This year marks the 10 year anniversary of the 2005 French unrest, which started after the accidental death of two teenagers, running away from the police. It lasted three weeks.
It is not an event the French media or political figures are keen to commemorate. After all, a right-wing politician, Nadine Morano, said a month ago that France “is a white race country”. It is still a long way for non-white French to be even acknowledged as such.
Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, the teenagers who died in Clichy sous bois, were around my age, of Black and Arab descent just like me and my friends.
I grew up in the surburbs, nearby. Compared to other places, the cité I lived in, wasn’t that bad. We only had bins torched once a year. The elevators were often covered in urine, spit, or tear gas, when they simply didn’t work. In other banlieues gang rapes and gun violence were on the rise. But having it slightly worse didn’t make it right.
In terms of my own self- awareness as a French Ivorian, October and November 2005 were a turning point or, should I say, my N**** wake-up call. And I wasn’t the only one whose eyes have been opened.
Amandine Gay, 31 and activist, explains that “ 2005 was a huge year in terms of political awakening for non-white French people: the organisation “Les Indigènes de la Republique” was created and later, the unrest happenned.”
Amandine realized what it meant to be black and French when she moved to Australia a few months after. “ Being a black French means living a double life: in France, we’re black. Abroad, we’re labeled as French and people are not aware and don’t understand our struggle.”
For Amélie, an activist and blogger, “the uprising became a part of my life because it was talked about every day. It led me to start thinking about how a nation-wide curfew declared by Nicholas Sarkozy was a reminder of the Algerian war of Independence and the Paris Massacre of 1961 where the police killed 200 demonstrators.”
To “truly” become French when you’re not white, you need to be whitewashed until no one could distinguish the color of your skin. In order to make it there, you need to be assimilated. And you can try your best, but you’ll never be a part of the French society.
It was the biggest lesson from the 2005 Paris unrest. The French meritocracy and the respectability politics were nothing but a lie.
Ten years later, it seems like things haven’t really improved. In my hometown, gun violence and police brutality are more common than ever. In the media, hate and racist speech have become more prevalent.
Amélie explains that “ Every day, Black, Arab and other people of colour are still victims of racial profiling, police brutality, and die in custody amidst the general indifference of the French press, focused on race crimes happening in the USA.”
“I am frequently the victim of discrimination in terms of employment and housing. When I was looking for a flat in Paris, the landlords I would talk to, would ask me most of the time if I am really French and if I planned to bring my family from Africa.”
Race and class issues are still taboo. As Amélie explains, “Black activists struggle to get their voice’s heard. During the protests against the exhibition Exhibit B, the media would only talk to a white historian, who specializes in “black issues”. It is the intellectual equivalent of him putting a black face on.”
For Marie Julie, 28, an actress and writer, the reason is that “France is still uncomfortable regarding the impact of race as a social construct. France is in denial regarding its colonial and slavery past and it repeat over and over the same pattern of oppressing people based on race.
Many Black French have moved abroad, in the UK or the USA, where they can climb the social ladder instead of being stuck in dead-end job. Things are not perfect, but still better than back home.
“The society will not change any time soon, at least not in my lifetime,” explains Amandine. “Is it worth sacrificing my time and my life for this? I’m not sure. I don’t want to become depressed and bitter. Many black artists I know have been blacklisted after speaking up against racism.
Personally, I needed a safe space and found it abroad. Leaving doesn’t mean giving up. It means protecting yourself to find the strength to strike back.”
Still, many choose to stay. The 2005 unrest has triggered a new political awareness for Black French of my generation and many have used their political awareness to become activists.
On the 31st October, thousands of people demonstrated during the « Marche de la dignité » to commemorate the 10 year anniversary of the unrest and to protest against racism, islamophobia and police brutality.
Amandine Gay made and self funded her new documentary, Ouvrir la voix (“Speak up”) to document the fights of our generation.
“No matter what”, she explains, “I’ll keep fighting. The irony is that no matter what people say, how we’re not really French because we’re black, we were born there. It is our country. “