In an increasingly polarised France, residents of a heavily Muslim suburb of Paris have decided to start their own political party. Elisabeth Zerofsky investigates.
On February 2, around 4.45pm, just as the day began to darken, police officers approached four young men outside a recording studio in the Rose des Vents, an agglomeration of chalky cités, or public-housing projects, that covers a remote expanse of the north-east Paris suburb Aulnay-sous-Bois.
The police asked to see one man’s identity papers. Within minutes, another was on his stomach. The officers put handcuffs on the 21-year-old, whose family, of Congolese origin, lived nearby. When they arrived at the station, staff members noticed that he was in a lot of pain.
He was rushed to a hospital, where an examination revealed a 10cm tear in his rectum. It had been caused by a police baton.
Nine days later, 3,000 people gathered in the muddy yard in front of the courthouse that serves the ‘93’ — the department to the north and east of Paris that includes Aulnay.
Most of the protesters were in their 20s, first- or second-generation French, their parents or grandparents having arrived from Morocco or Mali or Algeria in the 1960s and ’70s.
Among them was Mehdi Bouteghmès, a 28-year-old city councillor in the neighbouring suburb La Courneuve. When news of the incident first spread on social media, where the campaign for the presidential election was also heating up, Mr Bouteghmès took to Facebook.
“In my vision of the Republic, the election campaign should come to a halt,” he wrote.
“All the candidates should focus on and make a priority of resolving the problem of the role of the police in this country.”
Then he posted the opening lines of What Is the Third Estate?, a tract published by the Abbé Sieyès in January 1789, that took up the cause of the common classes: “We have three questions before us. One — What is the Third Estate? EVERYTHING. Two — What has it been until now in the political order? NOTHING. Three — What is it asking for? TO BE SOMETHING.”
The election campaign did not stop; instead Mr Bouteghmès found himself here, surrounded by the citizens he represented. A handful of gendarmes loitered on a steel walkway that ran above the complex, peering down at the crowd.
A dozen young men hoisted themselves onto a parapet, fists raised. “We’re finished with this savagery,” one shouted into a microphone.
“With this violence that’s been going on for 30 years. Today, you can kill an African, rape an African. Some of you experience daily humiliations. It’s a myth, the country of the rights of man. Do you feel like the country respects you?”
The crowd yelled back: “No!” The protesters began to sing ‘The Marseillaise’. Someone set off a mortar that burst red into the sky with a pop like gunfire, close enough to shed ash on the crowd.
A humming sound floated up from behind. Everyone turned to watch a group of kids rush up the steps of the walkway toward the gendarmes, hurling stones at their riot shields until the officers charged, forcing them back down.
A truck belonging to the radio station RTL went up in flames. Police reinforcements arrived and set off tear gas, pushing the crowd out of the courtyard, into the surrounding streets, and down into the metro station.
The next morning, newspapers ran pictures of streets filled with fumes and burning cars. Far-right activists took to Twitter to denounce the protesters as savage anarchists.
“Support goes out to police confronting those who take advantage of an unfortunate accident to attack the police and spit on France,” tweeted Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, niece of the president of the National Front.
I became separated from Mr Bouteghmès in the chaos, and he messaged me later to make sure I got out all right. “What happened was predictable,” he said.
“The speeches weren’t clear, weren’t calming. We need only to be able to communicate in order to make things just a little bit better. But I don’t know if it’s possible anymore.”
Mr Bouteghmès had gone to the protest with several friends with whom he recently started a new local political party, which they called the Élan Populaire Courneuvien.
They had wanted to assert their ability to improve life in their community, even if their ideas tended towards the prosaic and technocratic: Making governance more transparent as a way to draw in more local residents; offering incentives to businesses relocating to the banlieues to hire locally rather than bring in commuters; and striking deals with vendors to give food that remained unsold at the end of the day to needy residents.
Such preoccupations seemed almost quixotic as explosive demonstrations continued throughout the next few weeks, with more than 50 incidents in 30 towns around the country.
Soon after the protest, Mr Bouteghmès wrote an op-ed on Bondy Blog, a news site that covers the suburbs, in which he argued that organisations in the banlieues should unite behind a single message.
“That the protests should be qualified as ‘riots’ is one thing... That they should be emptied of their meaning is another. We are responsible for our own weaknesses... our silence, our inability to organise in order to act on the things that unify us.”
He was tired of the sense of futility that reigned in the banlieues, the squabbles that prevented his peers from effectively confronting a politically stagnant system.
Privately, he was even less sanguine. On Facebook, he sent out a call: “Is unity even possible?”
The campaign season in France this spring revolved around the meaning of “Frenchness”, a perennial question given new urgency by a refugee crisis, terrorist attacks that resulted in the highest number of deaths on French soil since the 1940s, the year-and-a-half-long state of emergency that followed and a generalised economic anxiety.
Every week seemed to bring a new polemic about “mass immigration” (in reality, France granted refugee status to only 26,000 people who applied in 2016, and the total immigrant population has increased only slightly in the last 10 years) or the role of France’s Muslims (estimated at less than 6% of the population, half of whom are largely secular) in formulating an Islam compatible with the French Republic or the importance of affirming French “culture”, whatever that might be.
In one way or another, politicians were often talking about the banlieues, which served as a kind of bogeyman, a stand-in for the social currents unsettling France.
Mr Bouteghmès, himself a product of these forces and a consummate proponent of French Republicanism, was, like many of the people he represents, an object of much of this discussion if seldom an equal partner in it.
La Courneuve’s mayor for nearly two decades was Gilles Poux, a stalwart of the French Communist Party, the labour-oriented segment of the left that once enjoyed broad popularity but whose membership had declined everywhere except in the Paris banlieues.
The party took over La Courneuve in the 1950s when the town still had factories producing metalwork and boilers. To Mr Bouteghmès, there was a disconnect between the way things were run and the needs of the people who now lived there. He began to think about running for office. He was 23 and studying philosophy at the Sorbonne. Two years later, he was on the ballot.
The mayor encouraged Mr Bouteghmès and his friends to run on his ticket; he needed to join forces with young men of their background to win a majority in a town that has more than 100 nationalities.
Once elected, though, they felt constrained by a decades-old political machine. In the fall of 2015, Mr Poux shut down the Samaritain Roma camp in La Courneuve that was home to 300 people; he stated that what was needed was a national, not a local, solution.
For months, Mr Bouteghmès had helped organise protests to keep it open, and as it became clear the Roma would not prevail, he worked with local NGOs to help find temporary squats. He felt that he could no longer share a political identity with the mayor, and he and three others split off to form the Élan Populaire Courneuvien, on the theory that as a bloc they could wield some power. Eventually, one of them might even run against the mayor.
The problems facing the suburbs, Mr Bouteghmès asserted, could not be addressed without taking on the larger national malaise.
“For me, today, being named Mehdi Bouteghmès, my father was born in a French colony, my mother was born in a French protectorate, if I want to question the political methods, practices, Republican institutions, people will say I’m an Islamist,” he told me. “It’s not normal.”
At 18 he joined the Young Muslims of France, a community youth group, and during a phase in college read extensively in Islamic philosophy and theology. Islam was part of his identity, but now, 10 years later, he was certain this would be used against him if he decided to enter national politics.
“They’ll attack me, twist positions I may have taken before, activities I might have been involved in in the past,” he said.
Reading Kant and Machiavelli helped Mr Bouteghmès look beyond what could be a closed circuit in the banlieues.
“France is philosophy,” he told me. It was only through understanding the founding principles of French Republicanism, and 200-year-old ideas that were in crisis in modern, multicultural France, that he could see they needed to be adjusted.
During the run-up to the election, Emmanuel Macron, the 39-year-old former economy minister, then the frontrunner and now the president, declared there was no such thing as “a French culture” but rather “culture in France,” which is “diverse”.
His remark provoked a delirious backlash. François Fillon belittled Mr Macron for daring to deny Proust, Descartes, Chateaubriand, and Molière, as well as the educators who “teach our children to speak the language of France, rather than that of the streets”.
“If there’s no French culture,” Mr Fillon concluded, “then why is there France?”
More than elsewhere in France, apathy toward the presidential election was potent in the banlieues. Even if Marine Le Pen won, some Courneuviens said, well, things couldn’t get much worse.
The ambivalence that many residents of La Courneuve exhibited towards the presidential campaign was reciprocated. Most of the candidates on the left made some effort to meet with organisations and businesses in the suburbs, but the candidates on the right mostly didn’t bother.
Fighting inertia, Mr Bouteghmès and the Élan Populaire Courneuvien decided to organise a ‘grand débat’ for the banlieues, five days ahead of the first round of voting. They invited each candidate to send a representative to La Courneuve, a request most of the left-leaning ones and all of the right-leaning ones ignored.
On a chilly Tuesday evening, in a meeting room on the ground floor of an Escheresque 1970s-era cité, Mr Bouteghmès was setting up a sound system. By 7pm, when the debate was to begin, only four people had shown up. The debaters were mostly from marginal parties on the eclectic French left that everyone knew would never win. But Mr Macron had sent his representative for the 93, Alexandre Aïdara, a polished man of Senegalese origin.
Dozens of people trickled in, and by 8.30pm it was clear they had come to have their say with Mr Aïdara, who delivered Mr Macron’s ideas in clean bullet points: For each person hired from the banlieues, a company would be relieved of certain taxes; companies that discriminated would be subjected to a public “naming and shaming” campaign; and so on.
An activist named Salima Yenbou was there, representing Jean Lassalle, the eccentric founder of something called the Resist! party. She grew up in Aulnay-sous-Bois, where the supposed police assault took place in February, and had a broad view of the traps laid by the “banlieue question” in French civic life.
“We talk about the residents in a condescending manner: Insertion, integration, security, antiracism, equality of opportunity,” said Ms Yenbou. “No one wants to come right out and say that here in France, one of our values, the second value of the country, equality, is in tatters.”
Mr Bouteghmès was pleased with the way the debate had gone — more than one shouting match erupted — but he knew it wouldn’t necessarily get more Courneuviens out to vote. And he understood why. In the end, they knew that none of the candidates would offer them much.
Mr Macron and Ms Le Pen came in first and second, respectively, and, two weeks later, on the Saturday before the final run-off, the neighbourhood association that Mr Bouteghmès works for organised a Fête de la Cité, a kind of spring block party for families in La Courneuve.
It was raining on that early May afternoon, and when I arrived, Mr Bouteghmès was soaked, his hair dripping and his T-shirt weighted down with water, but he was smiling.
Children were performing acrobatics on uneven bars with the help of a coach and jumping around with an inflatable sumo wrestler, pausing to eat skewers of strawberry- and banana-shaped marshmallows.
These children, many of them first-generation French-born, were playing in a small park between several cité towers. The symbolism was almost too stark: The towers blocked the view of Paris — they couldn’t see it, and it couldn’t see them.
For Mr Bouteghmès, a Le Pen presidency would have endangered the entire Republican system, limiting his capacity to work for reforms that would bring Courneuviens inside French institutions.
When Mr Macron won 66% of the vote, he was relieved: Not because he was optimistic about Mr Macron — the percentage of blank ballots in the banlieues was high — but because it meant at least that his work could continue.
At various points, he thought he might be wasting his time; he could have joined Mr Macron’s movement when a recruiter sought him out, or the Green Party. But he kept coming back to the original idea of the Élan Populaire Courneuvien.
For him, French history explained what was happening.
“We had the revolution, then we had the Terror, then the return of the Republic, and then the empire,” said Mr Bouteghmès.
“And a lot of movements have been born that way, all of which started with the Enlightenment. But there was a lot of stumbling. After that was the generation of Kant, who provided a message, then Hegel, Marx, and then a lot happened in France post-Marx and post-Communism.”
Mr Bouteghmès planted himself squarely within the history that much of the country saw as an impassable chasm between themselves and him.
“Marx allowed something to happen,” added Mr Bouteghmès. “But it took 100 years. So maybe it will take 100 years for us to have a place here.”
Elisabeth Zerofsky is a freelance writer living in Paris. Adapted from an article that originally appeared in The New York Times Magazine
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