of Ham, Noah’s son who was turned black for seeing his father naked, thus condemning himself and his descendants to serve his brothers Shem (ancestor of the Semites) and Japheth (ancestor of white people). They use the term Atenian because they worship the “only true” god, Aten. Akhenaton means “servant of Aten.”

[6] France hosted the 1998 World Cup and their team (composed of white, black and French-speaking North Africans) won the trophy on home soil.

[7] The first round of the French presidential election was won by the far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen, who defeated the leftist Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin. The incumbent “old right” candidate Jacques Chirac won the second, runoff election in a landslide victory over Le Pen.

[8] French law 2004-228 of 15 March 2004 banned the wearing of religious symbols in French public primary and secondary schools. While this included symbols of all religions, many considered it to target the wearing of headscarves by Muslims. The debate over this issues has been reignited several times since then.

[9] See my article in Hérodote (113) for a definition of “ghetto-neighborhoods.” An abridged version of that definition is provided later in this paper. Here, it suffices to say that “ghetto-neighborhoods” refer to the reality of segregation phenomena (outlined below and in the Hérodote article) and to the way segregated territories are represented in specific political strategies and the impacts those representations have (see the Hérodote article).

[10] “Bondy Blog” was started on November 11, 2005 by Serge Michel of the Swiss magazine Hebdo. A dozen or so Hebdo journalists spent three months reporting from the Blanqui housing projects in Bondy. This approach was thought to be more incisive than that of the French media, which was accused of being disconnected from life in poor suburbs. The journalists wanted to give readers an inside look at what life in these areas was like. Their initiative was widely covered by the media. In March 2006, the blog was handed over to a local team, who continued the project. Between January and early September 2007, a million people visited the blog.

[11] ACLEFEU (Collective Association for Freedom, Equality, Fraternity, Together United (ACLEFEU), pronounced like the French expression assez le feu, which means stop the fire) is a movement started in Clichy-sous-Bois after the riots. Most early members were professionals working with at-risk youth. I spent a year studying this association from the inside. It received wide media coverage and was courted by political parties in 2006 leading up to the presidential election in 2007.

[12] Nawel Bellahcene was a student at the French Institute of Geopolitics.

[13] The word sarcellite is a neologism formed by combining the name of the municipality of Sarcelles (in the northern suburbs of Paris), which was symbolic of the problems associated with large-scale and subsidized housing projects, and the Latin-based medical suffix –ite (-itus) meaning inflammation.

[14] The government order known as “Barres et Tours” drawn up on March 21, 1973, and published on April 5, 1973, relative to the urban construction of “housing projects” and to the fight against social segregation through housing is available at: http://i.ville.gouv.fr/index.php/download_file/448/477/circulaire-du-21-mars-1973-relative-aux-formes-d-urbanisation-dites-grands-ensembles-et-a-la-lutte-contre-la-segregation-sociale-par-l-habitat

[15] The FIS is an Islamist political party that was initially non-violent.

[16] The FLN is a socialist political party in Algeria that was established in 1954 to obtain independence from France.

[17] The FFS is a social democratic and secularist political party mainly supported by the Kabyles in Algeria.

[18] Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition XI. Oxford, United Kingdom: Clarendon Press. 1989. pp. 799.

[19] The first two laws, which passed on December 17, 1964, and July 24, 1968, respectively, provided amnesty for crimes committed by OAS (Secret Armed Organization, a colonialist and extrême-right wing organization) and FLN members during the war. The 1968 law decriminalized what were referred to as “Algerian incidences.” However, the law did not mention conversion to public service (civilian or military) or rights to decorations. In addition, former OAS members received a presidential pardon for Christmas in 1964. On June 7, 1968, all OAS members were pardoned and returned from exile or were released from prison. The 1974 law provided for the issuance of veterans cards to all French soldiers who fought in Algeria and reinstated the old ranks of all OAS members. The 1982 law provided amnesty for the generals who organized the putsch in April 1961.

[20] Well-known political figures.

[21] These discussions occurred during participative surveys conducted in Clichy-sous-Bois and in student communities in and around Paris.

[22] At the time of its publication, this text had 186 signatories, including many French and foreign academics. It was also signed by famous artists (pop/rap singers and bands, musicians, writers, actors, filmmakers), high school teachers, heads of associations, and journalists. For the complete list, see: http://www.liberation.fr/actualite/politiques/262759.FR.php.



A year and a half after the most violent urban riots France had ever experienced, Nicolas Sarkozy ran a presidential campaign focused on “national identity” and won. This article claims that immigrants’ children are a source of geopolitical conflict. France includes many descendants of migrants from Sub-Saharan and Northern Africa. Such individuals are often concentrated in segregated areas. This geopolitical conflict stems from the interaction of three factors: the history of France and its colonial past; local urban realities; and events occurring elsewhere in the world. This paper starts with an analysis of political context and the “memory war” leading up to the 2005 riots. Secondly, it looks at the history of ghettos. Lastly, it examines the history of the French concept of the nation and the issue of postcolonial identities. In doing so, a coherent argument emerges that accounts for the success of Nicolas Sarkozy’s political strategy.


  1. From National Identity to Ghettos or Vice Versa?
    1. National Identity in the 2007 Presidential Campaign and the Geopolitical Notion of the Nation
    2. Context of the “Memory War”
    3. The 2005 Riots
  2. Ghettos… and the Rest of the World
    1. Origins of Ghettos: The 1950s and 1960s
    2. Ghettos Today
    3. The Impact of Outside Geopolitical Factors: Oil Crises
    4. Events between 1988 and 1990
  3. Representations of Identities and of the Nation
    1. History of the Nation
    2. Nation(s) and Cohabitation
    3. Generational Gap in Perceptions of Migration
  4. Conclusion: Ghettos in the Nation

Translated from the French by JPD Systems

To cite this article

Jérémy Robine, “ Des ghettos dans la nation.  ”, Hérodote 3/2008 (n° 130) , p. 173-208
URL : www.cairn.info/revue-herodote-2008-3-page-173.htm.
DOI : 10.3917/her.130.0173.

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