Claske DIJKEMA, Grenoble, December 2016
From urban violence to everyday tensions over occupying public spaces in a marginalised social housing neighbourhood in France
Put in the perspective of France’s post-colonial context.
Keywords: | | France
The expression ‘urban violence’ evokes in France the violent confrontations between youths and security forces in specific neighbourhoods of the city. The latter are located on the margins of the city; have a high level of unemployment, especially in the 18-26 age range; have a higher number of single parent families and lower earnings than other parts of the city, as well as a higher percentage of residents linked to post-colonial immigration1. But what is specifically ‘urban’ about urban violence? This term obscures the social dimensions of this type of violence: who is perpetrating it and what are their conditions and motivations? Instead I propose to consider violence as a kind of language and to inquire into perpetrators’ needs behind the acts of violence: the need for recognition, and the need to find a place in society.
The starting point for this interrogation is the violence that took place in suburban neighbourhoods all over France in November 2005: over a period of three weeks cars and urban furniture were set on fire and groups of mainly young men clashed with police forces exchanging stones, molotov cocktails and tear gas bombs. These events were followed by a ‘war over interpretation’, a semantic and political debate how to define and understand this type of violence. Was it a form of delinquency or a political expression of discontent? Should these explosions of violence be called riots, revolts or uprisings? The fact that the perpetrators of this violence chose to express themselves through acts rather than words poses a methodological challenge to the interpretation of this phenomenon. For the most part the existing analyses lack a strong empirical basis. Depending on where they position themselves on the political spectrum, researchers explain this violence differently: as the result of poverty, of exclusion, of discrimination or as the acts of young people in search of a thrill, or simply lacking in discipline. The objective of this chapter is not to make the case for one or another of these points of view. The goal is to answer the question: of which conflicts is urban violence an expression?
I have chosen to study this question in the neighbourhood of Villeneuve, an urban development at the southern periphery of Grenoble. It was built in the 1970s as a modern urban utopia and became internationally known for its attempt to answer all the needs of modern man: priority was given to vast green spaces and it was conceived as car-free, socially diverse, with public meeting places with facilities close by. The neighbourhood was to be the opposite of dormitory towns. In 2010 however, it became a symbolic case of urban violence. Riots broke out in response to the death of a 27 year old man, shot by police forces at the foot of his apartment building in the aftermath of a casino robbery in a nearby town. The president of the Republic at that time, Nicolas Sarkozy, sped to Grenoble to make a public statement associating this type of violence to immigration issues.
Everyday tensions as a way of approaching the conflict underlying urban violence
Identifying the nature of the conflict that is hidden behind urban violence is not an easy task, for the reasons outlined above. Moreover, approaching the neighbourhood’s residents directly on the subject of violence would only reinforce the idea that the only reason to become interested in the neighbourhood is because its propensity to violence and for youth, the only means to gain attention is through violent action. This approach would reinforce stigmatisation of the neighbourhood and its residents and would probably meet hostile reactions. In order to observe the conflicts that are played out here we have chosen to shift our gaze away from grabbing headlines on burning cars and to focus on day-to-day tensions as experienced by residents.
They can take the form of confrontations or strategic avoidance of certain areas associated. According to us, urban violence needs to be understood as a reflection of symbolic and social violence, which become part of everyday social relations.
Stigmatisation of the neighbourhood as a form of symbolic violence
An illustration of symbolic violence is the negative image mainstream media projects of working-class neighbourhoods in France, reduced to places of violence. These representations leave little space for the point of view of the residents and for their experience within their territory. For example in November 2013 a TV documentary neighbourhood was broadcast with the title “Villeneuve, the broken dream”. It showed a burning car, loitering youth and stones being thrown at policemen, set against a nerve-racking sound track. A community group contested the decision of the producers to use violence as the main prism through which to present the neighbourhood: “Forty years after its foundation, the neighbourhood of Villeneuve no longer fires up the imagination. Whose fault is this? That of the “thugs”? (..) The roots are much deeper. They lie in unemployment, the economic crisis, but also in certain misguided policies of the last decades, in particular through the allocation of housing to the most deprived population. However, men and women are committed on a daily basis to maintain social cohesion”2. The images that were broadcast reflect more closely the phantasms of those who do not live in the neighbourhood than of residents’ sentiments. They project the fear of otherness, of angry youths, and the fear of an influx of “foreign” residents who are not able to adapt to French customs. The association of urban violence with immigration leads to idea that this phenomenon has been imported from outside our society. The solutions are thus believed to be found in terms of security measures, with the aim of repressing violence and re-establishing order. The residents’ collective demands that the problems are understood as part of a wider context.
The view of the violence from inside the Villeneuve neighbourhood
An earlier initiative of another and partially overlapping community group, Villeneuve Debout, further shed light on residents’ demands that their analysis of the neighbourhood is taken into account. They organised a meeting in the community (February 2013) “Acting against violence, let’s talk about it”. It was organised in response to another outbreak of violence, this time between groups of youth from Villeneuve and the neighboring area that resulted in the death of two young men. The debate however touched on many forms of violence in the neighbourhood. What frequently came up in the accounts of residents was nuisance experienced by groups of young people that hang out in the entrances and corridors of blocks of flats, especially in the winter. For example Mr Wazan came to the public meeting to talk about the problems that he encountered on his front door step. During the previous four months a group of ten men (22 - 25 years old) loiter every evening in the corridor that leads to his front door. Under the influence of the drugs and alcohol, they make noise, produce litter and urinate. At night they bang against the doors with the result that the doors of the maintenance rooms have been broken twice. Since this happened, Mr Wazan does not feel safe: he has made sure his daughters are never alone between their home and the tram stop, he cannot sleep anymore due to the noise, but also due to the fact that nobody seems to take this problem seriously. He was outraged that no one comes to keep the peace in such cases: “If a group of young people squatted in the corridors of an apartment block in the town-centre, damaging the interior and breaking doors and making noise in the middle of the night, the police would intervene immediately. What does the law stand for in this neighbourhood if it is not enforced? What are responsibilities of the residents of the neighbourhood to ensure peaceful coexistence and what tools do they have to make sure that the rules of cohabitation are respected? » His account stresses the feeling of abandonment by and lack of support from those in charge of law and order. It stands out in contrast to the images of an ultra-present police force, in action with their dogs to discipline young people, as was shown in the TV documentary. This is the beginning of a more complex understanding of violence in the neighbourhood.
If violence was a language, what would it express?
A man explains that violence is a cry out: “Look around you, what do you see?”. He sees a lot of anger, often kept inside, but sometimes expressed in public spaces for example in the graffiti on the wall “fuck the police”.
According to him, we need to understand violence as an expression of frustration with the situation in which many of these young people live. We agree with him that violence needs to be understood as a language that expresses dysfunction in society. This idea was theorised by John Burton in his reflections on human needs, according to which needs that have been neglected by institutions and that are not taken into account by social norms, need to be met before a conflict can be resolved. In order to identify these needs we need to distinguish them from the positions and interests of the actors in the conflict. The following account helps to illustrate what is meant by this:
“At the foot of the block of flats, there was a bench used by a group of young people who had appropriated the space in order to meet, to sit, to talk, and seemingly also to deal drugs. In the evenings, under the influences of narcotics, they would be noisy and would leave their litter behind. Several residents were frightened and started to avoid this area, despite it being practical, and would use other routes to reach their destinations. A group lead by the neighbourhood union reported this issue to the council, who sent in their workers to transform the bench into a wall, which resulted an angry reaction on the part of the young people who had lost their meeting spot. The latter group broke the concrete that had been applied, but by the very next evening a new layer of concrete had been added by the council, which in turn was immediately covered in paint as a further protest by the displaced young people.” (Field notes, November 2013)
The two conflict positions in this example are “we take up a position in space, this is ours” and maybe “we don’t give a shit about a society which doesn’t want us” versus “you are not allowed to be here [in this street corner]” and also “you are carrying out illegal activities (selling cannabis)”, “you scare people and you are making the area dirty”3. For the one group the space is a strategic (illegal) selling point as it is near the tram stop but also hidden from passing police cars. In addition, it serves as a meeting place. For the other group, the occupation of this space hurts the image of the neighbourhood. For the shops opposite this street corner, it jeopardises their business because it scares the clientele. The unsatisfied needs that are expressed behind this occupation are the need for acknowledgement, to have a place that one can call its own, to have a place in society and the possibility of employment with prospects. The needs of the other residents are equally to feel at home and to feel safe. This example takes place within the setting of drug dealing, but the interests behind occupying public space vary. These spaces also serve to meet friends, to escape from a family situation, to have a public existence and to “get smashed”.
Occupying public space as a claim to a place in society
Occupying public space is a means to change one’s position from being a passive spectator to being an actor. Violence or the threat of violence (symbolic or physical) becomes a tool in order to defend a space against others who are interested in the same area for a different use, or who simply want it to remain empty. The capacity to create fear needs to be conceptualised as a form of capital. Even if this power is destructive in nature it can nonetheless have the effect of increasing self-esteem, through the conflation of fear and respect. The occupation of a space is a method to affirm oneself, and a way to exist. During the community meeting mentioned above, one of the participants analysed the situation as following:
“Lots of young people have the impression that there is no place for them in society, to a great extent because of the lack of employment opportunities. This creates frustration and leads them to search for acknowledgement in other spheres, notably within groups through group identity. According to the codes of these groups violence, provocation and transgression have value”4.
In a society where work, school grades and consumption are central to being valued, what should one do when one’s everyday experience is unemployment, school failure and lack of financial means? Defying the norms of the dominant society in which one does not find recognition or a place offers a way out. Developing parallel norms which are inspired by a “neighbourhood culture”, by religion or by political writings can be an escape. Delinquency must also be seen as a choice made in order to earn respect. Claiming public space is another way of creating a place for oneself. In the examples cited here, different actors occupy space in defiance against the police, in order to assert themselves, to kill time, to be with their friends, and to exist in the public sphere. These examples do not show us all the times that people have made do with staying invisible. Yet what they have in common are the same unmet needs, one of which is the need for acknowledgement, to have a place in the city, and to have a place in society.
Breaking the imperative to remain invisible
The feeling of being refused a place is at the heart of the problems studied here. It is a long-standing problem that is shared by immigrants and their children. It does not necessarily mean that there no place in society for those descended from post-colonial immigration but that the place assigned to them is considered unsatisfactory. The account of Mr Bouabid, born in the 1940s to a family of Arab nationalists in Tunisia, and who arrived in France when he was in his twenties, asks what coexistence means if one cannot express his/her religion in public space.
“I am in this neighbourhood since 1977. When we asked for a place of worship, there are people who replied no, and they were people from the left, giving the excuse that it will increase support for the National Front. There are people who were born here, who work here, who freed this country, or if it wasn’t them it was their grandparents. They built this country, they built this town, you rub shoulders with them every day and they are dying and you don’t see them”. Before, people were on the other side (of the Mediteranean), we shall say ‘at home’. They were taken from the fields to fight a war. No one asked what their nationality was. They were brought to France to industrialise France, but they are still nearly invisible. They are expected to remain nearly invisible. Well, now they are visible, but not really how we would have liked them to be. But what does coexistence mean? Does it mean that I have to be a photocopy of the image that you have of me? Well, no, I am not a photocopy. Because the colonial idea, colonial culture, it is still present, more than ever.” 5 The refusal to build a mosque, according to Mr Bouabid is a concrete example of the feeling that “there is no place for us here”. Despite being an atheist himself, he denounces the fact that Muslims, as with all other immigrants from post-colonial countries, cannot express their difference in a space visible to all. Not being able to inscribe their difference in the city is a form of invisibilisation. Mr Bouabid calls attention to the changes that are underway when he comments that “Now they are visible, but not really in the way that we would have liked them to be”. Whilst the first generation of immigrants settled for keeping a low profile in a country that was not their own, the following generations started to become visible and to claim public space. We should interpret the occupying of public spaces by groups of adolescents and young adults as a form of resistance against invisibility and as the affirmation of one’s existence.
The creation of spaces of security and hope at the margins
Beyond confrontation with the representatives of the State, and self-assertion in public space there is another way of resisting to the violence of the stares of others and denial of a place. This is through the creation of spaces at the margins that bring hope and in which one can feel free and safe.
1Observatoire nationale des Zones Urbaines Sensibles (ONZUS).
2Lahouari, Myriam, Dossier de presse le dépôt de plainte contre France 2 suite au reportage d’Envoyé Spécial, Association des Habitants de la Crique Sud, Villeneuve – Arlequin, Grenoble.
3These comments are not direct quotes, said as such, but reconstructed phrases that reflect the conflict postitions.
4Community meeting, February 2013.
5Interview, November 2015.